06/29/2011 1:42PM

New California owners honcho has work cut out


The late Steve Allen, talk show host and all-around entertaining smart aleck, loved to toy with the literal absurdities of the English language. One of his favorites:

"My next guest is a man who needs no introduction . . . so here he is."

Lou Raffetto qualifies, but for those in the horse biz who have spent the last quarter-century picking hooves in a darkened stall, he's the guy who lured Cigar to tiny Suffolk Downs not once but twice, labored mightily to resurrect the dignity of the Maryland circuit, and came this close to bringing steeplechasing's biggest day into the parimutuel world of the 21st century.

The fact that Suffolk survives only as a backwater outpost, Maryland is hanging on by its Preakness, and steeplechasing in the United States is still nothing more than a colorful oddity should not be held against Raffetto. After all, one man in a suit facing the forces arrayed against the game can't make much more than the occasional difference.

Yet sometimes a single individual can shake things up. Why else would there have been such a big deal made recently over the shifting chairs in various executive suites?

Greg Avioli left his post as the high-profile face of the Breeders' Cup to become head of Frank Stronach's nationwide racetrack holdings, which includes key properties in California, Florida, and Maryland. This left a juicy void that was filled by Craig Fravel, the veteran Del Mar executive who enjoyed the title of track president for exactly one season before leaving his Pacific paradise to fill Avioli's shoes with the Breeders' Cup in Lexington, Ky.

There also was the announcement from Gulfstream Park earlier this month that Steve Calabro was out as president and general manager after a year in the job. This news, however, was treated with considerably less fanfare, since Gulfstream is a Frank Stronach track, and top executives at Stronach's Magna tracks usually have had the shelf life of a store-bought raspberry.

What struck me as odd though was the line from the Gulfstream press release that explained Calabro resigned "to pursue other interests and spend more time with Lou Raffetto's family, who are located in New Jersey."

Wait, that's wrong. Lou Raffetto does have a home on the Jersey Shore, but Calabro will be returning to his -- Calabro's -- Garden State home to be with his family, while Raffetto trades coasts to set up shop as president of the Thoroughbred Owners of California beginning with the next stop on the tour, which is Del Mar, where Fravel's old parking place has just opened up.

Both Fravel and Avioli are attorneys by original trade, which will serve them well in positions that will require them not only to hold but encourage opposing ideas and still be able to function. Raffetto owns up to studying for the law at Georgetown way back when, but then "chose the more ethical route" -- going for the easy laugh line -- and headed for the racetrack.

Since then Raffetto has been a Teamster, a trainer, and held just about every frontside job in the books. Yes, he worked for Frank Stronach (who hasn't?), a gig that ended badly in Maryland three years ago when the broadly popular Raffetto was shown the door.

There is no irony in the fact that, as Thoroughbred Owners of California's head man, Raffetto will need to deal with Stronach and his West Coast management teams at Santa Anita and Golden Gate Fields. He saw that coming from the minute he began talking with the TOC's chairman, Jack Owens, and board member Mike Pegram.

"This has got nothing to do with personalities," Raffetto said. "I don't plan on going to dinner with Frank. Anyway, I'm an advocate for Santa Anita running as many dates as they can. That's what's right for racing, not right for Frank necessarily."

Besides, the last thing Raffetto would do is run away from his own history.

"I'm not the typical executive to be heading up a group like the TOC," Raffetto said. "I know sometimes people don't like to hear the truth, but that's the way I am. I've worn a lot of hats, and I like to think that's a huge plus. Working for one group or another is certainly not going to change my personality or my way of working with people. I think my perspective is one that can look at the various sides and make an honest evaluation."

It is Raffetto's history, his depth of experience with all facets of the racing business, that should serve him well with a TOC that finds itself paying the price for a series of positions that have severely compromised its standing as the official representative of the state's ownership class. Over the past six years or so the TOC has been for and then against synthetic tracks, failed in an attempt to purchase Santa Anita, hung an embattled Oak Tree Racing Association out to dry, been baffled by the plague of shrinking fields, and displayed a tone-deaf public relations ear during its efforts to increase purses by charging customers more to bet. Little wonder there is a campaign being mounted by a group of disenchanted horsemen challenging the official certification of TOC.

It is dead wrong, though, to isolate the TOC as the only borderline dysfunctional organization in California. It's got lots of company. If nothing else, while serving his new masters in the TOC, perhaps Raffetto can somehow position himself as the empowered outsider with the big, clear view, identifying and driving home the inconvenient truths that have painted what was once a healthy racing environment into a fearful corner.

"I'm a positive person, and the negativity right now in California is beyond belief," Raffetto said. "Changing attitudes of the people who work in the sport is going to have to be the first step toward changing the entire program for the better."