03/24/2006 1:00AM

NTRA makes a crafty choice


ARCADIA, Calif. - This reporter is going to disappear from these pages for a week. You in the back - thanks for caring. But things are piling up, and at the very least it's time to fertilize the back forty, flush the rain gutters, and de-tick the hound.

Hopefully, the game won't do anything rash over the next few days. Hate to miss the excitement. But there would be no hard feelings if a few things were finished up while I'm gone, including uniform medication and drug testing, uniform licensing, universal workers' comp for jockeys, one-stop Internet and TV shopping for all racetrack betting, and an air-tight anti-slaughter law when it comes to horses living, and dying, in America.

The question persists. Who do we see about making these dreams come true? Wouldn't it be handy if there was a guy with a pipeline to racing's power brokers living and working right down the road? The kind of guy who picks up his own phone, pumps his own gas, and shoots about as straight as anyone can shoot in the convoluted world of today's racing politics.

How about that - all of a sudden there is. The election of Del Mar's executive vice president Craig Fravel as the new chairman of the board of directors of the National Thoroughbred Racing Association sounds like a refreshing step in the right direction. Fravel, a native of Baltimore who joined the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club management team in 1990, succeeds D.G. Van Clief Jr. as NTRA board chairman, which reduces Van Clief's workload to just the other dozen jobs he holds down to make ends meet, including NTRA CEO, NTRA commissioner, and chairman of the Breeders' Cup.

Fravel, 48, is among a diverse group of 14 NTRA directors - or at least as diverse as 14 white males can be. His fellow directors are Robert Clay, Tom Meeker, Charles Hayward, Ogden Mills Phipps, G. Watts Humphrey, Alan Landsburg, Alan Foreman, John Roark, Nick Nicholson, Robert Green, Jim McAlpine, Robert Elliston, and William Heiligbrodt.

"The suggestion was made that we have a non-executive chairman for both the NTRA board and the Breeders' Cup board," Fravel said this week from his Del Mar office. "Everybody took one step back and there I was."

Ah, so he "volunteered." But then, how was the position described?

"As unpaid and thankless," he replied.

No sweat there. Even during his days as a corporate lawyer, Fravel did his share of pro bono work. He came to Del Mar from the San Diego law firm of Luce, Forward, Hamilton & Scripps, which, by no coincidence, enjoyed the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club as one of its major clients. Fravel was heavily involved in the legal aspects of Del Mar's 1990 lease renewal with the state of California, which actually owns the racetrack property.

Fravel was a good fit with a Del Mar management team refreshingly free of corporate trappings. His executive VP title made him the only VP of any kind for several years (now there are four), while his mandate, as described by Del Mar president Joe Harper, was "to do everything he didn't want to do," according to Fravel. This has more recently included representing Del Mar on a national level in places like the NTRA boardroom.

Del Mar's success with its tightly packaged 43-day summer meet can be both an inspiration and an anomaly. Few tracks have comparable demographics or can be described, in Fravel's words, as "an event in a vacation resort area."

During what has come to be known as the Fravel Era at Del Mar - at least in the Fravel household - the daily average mutuel handle from all sources has nearly doubled - from just shy of $7.9 million to $14.1 million in 2005, while ontrack attendance has roller-coastered from an average of 16,506 in 1990, to a sad 14,252 in 2000, then back to 17,007 in a banner 2005.

Of course, Del Mar management has dealt for years with the attitude that all they need to do to have a big meet is open the doors and cue the ocean breeze. Fravel sighs. He has heard it all before.

"My experience has been that no matter how successful you are at something - and I'm not taking any credit for anything - everybody always thinks it's easy, and they could do it better," Fravel said. "Especially in this business."

As chairman of the NTRA board, Fravel will have a chance to apply some of Del Mar's lessons on a national scale. Do not, however, look for dramatic pronouncements or radical overnight changes. Neither fits Fravel's quietly persuasive, self-deprecating style.

"Mainly, right now we're looking at the overall organization, to make sure we're operating most efficiently and effectively," Fravel said of the NTRA. "The goal is to get tracks signed up for long-term membership commitments so we don't have management time spent on renewing memberships, as opposed to accomplishing things for the industry."

The role of chairman, as Fravel sees it, hardly comes with a big stick.

"More like one of those swimming pool tubes - the kind you can hit someone with and not possibly make any impact," Fravel said. "I would think any influence I might have would come just by making intelligent suggestions, not by dint of position. But I'm actually kind of hopeful that there will be some good things happening in racing over the next few years."