07/29/2010 8:16PM

New chairman Zetcher is anything but bored


Late on a Friday afternoon, as the sun did its thing with the low coastal light, Arnold and Ellen Zetcher posed beside an iron jockey perched atop a flower bed in the center of the Del Mar walking ring.

In what has become a local tradition, the top half of the statue was decorated in the bright racing colors worn by Zetcher runners, in this case representing Richard’s Kid, upset winner of the 2009 Pacific Classic. For Zetcher, the former chairman of Talbot’s clothing, it was a fashion moment to remember.

“I have to admit,” he said, “the first time I walked into the paddock at this meet and saw our colors displayed like that, I went a little weak in the knees.”

That would be the racing romantic in Zetcher, who gets chills in winning even the most insignificant event. On the flipside, the pragmatic Zetcher did not even flinch when Dubai’s Prince Rashid al Maktoum offered him a silly amount of money to buy Richard’s Kid last winter, resulting in an eight-month turnaround from purchase to jackpot to resale that should be textbook for anyone playing the game. Richard’s Kid was scheduled to run this week at Del Mar, either in the Cougar II Handicap or the San Diego Handicap.

“We had a lot of fun with hm, and we still root for him,” Zetcher said. “But we don’t second-guess our decision. It was the right one to make.”

Zetcher used some of his Richard’s Kid money to buy the 4-year-old Canadian gelding El Brujo, a son of Candy Ride, who snagged a decent headline last year in winning the Kentucky Cup Sprint. El Brujo (“the sorcerer”) will be making his first start for Zetcher and trainer Bob Baffert in the $200,000 Bing Crosby Stakes on Sunday at Del Mar, going 6 furlongs.

Zetcher and Baffert also have E Z’s Gentleman in the Crosby, and there is no local sprinter in better form. The son of Yankee Gentlemen won a race on the Kentucky Derby undercard at Churchill Downs, then returned home to finish a close second to Cost of Freedom in the Los Angeles Handicap before taking the seven-furlong Triple Bend. Both the Crosby and the Triple Bend are Grade 1 events.

“We were thinking of waiting until the Pat O’Brien, which is still a month away,” Zetcher said. “But Bob said E Z’s Gentleman is ‘in a zone’ right now – that’s Bob’s language – and when they’re in a zone you let them do what they want to do. But with Cost of Freedom in there, it’s not going to be an easy race. Wait, I do hope it’s an ‘EZ’ race.”

There will be a moment of silence while Zetcher’s pun is forgiven. E Z’s Gentleman is, obviously, named for Zetcher, as long as we can be certain that the gentleman to which Ellen Zetcher refers is her husband (Ellen: “Yes, it is.”)

E Z’s Gentleman began his racing life as a Del Mar 2-year-old trained by Ron McAnally, and broke his maiden defeating none other than Colonel John. But while the Colonel went on to win the Santa Anita Derby and the Travers, E Z’s Gentleman languished on the sidelines, recovering from one injury and then another.

All ancient history, now. This season, at age five, E Z’s Gentleman has run once a month, with three wins, a second and two close thirds.

“When he came back after his last injury, he really started to develop,” Zetcher said. “His last several races have been amazing, including that 108 Beyer in the Triple Bend.”

Even without Richard’s Kid in the barn, it has been a pretty good year for the Zetchers. The highlight came last March, when their Zardana, trained by John Shirreffs, upset Rachel Alexandra in the New Orleans Ladies. Earlier in the year, Gaby’s Golden Gal took the Santa Monica for Baffert at Santa Anita, while the turf filly Andina has shown promise for trainer Ben Cecil.

Along with a batch of 2-year-olds on the way, that should be enough to keep anyone busy, and Zetcher was enjoying his retirement from Talbot’s just fine. Then he went and accepted a position on the board of directors of the Thoroughbred Owners of California in February of 2009, and now he has ascended to chairman of the board. He held his first board meeting last week. What could he possibly have been thinking?

“Clearly, I wasn’t looking for something else to do,” Zetcher said. “I just believe so strongly in the industry, and in California racing. My god, this should be the greatest racing in the world. I’m convinced there are things that can take place that will bring it back to where it belongs.

“I respect and admire all the things TOC has been doing in the recent past, but I think we’ve got to move to a new place,” Zetcher noted. “I think the TOC became more of a maintenance organization, and what we have to do now is become more innovative, and strategic.”

Zetcher ticked off a list of priorities that, he conceded, would come as a surprise to no one, led by the ownership of California racetracks, declining purses, long-term plans for training facilities, the structure of advanced deposit wagering, and the impact of offshore accounts.

“You can literally find yourself thinking about it every waking moment, there are so many issues to worry about,” Zetcher said. “But I almost think the industry is looking for a group to come to the forefront and play a leadership role in addressing the important things out there. I think TOC has the opportunity to do that, and to make a real difference.”