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Politics in the saddle at Utopia Downs

As state governors continue to select senior racetrack officials for the wrong reasons, inexperience among their appointees plagues the sport

In its efforts to assure the public that the sport can manage its own affairs efficiently, racing's establishment has had a spotty record, at best. The mishmash resulting from the drugging of Dancer's Image before the Kentucky Derby—a mystery no closer to solution than the day the deed was done—is only the most recent case in point.

A generation or so ago, before racing had become a multimillion-dollar sport-industry and while The Jockey Club still enjoyed dictatorial powers over all licensees, an infringement of the rules could lead to a man being banned for life, with no appeal possible. Now with what seems to be dreary regularity, more of the sport's major decisions are being made in courts of law than by horsemen. And at conventions of the National Association of State Racing Commissioners, such as the one held in Los Angeles last month, more time is spent in debate over permissive medication, pension plans for officials and the unionization of jockeys than on matters affecting the huge public stake in racing.

In the 32 states where pari-mutuel wagering on Thoroughbred horses is legal, each governor has the responsibility of appointing qualified men to serve as racing commissioner or as members of what some states call horse racing boards. These boards and commissions, in turn, are supposed to choose qualified officials, i.e., stewards, patrol judges, paddock judges, etc. to run the programs at the 100-odd tracks in the U.S.

When political appointees or good friends of management wind up in high places in racing it is time to question the motives of the governors themselves, all of whom are very much aware of exactly how much their states benefit from taxes produced by the sport. Are the governors and their racing commissions picking the most qualified men?

•In Illinois, Governor Richard B. Ogilvie has appointed Timothy P. Sheehan, former Cook County Republican chairman, to the $15,000-a-year job of secretary of the Illinois Racing Board. Owner of two business firms in Chicago, Sheehan is also 41st Ward Republican committeeman. "I'm taking the job with an open mind, particularly because I have no past connection with racing," he says.

•In Rhode Island, Governor Frank Licht has appointed Frank Rao the state steward. Rao, who is 70, is a former member of the Providence City Council and a former Democratic state chairman.

•In Arkansas, Governor Winthrop Rockefeller has appointed Chester Lauck, a partner in a public-relations firm, as a placing judge at Oaklawn Park. Lauck was once known as Lum on the radio show Lum and Abner.

•In Massachusetts, Governor Francis W. Sargent has appointed Mike Holovak, former head coach and general manager of the Boston Patriots of the AFL, to be a member of the Massachusetts Racing Commission. In the early '40s, Holovak helped pay his college tuition by working as a mutuel clerk at Suffolk Downs, and his appointment to the commissioner's job was, said Governor Sargent, to "raise the reputation of horse racing in the commonwealth."

•In Florida, Andy Gustafson, former football coach at the University of Miami, was named last year to the position of steward representing the Florida State Racing Commission at Tropical Park, Hialeah and Gulfstream. Gustafson, who rode the wheelhorse in a field artillery outfit and says he didn't much like it, moved into the stewards' stand with no previous experience other than being a longtime patron of the sport. A close friend of the owners of the Miami tracks, Gustafson says, "I've been a steward watcher for two years before becoming one. I admit, there is no such thing as instant experience, and this is no simple job. Still, you don't have to be the brightest man in the world. Good judgment and common sense are most important."

Well, maybe. But it is difficult to explain why men who casually go racing a few times a year wind up with jobs that should rightfully be given to any one of a dozen qualified horsemen waiting in the wings. Today, while most commission chairmen have some racing experience, many of their own colleagues have barely learned the sport's ABC's. Thus, when the commissions approve neophytes for important jobs on the racetrack itself they are only compounding an already distasteful situation.

Aidan Roark, former nine-goal polo star and now a steward at Santa Anita as well as president of the Society of North American Racing Officials, recently addressed the Los Angeles convention of the NASRC. "The position of state steward," said Roark, "has been minimized on the grounds that the stewards appointed by the association [i.e., the individual tracks] are assumed capable of carrying the former. There is an outstanding fallacy in this theory. The association stewards, no matter how experienced, how compatible or how highly qualified, sometimes disagree. When this occurs the decision must be made by an amateur who might just as well decide by a flip of the coin as by searching his own experience for an opinion. With a great amount of money at stake, this seems pretty ridiculous. From the commission's point of view, it needs the best advice it can get from the man delegated to represent it. The racing associations, which pay the salaries, are entitled to services of a qualified man. And the other stewards are entitled to have an associate who can carry his share of the work load."

Two weeks after Roark delivered this message to the assembled commissioners his longtime friend and colleague Keene Daingerfield, one of the most able and respected stewards in the country, resigned his position at Hialeah. One reason cited by Daingerfield was that Hialeah President Eugene Mori had refused to join the retirement, health and welfare plans for racing officials offered by the Thoroughbred Racing Associations. "I have been employed at Hialeah for the past 12 years," said Daingerfield. "During this period I have never been given an increase in salary, nor have I asked for one, although mutuel handle and attendance have increased steadily, as has the work load." It is no secret that Keene's work load (along with that of George Palmer, the other Hialeah-appointed steward) was nearly doubled this year because of the presence of Rookie Gustafson. "It will take Gustafson more than two years to learn what this game is all about," says one veteran steward, "and in the meantime the other two guys will have to carry the ball for him."

A racing steward's job is a little like that of a military governor. It involves the complicated administrative functions dealing with licenses and contracts for hundreds of persons having some connection with the various racing departments. And in the afternoon—which is the only time the public is aware that the stewards are not chaps in deck uniforms dishing out tea and crumpets—a track steward's chief responsibility is looking for infringements of the rules. When the "objection" or "inquiry" sign goes up, the decision rests with the three stewards. For this responsibility they are paid as much as $100 a day. Some of them have spent as much as 10 years working their way up from the ground floor in the racing department—the mail room, the entry clerk's or clerk of scales' office—and have been paddock judges, patrol judges and even starters. Some, like Alfred Shelhamer, state steward in California, Ted Atkinson, state steward in Illinois, Cal Rainey, New York steward appointed by The Jockey Club, Warren Mehrtens, Jimmy Stout, George Taniguchi, Pete Moreno and Sammy Boulmetis, started as jockeys.

"If there were such a place as Utopia Downs," says New York Steward Earl Potter, "all the officials would start at the bottom and learn everything there is to know—or try to—over a long period of time. But because there is no Utopia Downs and never will be, it comes down to the question of educating the members of the National Association of State Racing Commissioners as to the proper qualifications for the men racing needs to officiate itself."

Andy Gustafson undoubtedly had a point when he stressed the importance of good judgment and common sense. "It's good to have those qualities no matter what you do," says one California steward, "but put the theory to a guy up in a plane trying to land the damn thing. Is all the good judgment in the world going to take the place of experience?"