As a member of the California Horse Racing Board for four years, Richard Shapiro could hardly be described as a weak bystander in overseeing the sport. But Shapiro said he was “becoming increasingly frustrated by the governmental and bureaucratic limitations imposed by being on the board.”
So Shapiro resigned Dec. 15. His three years as the board’s chairman will be remembered as eventful, at times controversial, and by his own admission, not always successful.
Under his strong-willed leadership, the welfare of horses and participants was stressed. Among the most noteworthy moves of the past couple of years were a mandate that the state’s major tracks switch from dirt to synthetic tracks; streamlined drug classifications; and improved drug-testing procedures and tougher penalties for violators. The CHRB abolished anabolic steroids for racehorses and greatly reduced the use of “milkshakes” under TCO2 regulations.
But he’d like to do more.
With the move to advance deposit wagering and simulcasts, racing has changed since the time Shapiro’s family campaigned 1960s champion Native Diver and he became heavily involved in harness racing. But the game is still being run under the old rules, Shapiro said.
“As we allowed people to stay home and wager, we emptied our stands,” he said. “It has become uncomfortable to be ‘alone,’ and the tracks don’t invest in the show. They aren’t making enough money, either. Meanwhile, the industry is saddled with certain rules and laws that restrain their ability to reinvent the game. Unable to add, in California’s case, new revenue-generating games, we still pay the government license fees that were based on a model when racing first came into existence.
"We need to take the handcuffs off the sport and let it survive or die of its own accord. We need incentives for people to invest in the business (as owners), and we have to make the economics viable to operate a racetrack in today’s world. Racing has not done a good job of modernizing itself and nurturing a fan base.”
Shapiro believes if the racing industry could unite under a new business approach, it would find a sympathetic ear in the state legislature.
“There are many varying viewpoints and stakeholders, but it is time to find a way to unite for the good of the game, duke it out behind closed doors, and come out smiling and with a business plan,” he said. “If we do that, I believe there are those in Sacramento that will want to help us so long as we are united.
“No one wants to see the industry go away, no one wants to see 50,000 people unemployed. But the industry has to develop a plan, and then it needs to stand holding hands to promote it.”
And if called upon, Shapiro said he has “the passion and desire to make a positive difference” in California racing.
“I did not get off the board because I had had enough with the game,” Shapiro said. “I will always be an advocate for horse racing; where that takes me, it’s too soon to know.”
As for the immediate future of the CHRB, vice chairman John Harris has taken over on an interim basis. A new chairman will be elected at the board’s Jan. 15, 2009, meeting. Harris, who has been on the board since 2000 and was the commission’s chairman in 2004-05, said he is considering taking the position for the next several months “if that is what the rest of the board decides.”
As for Shapiro, Harris said: “I think the key point is that Richard will still be around. Initially, he may have antagonized some segments of the industry. But I think as time went on and people saw how hard he worked on behalf of racing, a lot of that went away. He was outspoken, but a quick study.”
Harris said he would like to see Shapiro have a role in shaping the future of racing in the state. Though there have been discussions, he said it would be premature to speculate on what that might be.
“But I’d keep him on the ‘people to watch’ list,” Harris said with a laugh.