03/04/2004 1:00AM

Music mogul tackles new challenge


ARCADIA, Calif. - The position of commissioner on the California Horse Racing Board is one of solemn responsibility, fraught with consequence and charged with the integrity, health, and well-being of a multi-billion dollar industry affecting thousands of people.

Jerry Moss - horse owner, horse breeder, and music company executive - is the latest in a long line of California business leaders who have made the leap from the playing field to racing board commissioner. No one envies him the challenge, but someone's got to do it, and Moss has stepped up to the plate. Now, only one question remains:

Can a man who once recorded a tune by the name of "Hooray for the Big Slow Train" as half of a singing duo called the Diddley Oohs be trusted with the job?

That's what Moss was doing 43 years ago, when he teamed with his new pal, Herb Alpert, for an ill-advised foray into the pop recording world. It wasn't long, though, before it became apparent their talents lay elsewhere - Moss on the business side and Alpert with his horn. From their collaboration, A&M Records was born, a small label that hit the scene big in August of 1962 with the release of "The Lonely Bull."

Within a few years, on the strength of Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass, A&M was selling records by the hundreds of thousands. At one point in 1965, the TJB had no less than five albums on the Billboard Top 20.

Moss led the label into the rock market by signing such recording talent as Joe Cocker, Cat Stevens, and Humble Pie. Soon, the stable of A&M talent became the envy of older, more established recording companies. Operating out of their very independent A&M studios in Hollywood, located in the complex originally built by Charlie Chaplin, Moss and Alpert continued to thrive through the 1970's and the 1980's with such chart stalwarts as The Carpenters, Supertramp, The Police, Styx, Oingo Boingo, Amy Grant, UB40, Joe Jackson, and Janet Jackson (no relation).

All of which puts Moss in a very different category, as prominent horse owners go. In most cases, noted patrons of the game earn their fortunes by mastering the mundane - public storage units, lumber mills, fast food chains, container cargo - hardly the stuff of glitter and glam.

Moss, on the other hand, is probably the only commissioner in the history of the CHRB who attended the original Woodstock Festival . . . as a business trip. The fact that Thoroughbreds continue to captivate his attention is a credit to the enduring fascination of the game, given the fact that Moss could just as easily be hanging out with Sting.

Together with his wife, Ann, the Moss stable has taken down many of the game's great prizes. They have won a Kentucky Oaks (with Sardula), a Santa Anita Handicap (with Ruhlmann), the Oaklawn Handicap and the Californian (with Kudos), the Oak Leaf (with Zoonaqua), the Sorority (with Delicate Vine), the Del Mar Debutante (Sardula), and the Starlet Stakes (Sardula again).

The Mosses breed their own, buy with discrimination, and keep their horses with a variety of California trainers, including John Shirreffs, Richard Mandella, Mel Stute, and John Sadler. Saturday at Santa Anita, they hope to be represented by their promising colt Spellbinder in the San Rafael Stakes, a key prep for more significant 3-year-old events to come.

A&M Records was sold in 1990, followed by the sale of its Rondor Music publishing company in 2000. That left Moss with their Almo Sounds label, as well as enough peripheral interests to keep anyone busy. But now Moss, 68, has added the role of racing commissioner.

"Every once in a while you've got to get off the sidelines, if you have the opportunity to help," Moss said earlier this week from his L.A. office. "Especially when it's a game you love so much. You try to do what you can."

Moss has the distinction of being the first racing commissioner appointed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. Their association traces to a common involvement with the Special Olympics.

"It's not a political connection," Moss said. "Through the Special Olympics, I got to know various members of his family, and they have been aware of my great love for horse racing. When this opportunity came up, I said okay."

Moss migrated to California from his native New York in 1960 and dove immediately into the music promotion business. As an independent entrepreneur, he is accustomed to running the show, answering primarily to his own instincts. He admits that the collaboration of a seven-commissioner board will be a new experience.

"I know I have a lot of reading to do, and studying what is before the board," Moss said. "But at least I do know something about exploitation and promotion, and our game is sadly lacking in that area. I think we could be doing a lot more toward encouraging people to come to the racetrack, and telling the story about what a great place it is.

"Once I get into the meeting phase, and learn what's been tried in the past and what has been successful, maybe I'll be a little more tempered in this approach," he added. "But right now I just can't understand why there's not more television, and why we don't have larger amounts of people witness these great events."

Even the best ideas can get bogged down in the procedures of regulatory boards, though. Moss knows his considerable patience could be tested.

"I'm more of a proactive person," he said. "I like to resolve things. And when they take too long to resolve, somebody's hurting, somebody's waiting for something, or lacking something, or becoming disillusioned.

"Basically, I hope I'll be able to speak for owners and breeders," Moss went on. "They have a lot at stake. It's sad, seeing as we have in the last few days that purses are going down at Santa Anita and Hollywood, while they're going up at Del Mar. There's got to be something we can do about this. I hate to think about it, but with those trends there's becoming less and less of a reason to race your horses out here.

"I know it's been said a lot, but somewhere along the way racing has to speak and act as one big united group instead of smaller groups with self-interests," he added. "In my own business there were incidences of both, and when the industry did get together it was a gigantic success for everybody."

Such as?

"Configurations of tape is an example," Moss said. "At one point there was two-track and four-track and eight track and cassette. The recording industry was wobbling along, supporting all these ideas. Then, when Sony and Phillips got together to make the CD - and that was the only configuration, without reservation - it was just an incredible success story.

"It has to happen in every business," Moss concluded. "People have to compromise, maybe take a little bit less here, a little bit more there. But at least everyone is united, with just the one product to promote. And when that happens, that product becomes mighty."