Remembering Ray Rogers

By Alan F. Balch
When racing lost Ray Rogers in July at the age of 87, one of our last links disappeared to a different sport we knew so well, not that long ago.

Ray's career was synonymous with the success of Santa Anita, as well as its innovative tenant, the Oak Tree Racing Association. Some would say his life paralleled an era of California racing's growing national supremacy, now jeopardized if not already over. There was no aspect of the development of the sport in California, and elsewhere, that he didn't influence, from the years after World War II to the early '90s. He touched it all--track to government to public. He thrived through the days when "machine guns couldn't keep them away," and the opposite, and then back again when Santa Anita set its startling all-time records for attendance and handle in 1985.

I met him the first day I went to work at Santa Anita, in May 1971. The management hierarchy was headed by Robert P. Strub, son of the founder, joined by Fred H. Ryan as president, F.E. "Jimmy" Kilroe as director of racing, and Ray as assistant general manager. He had about 30 years on me, and was my boss. More than 15 years before, the Strubs had hired him. As the young city engineer of Arcadia, Ray had been so proud to have received a track parking sticker for his car mirror, and so pleased with just that association, that he refused to remove one until the next season's arrived. The Strubs, and Ray, knew the meanings of dedication, loyalty, and commitment.

Since I was right out of school, and had experience with horses, I thought I was headed to the racing office--until Kilroe made it clear that he had its future well-planned without me. Instead, I went to "public relations," a never-never land of those times, a catch-all of duties nobody could clearly define. Ray dropped by my desk right after the Memorial Day holiday that year, when Hollywood Park had drawn a crowd of more than 70,000, and asked me what I thought about it. "We probably draw crowds like that over here all the time," was my stupid answer.

Exasperated, he literally took me by the shoulders: "Alan, we haven't drawn like that in...well, don't you even know what you're here for? We've got to do something about our attendance."

As a Kansas Jayhawk engineer, Ray had been taught there was no problem incapable of a solution. He'd seen this confirmed and applied to racing and track management by his own mentor, Gwynn Wilson, who had preceded him at Santa Anita, and was still alive to join in teaching me. Without Ray's mental and physical toughness, we never would have grown the monumental business that put Santa Anita at the top of the nation in the years to come.

Aggressively blunt, demanding, exacting, and a rock of integrity, too, slide rule in his pocket, Ray was custodian and mechanic to that exquisite luxury machine driven by Strub, Ryan, and Kilroe. He led us all in keeping her finely tuned, beautifully polished, immaculately groomed, observing where every tread of rubber met the road, even taking a whack at the old lady with a crowbar on any occasion when it was necessary. His love for her was tough, too; he literally lived his work, in a cottage he made into a home to raise his family, tucked away just over the ridge beyond the mile-and-a-half hillside turf start. Any horseman who knocked all of us suits on the cushy frontside never reckoned with running into Ray in a driving rainstorm, or the same bitter cold they endured, inspecting the stable area on his way to the office at 5:30 in the morning. Many--no, most--days.

I could regale you with several chapters of stories about what he meant to the sport. But let's leave it here: the next time you go to the races, look around. From the starting gate, to the tractors, harrows, and racing surfaces, to the press box, the betting terminals, floors, seats, menus, decor, staffing, parking, accounting, stabling, backstretch, legislation, tote, marketing, and any fine point of management, there's not a single one that Ray didn't improve. And offer to share what he had learned with others.

So he hasn't really disappeared; he's right there in front of you. It's just that the game's priorities seem so different now.

ALAN F. BALCH is executive secretary of the American Saddlebred Horse Association and Foundation and was associated with Santa Anita from 1971-86 and 1990-92.