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Beck steps into the spotlight
The obvious thread linking Fusaichi Pegasus, Smarty Jones, Afleet Alex, Curlin, and Big Brown is that each horse won one or more Triple Crown races in the past eight years.
The less obvious thread is that Robert Beck, a Lexington, Ky., lawyer who was recently named chairman of the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission, put together the deals to either sell or syndicate the horses for stallion duty.
Beck, 58, has been practicing in his adopted hometown of Lexington since obtaining his law degree from Vanderbilt University in Tennessee in 1975, and he has long been a resource for central Kentucky breeders who are looking to syndicate a horse. But he has played his role largely in the background, shaping some of the most lucrative stallion and syndication deals in industry from the relative obscurity of his office at Stites and Harbison in downtown Lexington.
All that has changed since Beck was appointed chairman of the racing commission in May by Gov. Steve Beshear, a longtime friend of Beck who used to be a partner at Stites and Harbison.
"Since I've accepted, I've had people come to me that I've known for years, and some people that are very high-profile in the industry, to talk to me candidly," Beck said during a lengthy interview earlier this month in Saratoga Springs, where he was attending the Hall of Fame ceremony. "One of them said, 'Son, you're going to have to stand tall.' And another one came up to me and said, 'You don't know how many people are counting on you.' Whoa. That's pressure. So I'm well aware that it's a large responsibility, and I hope that I can fulfill those expectations. I'm certainly going to do my best. I'm going to work very hard at it."
Beck accepted the job shortly after Eight Belles broke down after finishing second in this year's Kentucky Derby, an event that galvanized critics of certain racing industry practices. Since the breakdown, many of the sport's national organizations have attempted to address the criticism with efforts to persuade racing commissions and racetracks to adopt new measures designed to improve racing conditions for horses, including rules banning toe-grab horseshoes and regulating the administration of anabolic steroids.
After a slow start, the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission has begun to move full speed on the rules, in part because of Beck's appointment. In late June, the commission adopted a ban on front toe grabs, a type of horseshoe with a raised ridge on the front that has been associated with dramatic increases in catastrophic breakdowns compared to flat-front shoes. In addition, Beck said he is "optimistic" that the racing commission will adopt a rule regulating anabolic steroids by the end of August, in an attempt to get the rule through the administrative layers of government by the end of the year.
"It's most important from the health and safety standpoint, but we'd be naive not to recognize the effects of something like the Eight Belles situation," Beck said. "That has acted as a catalyst to make a number of industry organizations deal with these issues more quickly than we might have in the past. So in some ways, it's a reaction to public opinion, but in other ways that's only helping to speed up a process that was already under way."
The chairmanship of the racing commission has long been a political appointment in Kentucky, and Beck acknowledges that his connections played a large role in his selection. Beck has known Beshear, a Democrat who was elected governor in 2007 to replace the Republican Ernie Fletcher, for almost 40 years, he said, as a co-worker and friend.
Beshear replaced six other members of the 13-member commission earlier this summer, and now the racing commission is stocked with supporters of the governor and the state's Democratic Party. Most notably, Tracy Farmer, a Kentucky businessman who is a horse owner and breeder, was appointed vice chairman to replace Connie Harriman-Whitfield, the wife of U.S. Rep. Ed Whitfield, a Republican from Kentucky.
Harriman-Whitfield was widely considered to be a potential obstacle to the timely adoption of the steroid rule because of indications that she supported federal regulation of the racing industry, a position that her husband also supports. With Harriman-Whitfield gone, the Kentucky Equine Drug Research Council - an advisory group that recommends medication policies - approved a strict anabolic-steroid regulation on Aug. 14. The policy was sent on to the Kentucky Racing Commission, which is expected to review the rule on Aug. 25.
Damon Thayer, a Republican in the state's assembly who is the legislative appointee to the drug council, said Aug. 12 that Beck has been meeting regularly with council members to discuss the steroid rule. Despite Beck's opposing political views, Thayer said Beck has shown a willingness to listen.
"I know several people who know him very well, and I've had several meetings with him," Thayer said. "We've had very frank and open discussions. And I think we've found out that this is an issue we can all agree on."
