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COMMENTARY : Thoroughbred Racing Cannot Pass the Blame


When Brian McGrath was named the first commissioner of the Thoroughbred Racing Assns., his appointment seemed to mark the start of a new era in the sport.

The racetracks that make up the TRA were no longer independent little fiefdoms. Linked together by full-card simulcasting, they were part of a national business. They needed national television exposure, national marketing, a national effort to combat the competition of casinos.

When the TRA President Dave Vance introduced McGrath at a news conference, he said, "We cannot overemphasize the importance . . . of this position and a strong, centralized office." And McGrath--who came to the job with a high-powered background in sports marketing--expressed confidence that the different segments of the racing industry would put aside their differences and work together.

Last week, McGrath found out otherwise. Eighteen months after he took the job, a group of dissatisfied track executives from New York and California not only ousted him but eliminated the commissioner's post and shut down the TRA's national office.

To many people in the industry, the development showed that the horse-racing industry has no unified front. Joe De Francis, president of Laurel and Pimlico said: "I'm extremely disappointed and discouraged. I have serious doubts about the viability of any national initiatives in the future."

Said Churchill Downs President Tom Meeker: "I was dismayed. I just don't think we tried hard enough."

The difficulty of forging any kind of consensus in racing was made painfully clear even before McGrath took the job--by the fate of the American Championship Racing Series.

Entrepreneur Barry Weisbord packaged a series of major stakes races, got national television coverage for them and created an organization to promote the enterprise. Yet some tracks refused to participate in the ACRS for narrow or petty reasons; track owners who took part objected to Weisbord's management style and griped that he was spending too much money. Finally they scuttled the ACRS--even though it had been a success and had given the sport exceptional television exposure. If the industry couldn't get behind a winner such as the ACRS, would it be any more likely to get behind its new commissioner? The answer was no.

McGrath started the job with immediate drawbacks. Because his salary was around $700,000 a year, everybody was watching him critically and expecting dramatic results. Yet McGrath didn't come into the position with an ace up his sleeve--such as a corporate sponsor willing to put several million dollars into racing--that would enable him to make an immediate impression. Instead, he was saddled with a project the TRA had conceived for him: implementing a national wager--the Best Seven--whose revenues were supposed to finance the commissioner's office.

When the Best Seven turned into an embarrassing flop, it wasn't all the fault of McGrath or the TRA. Racetracks did a pitiful job of promoting it and dispensing crucial betting information to their customers. Because the revenues were going to the commissioner's office and not the tracks themselves, most managements took a "what's-in-it-for-me?" attitude and failed to support the wager. Chris Scherf, the TRA's executive vice-president, lamented, "There just wasn't any cooperation. Nobody was able to see the big picture."

If a project as simple as the Best Seven couldn't spark tracks' cooperation, more complex issues were almost impossible to tackle. One of the key items on the sport's agenda is betting in the home: Some day, surely, fans will be able to turn on a racing channel, watch the action from tracks across the country and wager from their armchairs. But the laws governing telephone betting vary so much from state to state that they thwart a national policy.

But even if such regulatory problems didn't exist, most tracks weren't eager to let a national office dictate to them. Racetrack consultant Tom Aronson recalled that he was recently in McGrath's office, where the commissioner maintained a list of all the major issues confronting the sport. He had surveyed the tracks and asked whether the TRA's national office should be involved in these matters. Aronson said, "The one issue that the tracks agreed was a national issue was the Eclipse Awards dinner."

Otherwise, there was no consensus on what the national office should do, and McGrath never created one. Although the TRA did get credit for averting a threatened national jockeys' strike at the start of this year, its accomplishments under the commissioner were few.

The regional directors of the TRA had been planning to discuss the fate of the national office at a scheduled meeting last week, but some of the other powers within the organization--such as Hollywood Park President R.D. Hubbard and New York Racing Assn. Chairman Allan Dragone--already had decided that the national office should be shut down. They took the action unilaterally--infuriating other TRA leaders who weren't consulted. Even in the decision to put McGrath out of a job, there was nothing resembling an industry consensus.

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