06/21/2007 12:00AM

Several battles in a lifetime


INGLEWOOD, Calif. - At the public unveiling of Del Mar's new synthetic surface in late April, Ed Friendly strolled onto the spongy Polytrack surface and announced to bystanders that "five minutes on this stuff and my back feels better already."

At the time, Friendly was in a rough battle with the cancer that had put the brakes on what had been a relatively active life for an old rodeo rider in his mid-80s. Any physical relief was welcome, even in semi-jest, but Friendly knew there was a chance he might not be around to see the unveiling of the Polytrack surface when Del Mar opened in July.

Friendly's death last Sunday, at the age of 85, triggered a multi-layered series of encomiums that primarily focused upon his career as a television producer of such popular shows as "Little House on the Prairie" and "Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In."

"Little House" is still a staple on the cable network TV Land, giving fans of Merlin Olsen's acting and Michael Landon's hair a daily fix, while "Laugh-In," though dated in its flower-child style, gives off the same vibes of alternative social and political commentary provided these days by Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert. Go ahead, tell me Dick Cheney wouldn't die for the chance to appear on some modern-day version of "Laugh-In" and deliver Richard Nixon's famous "Sock it to me" line.

After extolling Friendly's television credits, the story moves smoothly to his Thoroughbred racehorses, which included the fine sprinter Gray Slewpy and the Del Mar Debutante winner Vivid Angel, among others. Friendly never hit a Triple Crown or a Breeders' Cup home run, but he did maintain a vigorous stable for nearly 30 years, primarily with his first wife, Natalie. Together, they considered the racing world their second home.

It was an accommodating home, full of larger-than-life characters like Friendly, who survived three years of World War II combat in the South Pacific and half a century in the trenches of network TV, going head to head with cutthroat money men. At one point, however, Friendly took a look around the racing scene in California and decided the furniture had to be rearranged.

Obituaries correctly give Friendly credit as a founder of the Thoroughbred Owners of California - the TOC - which made its debut as the legislatively mandated representative of California owners in 1993. Of course, it wasn't as simple as that.

Led by Friendly, a group of impassioned owners had to struggle mightily to wrest official representation from the California division of the National Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association, which had evolved through the decades from an owner-driven force into an organization led primarily by trainers. Friendly and his fellow revanchists were convinced that their interests were not being served by the HBPA, and that too much was at stake to settle for the status quo.

It is only mildly ironic that the two main issues upon which the battle raged were Friday-night racing and the construction of a card club-style casino, both proposed by Hollywood Park and opposed by the horsemen's association. Both eventually became moot points as the racing world evolved, but then, from little acorns do great revolutions grow.

Friendly, with time on his hands and energy to burn, was relentless in his attack. He systematically discredited the HBPA hierarchy, maintaining that they did not speak for the vast numbers of owners they supposedly represented. It was Friendly's stance that trainers were the employees of owners, and that their relative influence should reflect this philosophy. He wooed racing commissioners and legislators to his cause. He waged a ferocious election campaign to gain temporary control of the HBPA, and then scuttled the organization, replacing it with the owner-dominated TOC.

When the dust cleared, the legislature gave the owners' group two-thirds of the state funds previously funneled to the HBPA and granted the TOC the power of purse negotiations with racetrack managements. Trainers, initially banned from the TOC, were basically roadkill. Their budget for a resurrected organization was cut by two-thirds, and their purview was reduced to an advisory role on backstretch conditions, medication rules, and racing surface safety. There was no longer a budget to lobby for legislative issues - the TOC now held those reins.

It was a great personal victory for Friendly. But, like so many revolutionaries - Guevara and Trotsky come to mind - Friendly was more effective on a battleground than in a boardroom. His confrontational style of governing was eventually replaced by TOC leaders with more diplomatic skills, such as Mace Siegel, Ron Charles, and the late Bob Lewis.

"No question, there was a good side and, well, another side to Ed," conceded Charles, who served a term as TOC president before taking on the title of Santa Anita Park president three years ago.

"In my experience, there hasn't been another owner as influential in trying to improve the rights of fellow owners," Charles went on. "He felt, and I think rightly so, that the people paying the bills didn't have a lot of input into how the game was run. Ed Friendly could be the funniest, most charming guy in the world. But if Ed wasn't fighting for something, he was looking for a fight."