McGrath on track to revive sport

May 19, 1994|By Jon Morgan | Jon Morgan,Sun Staff Writer

NEW YORK -- For a sport that reveres pedigree and tradition, thoroughbred racing seems to have made an odd choice for commissioner in J. Brian McGrath.

He describes himself as a longtime, but casual fan -- this year's Kentucky Derby was his first -- and he's never owned a track, a farm or even a horse.

But the former banker, entertainment industry executive and international marketer was named thoroughbred racing's first commissioner two months ago. His charge: Revive what he acknowledges is widely perceived to be a dying business.

"It's challenging, but I'm not intimidated by it," said McGrath, a 52-year-old New York native.

Although his title is commissioner, he says his job description differs significantly from those of commissioners of the nation's major-league sports.

For one thing, his boss is the 49-member Thoroughbred Racing Associations, a trade group comprised of the nation's largest racetracks.

And he doesn't have the power to ban players or force settlements of disputes.

He envisions several roles for himself, none of them regulatory: industry consensus builder, marketer, Washington lobbyist and clearinghouse for data and ideas.

He's already moved on several of those fronts. He, along with powerful casino and statehouse interests, worked against a proposed national wagering tax. He has organized a National Best Seven, in which fans can bet as little as 50 cents and try to guess the winners of seven races to be run across the country on Memorial Day.

In the industry, opinion is divided about how effective a commissioner will be.

"It's a grand idea," said Thomas Meeker, president of Churchill Downs in Louisville, Ky. However, he says the sport needs more than promotion.

Racetracks "have to commit to a minimum standard in customer service and product quality," he said.

The commissioner can provide a common voice to a fragmented business, but he can't overcome the fact that racetracks don't need one another to produce their events, Meeker said.

McGrath said he plans to preach a gospel of customer service and effective marketing, using more television to bring the sport to a wider audience.

"We've lost our way, and we've taken some shots," he said. "People keep saying our slice of the pie is shrinking. Well, we still have a pretty big slice of the pie, and we are going to build on it."

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