Archives for March 2009

HALL OF FAME ASTERISKS

Bob Costas of NBC Sports is a 19-time Emmy Award winner who covers the Kentucky Derby for the network. His real passion is baseball.  Costas was one of the earliest critics of steroids in Major League Baseball. Recently, he has been speaking out about whether players who have been steroid users should be elected to The National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, New York.  The same question can be asked about racehorse athletes that raced mostly or entirely with the assistance of medication and who are plausible candidates for the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame.

Selection for the Baseball Hall of Fame can come about in two ways–by vote of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America or by vote of the Veterans Committee. The latter group deals with players who have been out of the game for at least 21 years.

The criteria for selection are specified in a sentence: “Voting shall be based upon the player’s record, playing ability, integrity, sportsmanship, character, and contributions to the team(s) on which the player played.” “Shoeless” Joe Jackson and Pete Rose unquestionably meet the performance criteria but are not even allowed on the ballot because of integrity and character issues, albeit some players enshrined in the Baseball Hall of Fame were pretty unsavory characters. The standards seem to be flexible and open to interpretation.

Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens would be absolute locks for election were it not for the steroid accusations surrounding them and Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa, and Alex Rodriguez would be strong candidates for admission. Will they get in and should they get in?

Costas says that steroid-aided performances have “distorted the game’s history” and “stained” the sport and “poisoned” the record book. His solution is to let voters decide whether Bonds, Clemens, and others should be elected, rather than to ban them from the ballot, as with Rose for betting on games. However, he suggests that the Hall of Fame acknowledge on the plaques of players from the steroid era that their achievements came under unusual conditions.

This plaque recommendation is virtually certain not to be implemented but, regardless, Costas says that “Knowledgeable people will put a figurative asterisk over the entire (steroid) era (even though) that will be unfair to a lot of players.”

Do the preeminent racehorses of today and the recent past deserve election to the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame if they ran most or all of their races with permissible medication of some kind? Phenylbutazone and furosemide are legal in prescribed doses on race days in most jurisdictions in the United States but so were steroids in baseball when some all-time records were set.

Consider the criteria for selection to the Racing Hall of Fame: “The mission of the Official National Thoroughbred Racing Hall of Fame is to honor the achievements of those horses, jockeys, and trainers whose records and reputations have withstood the difficult test of time.” Like baseball, this is a general statement that leaves lots of wiggle room. Would it preclude Dancer’s Image, who won the 1968 Kentucky Derby only to be disqualified after he tested positive for phenylbutazone, which is legal today in Kentucky but was illegal in 1968?

The sad reality is that if medication-aided racing were to be a disqualifier for Hall of Fame selection, there would be a dearth of inductees from the last quarter century. Suppose horses that raced on permitted medication get a pass. What about a Hall of Fame worthy racehorse that was disqualified once for a forbidden drug-should it be eligible?  (To digress, should a trainer with flagrant medication violations be put before the voters?)

As the rules are presently constituted, election to the Hall of Fame is a two-step process. Initially, a candidate must receive the majority of the votes of a 16-person nominating committee to become a finalist. Subsequently, approximately 180 members of a voting panel cast their ballots for all of the nominees. The racehorse with the most votes is elected.

Costas, in my view, has the right approach. Leave it up to the nominating committee and to the voting panel to decide whether a racehorse’s total record of accomplishments is such that the animal is Hall of Fame quality. Under this policy, the equine equivalent of a Pete Rose situation, whereby a would-be candidate is banned from consideration, could not occur. This is essentially the procedure followed by the Hall of Fame now.

It would be highly controversial if the Hall of Fame were to put up a sign stating that performance records from the modern era were achieved with the assistance of medication? This is not likely to happen. Yet, to reiterate what Costas said about the steroid era in baseball, “Knowledgeable people will put a figurative asterisk over the entire era.”

The average person who visits the racing Hall of Fame in Saratoga Springs, New York, will not know the difference between a record achieved in 1909, 1959, or 2009. But the informed racing fan will know.

Ruth, Gehrig, Williams, Mays, Aaron…the names leap into one’s consciousness when the phrase Hall of Fame is mentioned. Bonds, McGwire, and Clemens also come to mind as probably great players, but players whose records were tainted by chemical use. Costas is dead on correct:  rightly or wrongly, these modern players will forever have a figurative asterisk associated with their names and a plaque in Cooperstown won’t eradicate it.  They dominated the game, but the doubts are indelible.

Regret, Man O’ War, Seabiscuit, Citation, Secretariat…these names echo down through history and epitomize Hall of Famer. On the other hand,  _____, _____, _____, (fill in the blanks)  may be great horses from the contemporary era, but their records are chemically suspect. Fairly or unfairly, these modern racehorses will have a figurative asterisk associated with each of their names and a plaque in the Hall of Fame won’t erase it.

Copyright © 2009 Horse Racing Business 

 

 

HALSEY MINOR FOR RACING’S JOBS

Racing needs Jobs…Steve Jobs, that is.  The staid industry could benefit from a creative genius.  Most of the people in charge of racetracks and other industry organizations are buttoned-down analytical types.  The sport could use a heavy injection of intuitive thinking, some right-brained ideas.

