Steinbrenner urges horse racing to turn reins over to czar

July 09, 1993|By Ross Peddicord | Ross Peddicord,Staff Writer

The idea that there should be a national horse racing czar has a new advocate.

George Steinbrenner, the owner of the New York Yankees who also owns stables of thoroughbred and harness horses and who used to race greyhounds, told a group of executives assembled in Baltimore for a pari-mutuel gambling conference yesterday that the industry needs a centralized national office headed by a person with "guts, vision and persistency" to bring the ailing sport out of the doldrums.

"There is no common marketing campaign. No common set of rules," Steinbrenner said. "Nothing so simple as a national licensing bureau. My hands are still ink-stained from being fingerprinted in six different states where I have owners' licenses."

He said racing is at "a difficult crossroads" because of the proliferation of other forms of gambling. "Now we've got riverboat casinos. What's next?" he asked. "Pirates?

"If everybody remains worried about the survival of their own little fiefdom, then the racetracks of the '90s will go the way of the drive-in movie theaters of the '50s and '60s. There are not many of them left. It's time to get all the elephants in one tent. Instead of having a series of carnivals, we need one big circus."

The idea of a national racing commissioner is not a new one. It has been bandied about in the industry for decades, is sporadically revived and received some media attention at the Arizona Racing Symposium a year ago when prominent Kentucky breeder, Arthur Hancock III, said there is a need for a Pete Rozelle or a David Stern of horse racing.

As recently as a month ago, the Thoroughbred Racing Associations, an organization comprising the majority of U.S. thoroughbred tracks, initiated a search committee headed by a New York-based headhunting firm to find candidates for such a post.

Gulfstream Park president Doug Donn, who attended the conference, which is part of the week-long AmTote International annual convention, agreed with Steinbrenner.

"The industry has got to change. It needs focus. We [TRA member tracks] have decided to do something about it. But the idea of a national czar is only going to work if the tracks are willing to give that person the authority he needs to do the job."

Laurel/Pimlico operator Joe De Francis, who serves on the TRA development committee with Donn, said: "What we need is a top-notch, high-powered professional. Nothing less will do. But to begin with, his power is going to have to be limited so his policies are consistent with what's going on in independent states.

"But a lot can be done now because there are certainly enough other issues to address. As the individual accomplishes some successes, I think the tracks [and various jurisdictions] will then be willing to give him more authority. It's going to be an evolutionary process."

De Francis said the TRA has no individual in mind, "But they've got to know racing," he added.

The management evaluation firm is scheduled to make its recommendations to the TRA committee at the organization's next quarterly meeting at Woodbine Race Course in Toronto on Sept. 23.

Bill Bissett, president of Delaware North Corp., which owns and manages a number of North American racetracks, said that in terms of regulatory authority, a national czar will never work because of the large number of racing states that operate under different rules.

"But from an idea of developing a marketing strategy and a national television package, it could work," he said.

Steinbrenner owns Kinsman Stud in Ocala, Fla., is president of the Florida Thoroughbred Breeders' Association and has campaigned such horses as Spinning Round, recent winner of the Vagrancy Handicap at Belmont Park, Steve's Friend, Big Whippendeal and Great Lady M. He said he's not interested in the national commissioner's job and has no one in mind for it.

Yesterday, Steinbrenner touched on a variety of topics from track marketing strategies -- "Nothing's too silly to try," he said -- to the high cost of workmen's compensation insurance on horse farms.

He said that because of the high cost of owning racehorses -- "costs are five times higher than when I started in the game 20 years ago" -- that the sport is reverting to the days "when only a small group of rich guys can afford it."

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