11/19/2008 12:00AM

California's 'other' showbiz board member


An epidemic of spit takes, whiplash, and "say whats?!" was triggered a few months back when Gov. Arnold Schwarzenneger went all Hollywood on the California Horse Racing Board.

Cynics had a field day. How could the guv, with a straight face, appoint an iconic symbol of show business sexuality to a position of such stern responsibility? True enough, the new commish had a more than passing familiarity with the horse racing world. There were photos and stories to prove loyal attendance at any number of major Thoroughbred events. But sheesh, this is serious business. Racing commissioners don't have an entourage. There is no red carpet. Meetings are held at places like the Del Mar Fairgrounds and Arcadia City Hall, not Chateau Marmont.

So far, David Israel has coped. Named to the CHRB last July - along with animal rights activist Bo Derek - Israel brings to the table a long and successful career as a sportswriter and columnist (Washington Star, L.A. Herald-Examiner, Chicago Tribune) and as a television screenwriter and producer ("Midnight Caller," "The Untouchables," "Tremors: The Series"). That part about showbiz heat was a bit of a stretch - writers are actually the shy, unsung heroes of the industry - but if you can make a good living in the whirling, ever-changing world of television, you must have something that the racing business could use.

"I hope I can contribute something," Israel said Wednesday, one day after this month's CHRB meeting was held on the campus of UC-Davis. "I'm kind of a hybrid, an outsider, but someone who's been around it for a long time without actually being an owner, or a direct participant in the game."

Israel saw Secretariat run at Arlington Park while studying journalism at Northwestern University, then later covered the Triple Crown campaigns of Seattle Slew and Affirmed as a columnist for the Chicago Tribune, before embarking on a screenwriting career.

"In both television and horse racing, you have to understand the audience, and reach people in a sensible way," Israel added. "For all its freneticism, and the way it changes its schedule every year, television is still dependent upon continuity delivered by hits."

Israel is a native New Yorker who was raised in New Jersey and marks his first racing experience at age 17, when he was a counselor at a Vermont summer camp.

"It was my day off," he recalled. "I hitchhiked across the state line to Saratoga. I didn't have a clue as to what was going on, and I know I didn't have much money in my pocket, maybe enough for something to eat and a couple of two-dollar bets. And I hit the double."

The hook was set. The following year, Israel made the pilgrimage to Belmont Park to watch Majestic Prince try and wrap up the Triple Crown in the 1969 Belmont Stakes. The Prince lost the race, but not the fan.

"To this day, I think he's the most beautiful horse I've ever seen," Israel said.

Racing commissioners these days are beset with a stack of problems, and California is in the midst of a major upheaval, with Bay Meadows out of business, Hollywood Park on the ropes, and Santa Anita owner Magna Entertainment swimming in red ink. Add to this the recent tumult over advance-deposit wagering, a three-corner struggle among tracks, horsemen, and the ADW companies over the going price of racing signals.

Much of Tuesday's board meeting was taken up with the ADW agenda item, but in the end all the CHRB can do is brandish its power to license.

"The ADW issue is very important, and vital to the economics of the business," Israel said. "Once that is behind us I hope that we can turn to other issues, like the calendar and licensing. We're not the operators. We're the regulators, but we can do things that constructively influence the way they operate. I would especially like to see a multi-year calendar in place, so the game doesn't have to reinvent itself every year.

The appointment from the governor to the CHRB came as no surprise. Israel said he was "eager to do it." As president of the Los Angeles Coliseum Commission, he was no stranger to the idea of dealing closely with the fate of a California sporting institution.

"Horse racing is an odd little corner of society, but it's an important little corner, and for a number of reasons," Israel said. "One of them, obviously, is economics. There are 55,000 jobs in the state related to horse racing. There's $4 billion a year in revenue. All that is important to the tax base, and it needs to be preserved."

But it's more than just numbers.

"With the Internet, iPods, we're increasingly becoming disconnected from each other," Israel noted. "Sports, and racing, help reconnect people.

"You stand in line at a mutuel window and one guy could be an investment banker, the next guy a cardiologist, the third person a plumber, a retiree, and so on," he went on. "And they're all trying to do the same thing, and having a conversation. What one bets on actually affects what another might bet, or could win.

"In the end, racing establishes for its participants, its fans, a sense of community," Israel concluded. "That's why I think it's important to preserve the experience at the racetrack, and encourage people to participate."