Pitts goes from Maryland also-ran to top N.Y. steward

June 28, 1992|By Ross Peddicord | Ross Peddicord,Staff Writer

Next Sunday, Clinton Pitts Jr. probably will preside as a steward for the last time at a Maryland track.

He leaves the next day for two weeks of intensive study at the Jockey Club headquarters in Lexington, Ky., to learn the inner workings of the sport's most prestigious governing body.

The following week, at the end of the Belmont Park meet, he will work under Dr. Manuel Gilman, who is retiring as the Jockey Club steward at the New York tracks.

When Saratoga opens July 29, Pitts assumes Gilman's position, which is considered the ultimate job for a racing official.

He is believed to be the first Marylander to hold the Jockey Club stewardship. How did it happen?

Just six months ago, Pitts, 50, reached a low point in his nearly 25 years of working as an official at Maryland racetracks.

He either was going to be fired as the chief administrative steward for the Maryland Racing Commission after what were termed "personal differences" with commission chairman John H. Mosner Jr. or be demoted to an associate steward. He accepted the latter position, and started sending out resumes. He knew he no longer wanted to work at the Maryland tracks.

Pitts' often-tempestuous career as a racing official had reached a turning point.

He resented each time the commission reversed judgments that the stewards had made and said it was happening too frequently. Pitts is not alone in his thinking. It is an issue that is being addressed at tracks and racing commissions nationwide.

As an ex-Marine and steeplechase jockey -- types of people not exactly known as shrinking violets -- Pitts was not afraid to state his mind.

"The commission wants to control the situation, and I don't think they're qualified to do it," Pitts said. "Between the four of us in the stewards stand [John Heisler, Bill Passmore and interim steward Jean Chalk], we have 150 years of racing experience.

"I wouldn't presume to know how to run a bank or a trucking business, which are the professions of some of the commissioners. I made up my mind a long time ago either to train horses or work my way up the ladder as a racing official. That's what I've devoted my life to.

"In the stewards' stand, we don't have the luxury of hours of cross examination or studying slow-motion films. We look at the three views of the race and interview the people involved if there is an inquiry or an objection. But we have to make a decision and make it quick. If every time Earl Weaver could have appealed a call at home plate, the World Series wouldn't have been played until Christmas."

After two lengthy Jockey Club interviews and an intense interrogation by the New York State Racing and Wagering Board, Pitts has made it into racing's Super Bowl.

But it's going to be quite an adjustment. He will have to move to New York and leave the rural life he now leads on his Harford County farm. The decision affects his family, including his wife, Poppett, one of Maryland's most accomplished horsewomen, and daughter Helen, 18, a rising amateur race rider who is traveling in Europe with an international high school field hockey team. Least affected will be Pitts' son, Clinton III, 22, a college student in Boca Raton, Fla.

"Relocating is going to be tough on all of us," Pitts said. "But the job is going to be challenging, and New York racing is right on par with Southern California.

"I'm definitely leaving with mixed emotions. I don't think there are three finer men than the ones I work with in Maryland's steward stand. And I owe a lot to the people here who have given me the opportunity to make racing my livelihood.

"But it's time to move on. I hope I can give something back to the sport that's done so much for me."

*

Doing it my way: Pitts is not the only Marylander in racing to relinquish the role as a yes man and then be rewarded.

Frank Hopkins Sr., whom Gov. William Donald Schaefer appointed to the racing commission last week, stirred up a bit of controversy last year when he resigned as vice president of the Maryland Horse Breeders' Association and the board of the Maryland Million.

Hopkins said board members were not involved enough in the decision-making process of both organizations.

He objected that a three-member executive committee of the MHBA could overrule the decisions of the full board. He also felt that the Maryland Million committee raised stallion owners' contributions to the breeder incentive program without full and open discussion.

Hopkins said he was restricted in representing the views of many of Maryland's small thoroughbred owners and breeders. So, he resigned. Now, he hopes he can address some of their concerns on the racing commission.

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