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A Whopping Shopping Spree

In hopes of reviving his sport, R.D. Hubbard is buying tracks across the country

Although he is chairman of the board of Hollywood Park, which began its autumn meeting on Nov. 13, just about the last place you would expect to find R.D. Hubbard—call him Dee, all his friends do—is in the posh Turf Club, where the movie stars and high rollers hang out. Sure, he's one of the wealthier men in America, with a personal fortune estimated at more than $100 million, but Hubbard is just folks at heart. That's why he likes to get on his pony, Mr. Paint, and ride around the Hollywood barn area in the mornings, and why he's apt to spend the afternoons prowling the grandstand area, talking to the $2 bettors and getting their views on how the track can be improved.

The thoroughbred racing establishment isn't quite sure what to make of this bearded, 56-year-old maverick who made his fortune in the glass-manufacturing business, but almost everybody is happy that Hubbard is investing a whole lot of his money, time and energy in the sport. It doesn't even matter that he also likes quarter horses, for heaven's sake, or that he tolerates dog racing. The sport needs movers like Hubbard, rough edges and all, and it doesn't mind that he's much more at home in jeans and boots than in suits and ties. When a guy is buying into racetracks as if he's playing some kind of equine Monopoly, he can swill champagne from a mason jar, if he wants, and who's going to say a word about it?

Besides being the majority shareholder of Hollywood Park, Hubbard is the principal owner of Ruidoso Downs, a quarter horse-thoroughbred track in the mountains of eastern New Mexico; the Woodlands, a thoroughbred, quarter-horse and greyhound facility outside Kansas City, Kans.; and the Multnomah Kennel Club, in Portland, Ore. And he's toying with the idea of building a thoroughbred track in the Dallas-Fort Worth area.

"What's my game plan?" asks Hubbard. "Well, I'm looking for opportunities in horse racing, and there are some out there. I don't have a lot of hobbies, let's put it that way. I sort of got into buying racetracks by accident. But now that I've gotten into it, I'm going to see if we can have an effect and do something. I think racing is the best game in town, because it's exciting and you can bet on it. If it's marketed right, it ought to have some advantages over the competition."

On Labor Day, Sept. 2, Hubbard was at Ruidoso for that afternoon's $2 million All American Futurity, the most prestigious event in quarter-horse racing. He had a horse, Cowboys Rodeo, in the race. In four previous tries, Hubbard had failed to win the futurity, proving once again that money can't buy everything. Cowboys Rodeo was a long shot, but Hubbard felt that the horse had a chance, provided he got off to a good start.

Hubbard arrived at the track late, having spent the morning playing golf with Edward Allred, his partner in the track and in the ownership of several horses, and Jim Colbert, a former member of the PGA Tour (he's now one of the leading money winners on the Senior tour) and his partner in a golf-course design-and-construction business.

"I love it here," said Hubbard, leaning back in his office chair and gazing over at the nearby Silverado Mountains. "The weather is never bad. You just can't beat it. You can play golf the year round here." Although Hubbard comes across as low-key and affable, nobody reaches his level of success without having a gambler's heart and a relentless drive to succeed. Here's the capsule version of Hubbard's American Dream story: He hails from Smith Center, Kans. (pop. 2,000). The youngest of eight children, he began working for his father, Miner, who ran the town's ice house, at the age of 11. He worked his way through Butler County Community College, in El Dorado, Kans., where he played basketball, and then went to work in 1957 at Towanda (Kans.) Junior High School as a $3,200-a-year teacher and basketball coach. Next came a job at a Wichita firm that manufactured automobile windshields, and it took him only nine years to move from $90-a-week salesman to company president. In 1978 he and a group of investors merged two failing glass companies into AFG Industries. In 1988, when he took the company private in a $1.1 billion leveraged buyout, AFG was the nation's second-largest glass manufacturer.

Today he and his wife, Joan Dale, a former Wichita schoolteacher, have a lifestyle befitting their fortune. They own houses in Fort Worth, the home of AFG Industries; in Palm Springs, Calif., where they live a nine-iron from the fourth tee at the elegant La Quinta Country Club; and in Ruidoso, where they built a house in which to display their $15 million collection of Western art.

