Updated on 09/17/2011 8:49PM

Big racing fan. Who is Merv Griffin?


ARCADIA, Calif. - Racing's promoters drool over the prospect of real-life celebrities playing the game. Santa Anita was buzzing for days after Kevin Costner once breezed through the walking ring to watch one of his horses run. You would have thought the pope was in town whenever Jack Nicholson showed up to wave his cigar at Cigar. And now that Joe Pesci is a bona fide patron of the Thoroughbred sport . . . as we say in the suburbs of San Diego County, forget about it.

More often than not, though, celebs disappear before the game gets a bump from their participation, either as owners or dedicated fans. That's why a guy like Merv Griffin is so cool to have around.

It has been almost 20 years since Griffin bid farewell to his long-running, widely syndicated talk show, and more than half a century since he topped the Billboard charts, selling 3 million units of "I've Got a Lovely Bunch of Coconuts." More an entrepreneur these days than an entertainer, his name might not pop up in the fan mags as often as Jacko, Brad, or Jen. But when it comes to Thoroughbred racing, Griffin is in for the long haul.

He's got a farm in the desert oasis of La Quinta to prove it, where more than 50 horses roam in vast pastures and train, when appropriate, over a five-furlong track. He's got a robust string of runners embedded in the barn of Doug O'Neill, Santa Anita's leading trainer. And his business ties run deep, from his past service on the Hollywood Park board of directors to his 40-year ownership of Teleview Racing Patrol, the closed-circuit television company that services two dozen Thoroughbred tracks.

Granted, Griffin's other various businesses might rake in more dough, among them the Beverly Hilton Hotel, "Wheel of Fortune," and "Jeopardy!" But if pressed, Griffin will confess that nothing compares to a guest shot in the winner's circle - any winner's circle.

"It's still the biggest thrill there is," Griffin said recently from his Beverly Hills offices. "Bigger than getting an award and any of these awards shows, that's for sure. Can you believe that in the last year we've been 15 times in the winner's circle? Of course, we had to run 2,000 horses to get there."

He was kidding about that last part, but not about the winners. After a number of quiet years, the Griffin stable is in full renaissance, led by such reliable commodities as stakes winners Cee's Irish and Skipaslew, hillside turf specialist The Griff, and three-time winner Girlsintheoffice. He has a new acquisition, the maiden colt Rhythm in the Nite, that could pan out, and any time he needs a lift he visits his yearling filly by In Excess, a daughter of his Wolf Power mare, Mon Ange.

"What a great coupling that was, and what a beautiful filly," Griffin said. "I can't wait to see her come along."

Griffin, 79, comes by his racing pedigree naturally. He was raised in the San Francisco suburb of San Mateo, in a family of tennis stars and horseplayers, where a typical Griffin family weekend outing would take them to neighboring Bay Meadows Racetrack. Like just about everyone who lived in California between 1936 and 1940, Griffin says he watched Seabiscuit run.

"I did!" he insisted. "We saw him win twice at Bay Meadows. My family loved horse racing."

Seabiscuit never lost in four starts at Bay Meadows. The young Merv might have seen him win the Bay Bridge Handicap on Nov. 28, 1936, or perhaps the World's Fair Handicap two weeks later. Griffin would have had another chance on May 22, 1937, when Seabiscuit won the Bay Meadows Handicap, and then again in the same race the following season when Seabiscuit was on his way to 1938 Horse of the Year.

Clearly, exposure to a horse like Seabiscuit planted the seed. Asked if racing would ever be hip again, a truly popular diversion, Griffin was quick to reply.

"Every sport comes around," he said. "In the end, though, it's the stars of the game that make the game. In tennis, for example, when Conners and McEnroe and Borg were around, all of America played tennis. Then the stars disappeared - or at least the ones the people wanted to see - and the tennis at the country clubs went bad.

"The real problem in horse racing is the slowness in the ability of people to bet," Griffin noted. "People are so used to the casino pace of betting. Remember - they built a track once in Las Vegas that didn't work. Everything is fast, fast. I don't understand why they won't allow slot machines at the tracks.

"Racing will come back," he added, "but there have to be some changes. When I was on the board at Hollywood Park with Marje Everett, I said that someday the crowds would be bigger off the track than on-track. They all pooh-poohed me. Maybe someday it will become a television show only. Maybe the racetrack will be just a staging area, with officials only. That would be too bad. And that's why we need stars."

Takes one to know one. Griffin is doing his part to put good horses on stage. As for a star, well, there is this filly in a pasture in La Quinta, by In Excess, out of a Wolf Power mare named Mon Ange.