Although Beck said that the steroid rule is a priority, he also noted that he spent the first several weeks after his appointment meeting with state racing representatives to determine what the commission should focus on.
"The agenda has 85 items on it and is eight pages long," Beck said. "So there's a lot to do, but it's a tremendous opportunity."
Beck was born in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., but his family moved to Lexington when he was growing up, and he considers Lexington his hometown. He went to Vanderbilt in Nashville, Tenn., to earn his first degree, in economics, and returned there for his law degree. When he came home to Lexington, he found himself looking for a way to make a living as a mergers and acquisition specialist in a town that concentrated far more on matings and syndicates.
"A lot of my friends were leaving to take jobs on Wall Street, and I was looking for something in Lexington," he said. "And I said to myself that Lexington is the focal point of this really interesting racing world. I had a couple of friends in the industry who were kind enough to send me some work, and I had some partners who were looking to retire and needed someone to take over in their area, so I raised my hand and said, 'I'd like to do it.' "
It wasn't that easy, however. Beck spent the next several years poring over industry publications, sizing up the competition in Lexington, and meeting with racing participants to learn the ins and outs of what can be an arcane industry to the newcomer. His goal was to "get one good client a year," he said.
"I figured that in 15 or 20 years, I'd have a nice practice," Beck said.
The work started trickling in, but the late 1970s and early 1980s were a far different time for the racing industry than today, in large part because of provisions in the tax code that allowed horse owners to write off losses from owning racing and breeding stock. That changed in 1986, when Congress passed the Tax Reform Act. The legislation amended the tax code to require that horse owners show a profit in two years out of every seven-year period to qualify for write-offs.
The tax act had a dramatic impact on the amount of capital that small-time owners were willing to invest in racing, but it resulted in more work for accountants and lawyers. On a
personal note, it also gave Beck an initiation into the owners' side of racing. Beck had been working on selling securities in racing partnerships, and he bought into one of his own
offerings just before the tax code was reformed, he said.
"I bought before and sold after," Beck said. "That's like buying high and selling low. Talk about a baptism in fire."
Now, Beck said he has learned most of his lessons in a field that has few full-time practitioners.
Racing also has led Beck into his closest friendships, in particular with John and Donna Ward, the Kentucky husband-and-wife training team.
In 1991, Calumet Farm, perhaps the most high-profile stud farm in the world, spectacularly collapsed. John Ward was brought in to run the farm's operations through bankruptcy proceedings, and Stites and Harbison, Beck's firm, represented the farm in negotiations with creditors. Beck ended up working side-by-side with Ward.
"You have to understand what a difficult time that was, and you really get to know someone because of that," Ward said. "I think we had 21 different attorneys representing different entities, all these different contracts, and Bob had to work to get everyone on the same page. He was able to unravel all those deals, and everyone who left there felt they got a fair shake."
As a result of their long hours together, Ward, Beck, and their wives developed a strong friendship. Today, when Beck visits Keeneland or Saratoga, he can usually be found at the Ward barns and refers to John Ward as "his mentor."
Ward has been a member of the racing commission for four years, and he said Beck has already made notable progress in bringing together different sides in the industry for discussions on the commission's direction.
"People don't know who he is, and yet he's been involved in the Thoroughbred industry for decades," Ward said. "And maybe that helps. He's very organized, he's a great listener, and he's interested in compromise. He wants everyone to get their say, and he'll go out of his way to make sure that they do. He's never pushing an agenda."
In addition to his appointment as chairman of the racing commission, Beck also has been appointed to a task force created by Beshear in late July to study the economic soundness of the racing industry. The task force is expected to address the state's drug-testing programs, its rules and regulations, and, possibly, the impact of the legalization of slot machines at Kentucky's racetracks, a political hot potato that has yet to find enough support for a major legislative push.
Beck said he has no personal interest in gambling on slot machines, and although he said that he is not a serious gambler, he enjoys the intellectual challenge of handicapping a race and watching the horses in the paddock.
"I love going to the track, and I particularly enjoy Saratoga or Keeneland in the morning, taking the Racing Form and watching horses work by the rail," Beck said. "It's just so relaxing. These really are magnificent animals. You can't get away from that. You can't ever forget that."