Steve Jobs co-founded Apple in 1976 when he was 21-years-old.  The company’s first product was a pioneering personal computer.  In 1985, Jobs and his board of directors had a falling out and he resigned to launch NeXT, a computer platform development company that was acquired by Apple in 1997.  In 1986, Jobs bought the computer graphics division of Lucasfilm Ltd., which became Pixar Animation Studios and was purchased in 2006 by Walt Disney Company.  Pixar has won 20 Academy Awards and its films have grossed more than $4 billion.  Since Jobs’ return to Apple 12 years ago, the company has had a remarkable record of blockbuster products.  iPod turned the music industry upset down by allowing 200 million iPod customers to download six billion songs from Apple’s iTunes online store.  iPhone has been a sensational hit.

Gil Amelio, a highly respected Silicon Valley executive, was unsuccessfully attempting to return Apple to its former glory days when Jobs came back to the company in 1997.  Once the Apple board lost confidence in Amelio and let him go, they installed Jobs as the interim CEO to get Apple back on the path to innovation, revenue growth, and profitability-which he did.  Jobs’ value as a technical and marketing guru is so great that Apple’s stock waxes and wanes depending on the actual or rumored state of his health.  Jobs developed and evidently overcame pancreatic cancer.  Currently, he is on a medical sabbatical for a vaguely described condition that left him listless and gaunt.

A friend of mine, who is a “turnaround” executive–or a person who tries to right sinking companies–was part of a group of advisors to Amelio. They were helping him craft a plan to save Apple.  Upon Amelio’s ouster, Jobs promptly fired them all.  Later, Jobs brought back my turnaround friend as a consultant, which shows that Jobs seeks talent regardless of the source.

Jobs is variously described as being brilliant, idiosyncratic, mercurial, indispensable, petulant, profane, boorish, scary, unconventional, impatient, a vegetarian, a Buddhist, etc.  His clothing is far removed from the standard corporate attire, as he is partial to black long-sleeve mock turtlenecks, blue jeans, and sneakers.  Jobs has been known to engage in a public war of words with such tech-business icons as Michael Dell.  He even banned all books at Apple from a company that published an unauthorized biography of him.  Once, at a shareholder forum,  an individual inquired of Jobs why stockholders should buy into the plan that Jobs had formulated for saving Apple.  Jobs answered “Because I am the only f—— hope you’ve got.”  Outspoken, truthful, blunt, and confident.

Racing cannot get Steve Jobs,  but a Jobs-like person is available, Halsey Minor.  He is a well-known high-tech entrepreneur and an aficionado of Thoroughbred horse racing.

I don’t know Halsey Minor personally, but I know this about him:  Even though his upbringing of privilege in the Thomas Jefferson country of Virginia is drastically different from how Jobs was raised, the two Silicon Valley technology entrepreneurs have a lot in common.  Minor is the co-founder of the technological-news company CNET, which he sold to CBS for close to $2 billion. (Minor’s first employee at CNET was Shelby Bonnie, who is the son of prominent Louisville, Kentucky attorney and horseman, Edward S. “Ned” Bonnie.  The elder Bonnie serves on the board of the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission.)  Since then, he has been both an angel capitalist for funding start-up enterprises and an entrepreneur, under the banner of Minor Ventures in San Francisco.

Minor is eminently successful at what he does and, like Steve Jobs, can be  combative. On the latter point, for instance, he has recently been in litigation with Sotheby’s over a painting and with Hialeah, Florida, and the owner of Hialeah Park racetrack.

A feature on Minor in Conde Nast titled “The Baddest Boy in Silicon Valley” began by asking “…why do so many of his former tech-world colleagues revile him?”  The article said:

Even those who bad-mouth him chalk up his successes to much more than good luck.  ‘He’s very bright,’ says a former CNET executive who no longer speaks to Minor, for reasons he wouldn’t discuss.  ‘There’s no better guy in front of the whiteboard, in terms of being really smart and quick on his feet and being able to see what others don’t.’  Another tech executive who worked closely with Minor for several years but now no longer wants his name associated with him adds, ‘He’s easy to demonize.  He’s kind of arrogant; he has an edge.  But there’s no question that when he wants to, he gets things done.’

The portfolio, in brief:  A person who has high bandwidth, is capable of keen insight and hell bent on getting things done, and prone to rocking the boat irrespective of personal relationships.  This modus operandi might not be compatible with strong companies in growing  industries, but horse racing is not in this category. 

Minor is a racehorse owner, having spent millions on bloodstock, purchased Carter’s Grove plantation from the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation in 2007 for Thoroughbred breeding, and reportedly wants to be in the retail end of racing by starting or purchasing a track.

Horse racing is an elegant old sport with roots in this country since colonial days.  In order for it to continue on in the 21st century, updating the product and new approaches are essential, particularly from the standpoint of using technology to communicate with and attract the younger generations.  Who knows whether Halsey Minor could succeed where others have failed, but it is worth a shot.  The fellow is said, even by his enemies, to be concept-driven, Internet-savvy, capable of seeing the big picture, and a go-getter.  Here’s hoping he gets a chance very soon to bring fresh Jobs-like, no Minor-like, thinking and energy to a sport that needs it in the worse way.

If Minor joined up with some of the bright young minds in the industry to operate a racetrack, in the right location and under the right circumstances, the results might be highly desirable.  With the bankruptcy filing at Magna Entertainment this week, a few prospects come to mind.

The racing fraternity should embrace Minor with open arms, as a force for change and experimentation–a straw that stirs the drink.   He could be the person to take on some of the industry’s toughest jobs…like Jobs did at Apple.

Copyright © 2009 Horse Racing Business