Fractious We Fall

Couldn't help but wince when I saw the California horse racing industry described as "notoriously fractious" in a recent Los Angeles Times story about the possibility of advertising logos on jockeys' britches and owners' silks. The California Horse Racing Board recently approved the concept, and it is now up to owners, trainers, and jockeys to draw up guidelines.

By the time those three groups sort it out, NASCAR drivers will be tooling around racetracks in George Jetson-style vehicles bearing virtual advertising logos customized for the individual viewer; the NFL will be dominated by teams owned by AOL and Microsoft, each with uniforms designed along the lines of their corporate logos; and Major League Baseball's Cleveland Indians will be owned by an obscure band of Native Americans, and fans will be able to play slot machines from the comfort of their seats at the ballpark.

And racing? It will be traditional...and fractious.

How else can you describe an industry that fights tooth and nail for much-needed legislation authorizing account wagering, gets near-unanimous approval from the California Assembly and Senate, pushes for the support of a reluctant governor to sign the bill, then has an 11th-hour attack of remorse fever?

The Thoroughbred Owners of California and others took a big step in the right direction with Assembly Bill 471, approved by the Assembly and Senate last month and scheduled to be sent to Gov. Gray Davis on Aug. 1. AB 471 authorizes account wagering, which just about everyone in California views as good news. The legislation also provides the framework for unionization of backstretch workers at California racetracks, something few owners and trainers welcome with open arms. It is essentially the same legislation that Davis vetoed nearly a year ago because, in his words, it significantly expanded wagering.

The industry put up a solid front after the veto, explaining to Davis and his staff how important account wagering is to the health of the horse industry, one of the state's major agribusinesses. Account wagering would free at least one of the hands tied behind the industry's back and allow California racing interests to compete with other states that permit this type of activity. Until California tracks are authorized to use slot machines and compete with Indian casinos, however, its other hand will remain tied.

One of the people in the Thoroughbred industry closest to the governor is Martin Wygod, a prominent and successful owner and breeder who made a fortune in the health services business in New Jersey before moving to California in the mid-1990s. Five days before AB 471 was to go to Davis, Wygod raised concerns during a meeting of owners and trainers at Del Mar that the bill, as written, may not be in their best interests. Wygod said he is looking for assurances from those companies in the account wagering business (the TV Games Network and others) that they will offer some form of protection in the event account wagering cannibalizes on-track business to the point that purses fall. Proponents have argued account wagering will increase purses.

It seems doubtful TVG, after investing upwards of $200 million in start-up costs, would take the additional step of guaranteeing purses should they decline. But Wygod, in a radio interview broadcast in Southern California on July 29, seemed to be putting public pressure on TVG when he said, "There probably is no future for TVG if the bill fails."

Wygod may have some valid points about the language of the bill, specifically about how the revenue is divided. But the time to bring those points up was while the bill was making its way through the legislative process and not after the House and Assembly approved it.

On the other hand, it's what people have come to expect from a notoriously fractious industry.