Star Search

By John W. Russell

I'd like you to consider a couple of questions. First: What superstar is the best kept secret in sports?

If those within the industry and those who enjoy the Thoroughbred as a source of entertainment were to vote for Tiznow, they could be forgiven. But a preoccupation with political harangues and anemic economics within racing that invoke indifference by most observers of sports has overshadowed a story that has no parallel. It is the ongoing saga of a 54-year-old athlete who is the all-time leading rider in number of winners, and with every new victory turns the improbable into the incredible. He is a man who has survived more broken bones than the average roadkill receives, less caloric input over the years than King Tutankhamen, yet is riding on the top of the standings at the highest and most competitive level of racing. In addition to being the only jockey ever to win five Eclipse Awards, he is leading the standings at the Santa Anita meet. He is Laffit Pincay Jr.

When Laffit burst upon the scene by winning his first race in this country in 1966, reasonable people surmised his career would be cut short by weight problems and he would last longer in the boxing ring than the jockeys' room. Lyndon B. Johnson was president and Buckpasser was Horse of the Year. Today they are both long gone, and reasonable people were wrong.

To the uninitiated, race-riding is a sedentary occupation where the participant is a passenger perched upon the real athletes. Those suffering from this misinformation might be the same observers who regard a hitter with 50 home runs in a single season as the ultimate athlete, despite the possibility his paunch might cast a shadow from home plate to first base. They might be the same fans that idolize masses of bulbous blubber that win heavyweight championships and exorbitant millions in the boxing ring. It is a fact some sports heroes fall far short of being athletic, and too often fall short on ethics and moral conduct. But it is not universal knowledge that jockeys, to participate in the sport at the highest level, must maintain extraordinary physical conditioning, moral discipline, and unwavering courage.

Question two: What sport advertises its product by focusing on frantic fans rather than prominent players? You've got it: Thoroughbred racing.

For two years the National Thoroughbred Racing Association advertising dollars have been spent depicting frantic fan behavior, where every other sport focuses upon its superstars. How many times has the viewing public seen Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods, and Anna Kournikova promoting their sport and commercial products? It is regrettable that few people could pick Pincay out of a crowd despite his achievements. And there are plenty more charismatic individuals in racing aside from this extraordinary athlete.

If they knew him, every mother in America would wish apprentice Tyler Baze lived next door to their teenage daughter. A trainer with more gray hair than Albert Einstein, more swagger than Jimmy Connors, and much more wit than Dennis Miller is only known within the industry as Bob Baffert. Jerry Bailey has the appearance, eloquence, and demeanor of a corporate executive while he slices into problems and produces solutions on the back of a horse, but the only people who would recognize him are die-hard racing fans and people within the industry. We have macho trainer D. Wayne Lukas who looks equally the part in chaps or a Saville Row suit.

If racing promotes these people from within its ranks as identifiable faces and interesting personalities, corporate America will latch onto them for commercial purposes, and ultimately corporate America will come to racing. No other sport advertises by presenting fan activity to its fans; they promote their game by exposing their stars. Racing has stars: people and horses. Tiznow is more visually appealing than Jeff Gordon's rainbow rocket, but we probably won't see him in front of the camera as often.

Promoting racing to the gamblers of America by illustrating how to buy a ticket is a tough sale. Gamblers are going to bet on the activity of their choice, be it the lottery, slot machines, or the stock market, with little consideration to media input. But if they can be persuaded to shift their interest to racing, it is by making racing interesting. Racing has visual appeal and the personalities. Why not use them?

Retired trainer JOHN W. RUSSELL lives in Southern California.