11/03/2009 12:00AM

New steeplechase head hit by political punch


TUCSON, Ariz. - Lou Raffetto stopped by in Tucson the other day, to share his wisdom and his winning ways with a few of Doug Reed's classes at the University of Arizona Race Track Industry program.

The kids had an opportunity to hear a widely traveled wise man, a veteran of the Thoroughbred racing wars both as a horseman and track manager and operator, and to learn a bit about personality.

Raffetto, from the day he graduated from Georgetown 37 years ago and started training horses to his present role as head of the National Steeplechase Association, has been one of the most popular figures in American racing.

During those years, after learning racing's ropes as racing secretary at Laurel and assistant general manager at Monmouth, he ran Massachusetts racing as executive vice president at Suffolk Downs.

Two years ago this month, after seven hugely popular years running the Maryland Jockey Club as chief operating officer and then president, Lou involuntarily joined the vast and ever-growing alumni association of Frank Stronach's Magna Entertainment. The latest graduate, just last week, was Bill Murphy at Gulfstream Park.

Raffetto's departure from Maryland created one of the strongest protests I can recall in racing. It reached the very top, and set the scene for the decline and ultimate demise of Magna there. John Franzone, chairman of Maryland's racing commission, said as much at the time when he told racing writer John Scheinman, "I think they're toast. I don't think there is any way anyone on the state lottery commission can say we should give slots to Magna." And they didn't.

A furious Franzone went even farther at the time. He told Scheinman that he had called Frank Stronach and urged him to change his mind, saying, "Frank, this is without a doubt the dumbest decision you will ever make, and you guys have made a lot of dumb moves. Everybody likes Lou. Lou is liked down in Annapolis . . . . We've got an excellent racing program and the horsemen love him."

Alan Foreman, one of the best racing attorneys in Maryland and nationally, representing Maryland's Thoroughbred horsemen, joined the protests at the time, saying Raffetto's firing was "the biggest mistake involving Maryland racing that I've seen in the industry here"

When Lou took the steeplechase job, he did so with the idea he could bring order and progressive change to that divided fraternity. He always was an idea man, and he got one that he felt could spread the wings of the jumpers internationally and help make it more of a mainstream sport.

He decided on expanding a major racing event at Far Hills in New Jersey, the scene of a vast annual gathering of 50,000 or so at one of the prettiest locations and horsiest events in the country.

Raffetto, who brought some immediate television successes to the steeplechasers through his wide contacts with industry executives, planned on sending signals of six hurdle races at Far Hills through a hub at Woodbine in Canada to Great Britain and beyond, to some 7,000 betting shops in England and on the continent.

Lou believed, and still believes, that neither the Interstate Horseracing Act nor New Jersey racing rules preclude such a show.

Frank Zanzuccki, the powerful executive director of the New Jersey racing commission, felt otherwise. He read the same rules as clearly precluding Lou's idea, and he told Raffetto that if he allowed betting on the Far Hills event the commission would take him to court. Lou had waited until the last minute, on the day before the event, to notify Frank of his intentions. It may have been too late for court action, but it wasn't too late for a fax, and Zanzuccki fired one off to all parimutuel regulators in North America. That included the Canadian Pari-Mutuel Agency, and Raffetto's idea went up in a puff of Canadian smoke.

I unintentionally but happily brightened Lou's visit to teach the bright and motivated students in the Race Track Industry program. Entering a popular Tucson restaurant for lunch, I heard Raffetto, walking behind me, say, "Hey Bill, how's it going?" Surprised, I turned to see who Lou could possibly know in Tucson. There were Lou and Bob Baffert's brother Bill, enjoying a brief reunion.

The guy has friends everywhere. Except in Trenton.