They feel most at home at Ruidoso, a tiny resort village about 120 miles northwest of El Paso. Bound by a mutual love of quarter horses, Dee and Joan Dale began going to Ruidoso in 1969, just after they were married. They began the Hubbard equine empire by buying a few quarter horses. Today the Hubbards have some 100 horses in training—35 or so quarter horses and 60 to 70 thoroughbreds. Dee and another partner, the late Edward Sczesny, established the 235-acre Crystal Springs Farm in Paris, Ky., and Hubbard has campaigned such outstanding thoroughbreds as Corwyn Bay, winner of the 1988 Cartier Million held in Ireland; Fire The Groom, winner of the 1991 Beverly D. Stakes at Arlington; and Invited Guest, a major graded stakes winner. Yet Dee and Joan Dale love their quarter horses, so Ruidoso remains their special place.

"This is where we started," said Joan Dale, while waiting for the start of the All American Futurity. "All our friends are here. No question, this is more of a personal thing with us."

Ruidoso was Hubbard's first venture into track ownership. In 1988 the track had become so rundown that it was in danger of closing. But Hubbard and Allred, who had made a fortune running family-planning centers in California, took over the track and turned it around. Today, after $2.6 million in improvements, Ruidoso once again is what Allred calls "the Saratoga of our sport," and he gives Hubbard most of the credit. "Nobody but Dee could have put the deal together that saved Ruidoso," he says.

Yet there's really no magic to Hubbard's success. As a former salesman, he knows the best way to close a deal is to cater to the customer. That's how he did it in the glass business, and that's how he's trying to do it in the racetrack business. "At AFG," says Hubbard, "we outworked our competition. I personally called on the major glass companies and customers. And now I'm personally involved in racetracks. I'm not afraid to make changes, and that's important."

A little imagination helps, too. Take the Hubbards' art collection. Once the property of Edward L. Doheny, who made his fortune in petroleum and who was a major figure in the Teapot Dome scandal in the 1920s, it includes two enormous murals by Charles Russell depicting selected events in the history of the West. Other pieces are by such well-known Western artists as Frederic S. Remington and William R. Leigh. Hubbard bought the collection in 1988 as an investment, but by displaying it at Ruidoso, he has also made it a means of attracting wealthy patrons to the track.

Even after the Doheny collection was moved into the house that had been designed around it, Hubbard still kept a museum on the second floor of the Ruidoso track, to display the work of contemporary artists. Each year the artist judged to have the best work in a competition sponsored by Hubbard receives the $250,000 Hubbard Art Award for Excellence, one of the largest such grants in the nation. As usual, Hubbard has something in the back of his mind. "Anybody who can afford to buy the art [the works on display in the competition] can afford a lot of other things," he says. Such as racehorses. And gambling.

Last futurity day, however, the only art that interested Hubbard was a winner's-circle photo. Just before the big race, he and Joan Dale led friends from their private rooftop box down to the paddock so they could wish Cowboys Rodeo good luck and watch him being saddled. Then it was back up to watch the race that Hubbard said he wanted to win as badly as he did the Kentucky Derby. "We've been chasing this silly race for years," Joan Dale said.

When the 10-horse field sprang from the gate, Cowboys Rodeo got the good start that Hubbard had wanted. However, in the final yards he got pinched by the horses on either side of him and appeared to be intimidated. Cowboys Rodeo finished fifth in a race won by Royal Quick Dash, another long shot.

Watching the cast-of-thousands celebration down in the winner's circle, Joan Dale smiled and said, "Well, that's what makes racing great, isn't it?" Her husband wasn't so philosophical. Watching a replay of the race, he became irritated when he saw the part where his horse got pinched. "I can't believe the stewards let that go," he said. Whatever else he is, R.D. Hubbard is not a good loser.

When Hubbard's bid in 1990 to take over Hollywood Park became known, the leaders in the thoroughbred industry were skeptical, to say the least. Here was a guy with a quarter-horse background; a guy who allowed dog racing to exist side by side with thoroughbred racing at his Kansas City plant. Could he be trusted? What if he tried to bring dog racing into California, where it's currently not legal? Just what was he up to?

"Hubbard was somewhat of a mystery man," says David Vance, who oversees the operation of three tracks for Ohio developer Edward J. DeBartolo Sr. "He's probably smarter than the rest of us. He picks his spots and seems to have some vision. He kind of changed direction when he took over Hollywood Park. Until then he seemed mostly interested in areas where he could be the only game in town."

Vance has a point. Even Hubbard concedes that "until I got involved with Hollywood Park, I wasn't very well known in thoroughbred racing." So why did he do it? Power? Prestige? Social acceptance? Ego? Hubbard was perhaps tired of being recognized as "that quarter-horse guy with all the money."

"He may be looked upon as an outsider, but that's not a prime thing in his book," says Tom Gamel, a friend who is president of Timpte Industries, a manufacturer of truck trailers and bodies in Denver, and who shared Hubbard's vision of what needed to be done at Hollywood. "He wants to produce results, and then the respect will follow."

