11/06/2002 1:00AM

A man worth listening to


INGLEWOOD, Calif. - Lucky Jack Robbins. He just saved two hundred and fifty bucks a year. As the 2002 Honor Guest of the Thoroughbred Club of America, he will be granted a lifetime membership in the organization.

There will be a brief pause now while the reader tries to figure out why this is a big deal. The Thoroughbred Club of America is barely on the national radar, despite the fact that it can claim 1,175 members. Rarely, though, do their initials appear among the scrabble-tile roll call of influential racing organizations. There is the NTRA, TOBA, NYRA, KTOB, TOC, TRA, CDSN, and HBPA (Bill Leggett of Sports Illustrated once referred to them derisively as "alphabet soup"). But the TCA?

The TCA was a child of the Great Depression, born in 1932, and originally limited to a cadre of central Kentucky horsemen. Soon, it grew beyond Kentucky borders. Even women, eventually, were encouraged to join. And now, on Friday night, the TCA is honoring a hardcore Californian.

Although Robbins is a resident of Rancho Santa Fe, some 2,500 miles away, his membership in the TCA includes access to the comfortable clubhouse on the grounds of Keeneland Race Course, the use of its simulcast facilities and private library, and free lunch any Tuesday through Saturday.

Of course, there is no such thing as a free lunch. Robbins must sing for his supper on Friday night, when about 200 TCA members and guests gather for their annual dinner at Keeneland. The Honor Guest is "encouraged to express his views on racing."

This is very much in the spirit of the Gimcrack Speech delivered each year in England, by the owner of the winner of the Gimcrack Stakes. Strong opinions are expected and often delivered, such as the message sent one year by Sheikh Mohammed that he was pulling out of British racing if purses did not improve. They listened that night.

If nothing else, the TCA does provide a no-holds-barred platform from which an influential member of the racing community can preach a personal vision. Formal attire lends weight to the proceedings. But mostly it is up to the Honor Guest to make an impression that lasts longer than the after-dinner mints.

As the president of the Oak Tree Racing Association, former co-chair of the National Task Force on Drug Testing, and a founder of the American Association of Equine Practitioners, Jack Robbins fits right in with the long list of 72 notable powerbrokers and personalities honored by the TCA.

Among the them have been breeders and owners (William Woodward, Robert Kleberg, Edward P. Taylor, Alfred Vanderbilt, Fred Hooper, John Bell), Hall of Fame trainers (Max Hirsch, Preston Burch, Charlie Whittingham, Horatio Luro, Woody Stephens), racetrack executives (John B. Campbell, Carleton Burke, Ted Bassett, Frank E. Kilroe, Howard Battle), racing journalists (Joe Hirsch, Joe Estes, Jim McKay), and even a jockey. The one named Shoemaker.

In October of 1963, John Hay Whitney of Greentree Farm addressed the TCA as its Honor Guest. His speech made enough of an impact that William H.P. Robertson used the entire transcript to conclude his ambitious "History of Thoroughbred Racing in America," published the following year.

Among other things, Whitney held forth on:

Track ownership - "The spirit of racing is in jeopardy wherever and whenever sportsmen lose control. Nearly all of our tracks are now owned, operated and controlled by businessmen, in racing as a business."

Unchecked commercialism - "Uncontrolled, commercialism can be our enemy. Contained, it can be our friend. But only we can contain it. Only we can bring about the return of the horse, and put the horse back in racing."

Gimmick bets - "These certainly increase the parimutuel take, and though they divert attention from the horse, they do the horse no harm - at least directly. The danger is simply that they increase the temptation to treat horse racing as a giant lottery rather than a sport."

Nearly 40 years later, not much has changed. The current racing world is rife with pick six scandals, casino conversions, and the ownership of racetracks by publicly held companies that care little about the bedrock values of the game. Whitney would be sounding the same alarms.

On Friday evening, Robbins probably will describe himself as a "broken down ol' horse" who doesn't really know what all the fuss is about. Expect him to tell a few delightful old racetrack tales in that gravelly voice of his, first-hand tales about Ben and Jimmy Jones, Whittingham and Luro, Majestic Prince and Johnny Londgen.

Then pay close attention as Robbins lowers his voice, smooths out the edges, and begins to slice away at any number of sacred cows. With a history in the trenches, down and dirty with the animals who make the game go, Robbins has a rare and unfiltered perspective.

"I think maybe I'd better tone it down a bit," Robbins suggested last weekend as the Oak Tree meet closed at Santa Anita. "What with the pick-six scandal and everything, I don't want to be piling on the bad news."

Nonsense, doc. Let 'em, have it.