08/23/2017 2:26PM

Hovdey: Brad McKinzie was sun and moon for many


It has been a week for memorable gatherings, beginning Monday morning with the total solar eclipse that captivated awestruck observers in a wide swath of the continental United States

Thoroughbred racing has its own way of commemorating such an event. Within the last few days, somebody snapped up the name Path of Totality on the Jockey Club registry, reserving it for some unsuspecting foal of the future. Moon Shadow is already in use, although Umbra – Latin for “shadow” – remains available as of this writing, along with Baily’s Beads, the effect caused by light from the eclipsed sun peeking past the irregular edges of the moon’s surface.

That morning on Steve Byk’s radio show, after chewing over the results of last Saturday’s Pacific Classic with Bob Baffert, the conversation landed on the recent death of Baffert’s friend Brad McKinzie, whose memorial service was schedule for noon that day.

“He was like the fourth Baffert brother,” Baffert said. “And Mom always said she liked him best.”

Baffert was wise-cracking though the tears. The loss of McKinzie was as personal as it gets. At the same time, the racing business suffered a staggering blow. Racetrack executives like McKinzie come along only once in a blue moon, and at 62 he still had much to contribute.

McKinzie made the common touch cool. He roamed the California racing landscape at will, spreading good vibes and better ideas. He knew everybody, what made them laugh, and what made them think. From his earliest imprint as publisher/owner of QuarterWeek magazine to his more recent leadership in workers’ compensation insurance reform, his influence was quietly, steadily pervasive.

To suggest that McKinzie helped save Thoroughbred racing in Southern California in the wake of Hollywood Park’s closure is not an exaggeration. Faced with the challenge of hundreds of suddenly homeless horses, along with a gaping hole in the racing calendar, McKinzie convinced Dr. Ed Allred that his Los Alamitos Race Course, the western capital of Quarter Horse racing, could be the key.

“Isn’t it amazing what you can do with an open-ended budget,” McKinzie said, adding his trademark giggle, while touring the Los Alamitos conversion from five-eighths to a one-mile track.

Allred was firmly behind McKinzie’s vision, which also included the steady expansion of the stable area and the presentation of brief, stopgap meets that ended up attracting horses like Shared Belief, Dortmund, Finest City, Abel Tasman, and California Chrome.

“Guys like me who’ve been doing this long enough to remember what attendance used to be like feel a little weird when we get congratulated on a crowd of almost 6,000, but that’s the game today,” McKinzie said at the end of that first Los Alamitos Thoroughbred opening day in July of 2014.

“On a day like this, the numbers matter, sure,” McKinzie added. “But here’s what I want to know: Did you have a good time? And will you come back?”

They came some 400 strong to celebrate McKinzie’s life at St. Hedwig Catholic Church in Los Alamitos Monday afternoon to hear “Danny Boy,” “Ave Maria,” and “Amazing Grace,” along with a heartfelt eulogy from Rick Baedeker, executive secretary of the California Horse Racing Board.

“Brad was my best friend,” Baedeker said. “But then a lot of people could say the same thing.”

The service ended with a sprinkling of McKinzie’s ashes mixed with incense, the white smoke rising to the sanctuary’s rafters, a perfect bookend to Baffert’s message from that morning: “When you look at the eclipse, think of Brad.”

One year ago, as McKinzie stepped to the microphone at the Edwin J. Gregson Foundation dinner honoring Bob Baffert, the crowd murmured in expectation of a grand roasting. Even Bob braced himself.

McKinzie delivered the laughs, to be sure, but he also wove a tale of deep affection and shared experience that only could have come from a brotherhood that went beyond the common bond of their professional lives. Everyone should have such a friend.

On Tuesday night, the Gregson Foundation dinner at the Fairmont Del Mar Grand turned the spotlight on training legends Jerry Hollendorfer and Art Sherman, whose careers have been inextricably linked through their shared Northern California roots to their handling of superstars Songbird and California Chrome.

Among the speakers, it was owner, breeder, and CHRB commissioner George Kirkorian who told the best tale, stating that he’d never heard Sherman say a bad thing about anyone.

“I take that back,” Kirkorian said. “There was one guy who kept coming up to Art and calling him Jerry.”

But just as McKinzie stole the show last year with his Baffert tribute, the evening’s most memorable message was delivered by Brianne O’Donoghue, daughter of John O’Donoghue, longtime assistant to Hall of Famer Neil Drysdale.

As a recipient of Gregson Foundation grants, Brianne O’Donoghue spoke for her fellow scholarship winners grateful for the financial assistance. Then again, the feeling was mutual, since O’Donoghue has more than held up her end of the bargain as a graduate of Wellesley College and a Madeleine Albright Scholar who has worked in reconciliation and education projects in Rwanda and Peru, and is now developing a wellness program at an inner-city charter school in Los Angeles.

“Thank you for investing in us,” O’Donoghue said to a standing ovation.

“I think we got our money’s worth,” noted dinner emcee Scotty McClellan.

It was a line Brad McKinzie would have loved.