When Hubbard puts his mind to something, he can be a formidable opponent, as deposed Hollywood Park president Marje Everett learned. When she turned down Hubbard's written request for a seat on the track's board of directors in 1990—he felt she had snubbed him, actually, because she never even answered his letter—Hubbard became angry. Nobody snubs R.D. Hubbard. That began what turned into a nasty, expensive, highly publicized proxy fight that ended last February when Hollywood's stockholders tossed out Everett, who had run the track for 18 years, and installed Hubbard as her successor. "I never would have gotten into the proxy fight," he said, "if she had put me on the board."

But what offended Hubbard more than any personal slight—intentional or otherwise—was Everett's apparent unwillingness to listen to a new voice interested mainly in improving the track. Under Everett's tenure, Hollywood Park, once the showplace of California racing, had slipped and suffered badly when compared with Santa Anita, the exquisite track north of Los Angeles. Now Hollywood is undergoing the same kind of renaissance that Hubbard, old magic fingers himself, brought about at Ruidoso.

Although Everett says she's "not impressed at all" with what has happened to Hollywood under Hubbard, she's a minority of one. Thanks to a now nearly completed $18 million renovation plan, Hubbard has reversed the downward trend in attendance—the track's daily average of 20,306 during last summer's meet was up 11% from 1990—and has earned raves from horsemen, the media and, most important, the public.

Almost every racing official pays lip service to the notion of catering to the $2 bettor, but Hubbard is one of the few who have actually done it. An example: On one of his periodic walking trips around Hollywood Park, Hubbard was approached by Rene Romero, a veteran horseplayer. Romero suggested that it would be a good idea for the track to change its Pick Six (an exotic wager in which a bettor is required to pick the winners of six consecutive races) to the fourth through the ninth races, instead of the third through the eighth. "I told him," Romero told the Long Beach Press-Telegram, "how most of the serious players preferred it that way because it would give them an extra race to figure out the conditions of the track." A few weeks later, Hollywood changed the Pick Six to the fourth through ninth races.

"He certainly has brought a very innovative approach to racing," says James E. (Ted) Bassett III, president of the Breeders' Cup Limited. "It's not clear to the industry what his grand scheme is, but his track record indicates that he has one. He brings a refreshing point of view to the game."

Hubbard serves on the Breeders' Cup board of directors, along with some of the most influential horsemen in the nation, and he is already making thoroughbred leaders pay attention to concepts that were previously repugnant to them. Here are some of his ideas:

•Thoroughbred tracks must learn to make maximum use of their facilities, even if it means embracing other breeds and new ideas. Leading by example, Hubbard has announced plans to have a quarter-horse meeting next year at Hollywood Park, and he hopes to use part of the track's 300 acres for a golf driving range. As Bassett tactfully puts it, "Hubbard has a broader vision of racing than most racetrack operators."

•Track operators must follow the lead of the Las Vegas casinos by identifying their best patrons and rewarding them. At Hollywood Park, for example, Hubbard is thinking about giving premiums such as Laker tickets to his best customers.

•Tracks must become more affordable and more user-friendly. When Hollywood Park began intertrack wagering by opening its doors to bets on live racing at Santa Anita and other California tracks, Hubbard also introduced a one-stop-shopping concept in which a patron paid one fee for parking, admissions and a program.

At least everybody in the sport is paying attention to Hubbard. Yet recognition is a double-edged sword, and at the moment of his greatest triumph, the Hollyood Park fight, Hubbard was embarrassed by the mudslinging that had preceded it. Says Joan Dale, "We didn't need to get into the middle of that fray. For him to be portrayed as some kind of gangster...well, I told him he was being too nice about it. But it took its toll on him. Once he got in there, he put it behind him. But I know he still has a bad taste in his mouth."

If so, you can't tell. Hubbard is determined to make Hollywood Park a smash hit, perhaps because he knows everyone in thoroughbred racing is watching closely. This is a man who hates to lose. This is also a man who knows people, knows sales, knows himself.

"I'm sure there are people hoping I fail," says Hubbard, smiling wryly, "but that doesn't bother me. I'm not really afraid of taking a chance. It was a little different when I started in the glass business. Then we had to make it work or we'd be out of business. But I'm to the point now where if I make a mistake, I can afford it. I just like a challenge, let's put it that way. And Hollywood Park is one of the biggest challenges going."



R.D. and Joan Dale award $250,000 annually to a top contemporary artist.



Ruidoso was run down when Hubbard took over in 1988.