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New chairman anything but bored
ARCADIA, Calif. - The job description can be considered either a magnificent challenge or a fantastic folly.
To fulfill the role of chairman of the California Horse Racing Board, a person must direct a seven-person board that oversees matters such as supervising race meetings, rewriting and enforcing rules, designating racing days, and looking out for the betting public.
The chairman gets to listen to everyone - sensible or not - about everything that people associated with the industry can complain about. The salary? The chairman gets the same $100 as the other commissioners for attending a meeting and is compensated for travel.
Last week, Los Angeles businessman Keith Brackpool volunteered for the gig three months after he was appointed to the board by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Brackpool was elected chairman of the racing board at its monthly meeting and will preside over his first meeting in February. He will be the racing board's third chairman in 14 months, preceded by Richard Shapiro, who abruptly resigned in December 2008, and John Harris, a long-serving commissioner who did not seek reelection last week.
Brackpool says he knows what he faces.
"I wouldn't have done it unless I wanted to do it," Brackpool said. "I'm in a favorable position when I've got time and resources and it doesn't interfere with other things in my life. The skill sets that are needed are the skill sets that I bring to the table."
Unlike Shapiro, whose family has a decades-long involvement in racing, or Harris, a prominent owner-breeder, Brackpool, 52, is not well known in racing. Los Angeles politics is a different matter.
Brackpool is closely allied with Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, having helped to direct his election campaign. Monday at the Eclipse Awards in Beverly Hills, Brackpool sat next to Villaraigosa.
As chairman and chief executive officer of the Los Angeles-based Cadiz Inc., Brackpool is no stranger to controversy. Cadiz is a land and water company, and water rights issue are a sensitive subject in the drought-stricken West. Add the Villaraigosa connection, and there is further ammunition for critics.
"What they say that doesn't kill you makes you stronger," Brackpool said. "We have people with strong opinions on a sensitive subject, and water is a sensitive project."
A single father of two children, Brackpool, a London native who emigrated to the United States in 1983, owns three Thoroughbreds trained by Carla Gaines. He owned Doppio, a stakes-caliber sprinter. In the early 1990s, he owned Elbio, a multiple English group stakes winner who finished fifth behind Thirty Slews in the 1992 Breeders' Cup Sprint at Gulfstream Park.
Brackpool will chair the racing board at a time when the sport is struggling with lower purses in a poor economy, a worrisome drop in the horse inventory, and the possibility that its biggest track, Santa Anita, will abandon its synthetic track for a dirt surface later this year.
They are the same issues Harris faced in his year as chairman. Harris describes the job as a "love-hate relationship" in which a person can be heavily involved in his favorite sport but can't always effect change.
"You hate to dampen enthusiasm," Harris said. "In a job like this, you can get a little burned out. Keith will have a fresh approach and embrace the relationships.
"He's very articulate, and he really understands the art of the game in terms of getting things done and getting people together," Harris said. "He's very talented in working with different problems."
Tackling racing challenges will be Brackpool's first objective. At last week's board meeting, before he was voted chairman, Brackpool was a vocal challenger to a proposal by Los Alamitos to increase takeout by 2 percent to help satellite locations that are suffering business declines. The track compromised by allowing the increase to lapse in early September. Brackpool was the only commissioner to vote against the plan.
"It's a slippery slope," he said of raising takeout. "I don't like it."
Earlier this week, he said he was receptive to a possible change from a synthetic track to a dirt track at Santa Anita.
Under Shapiro's leadership, the racing board mandated in 2006 that Thoroughbred tracks install synthetic surfaces, but repeated drainage problems at Santa Anita have led to a call to pull synthetic surfaces out.
"I'd be stating the obvious that it hasn't turned out to be the panacea hoped for," Brackpool said. "I think I would have been in the camp of being for them when they came in.
"I think the board has said they would look upon any individual request to do something different. We've got to be open to those ideas."
Brackpool said he is not fundamentally opposed to changing racing dates or the number of races presented daily. On Thursday, citing a horse shortage, Santa Anita carded a seven-race program, one fewer than normal for a weekday.
"We've got to try everything to make this work and make this successful," he said. "We've got to be flexible and nimble and try things we haven't tried before. I think we've got to put on a great product. It's what California racing is known for.
"The small marketing things of free beers are helpful, but they're not going to turn the tanker around. We need to build purses and fan base. We have to embrace the new technologies, not fight them, and adapt them to our advantage. What my kids can do, what they can do with their hand-helds and computers, are by a factor of 100 what I can do. I think I'm competent."
Gaines, who also trains for Harris, said Brackpool is capable of taking the hits that come with the chairmanship.
"He's basically got the good of racing in California in mind," she said. "He's very dedicated to racing. He's a tremendous fan and tremendous sportsman.
"He's well versed in politics, and he knows it's a job no one wants. He's got an enthusiastic outlook to help the industry. He knows there won't be any thank-yous."
Brackpool's biggest asset may be his political connections. While racing cannot expect to be bailed out by a state government awash in a $21 billion budget deficit, Brackpool said there are ways to impress legislators.
"When horse racing goes to Sacramento, it never goes as a unified front," he said. "It goes there in bits. The tracks are together, the fairs, the trainers. If you're sitting in Sacramento, it's noise. You can't deal with it.
"I'd like to make sure the industry comes together as a whole. It's a state treasure. I'm sure about this. I've had horses for 25 years. I believe there is a real future for this."