07/23/2007 11:00PM

Shagan was a man ahead of his time


TUCSON, Ariz. - When death took Michael Shagan on Monday morning at the age of 66, it stilled one of the most articulate and knowledgeable voices in American racing. He was the prime architect of the Interstate Horse Racing Act of 1978, the man who inspired it, drafted it, and wrote most of its provisions.

Depending on when you first met him, your remembrance of Mike would differ.

If you knew him in 1960, your recollection would be of the flaming young liberal who founded the "Kennedy for President" booth at Loeb Student Center at New York University. That is when a pretty young coed named Rena met him, became secretary of the organization (Mike was president), and arranged for John F. Kennedy to address the NYU student body from the rooftop of the Loeb Center. Mike was fascinated by Rena, a former modern dancer, and married her in 1964. Thirty-four years later, their daughter Jillian graduated from NYU law school, as her father had in 1967. His son, Ethan, is an associate professor of history at Northwestern University.

Mike practiced law for a while, and decided that entertainment, his wife's professional field, was interesting. His particular specialty was horse racing, and when the New York City Off-Track Bettting Corp. got underway in 1971, Mike began a 16-year stint as a lawyer and leader of OTB.

In 1977, when serious work began in Washington on the Interstate Horse Racing Act - the law that served as the regulatory framework for simulcasting - he was the dominant voice at the sessions and joined the late Rich Rolapp of the American Horse Council and other racing leaders in putting the bill together.

After he left OTB, Mike joined Ladbroke Racing Corp., and he guided the British bookmaking firm in its American operation as its vice president of business development.

If you knew him from those and later years, he was the man who spoke knowingly, intelligently, and brilliantly on every issue facing racing as it reached its crisis years. He spoke mostly from podiums, but when he was not a formal invited speaker, he spoke from the floor, rising to lend his knowledge on the thorny problems that confused, and still confuse, many in the industry: off-track betting, simulcasting, rebates, and taxation.

While he became known throughout the sport for those appearances, he and Rena were supporting other causes unknown to most in racing.

She formed her own company, Rena Shagan Associates, and for 30 years she has been an internationally known agent and representative for dance, theater, and musical artists worldwide. I saw her here in Tucson a decade or so ago, where she brought a fierce-looking group from the other side of the world for a performance of native music I never heard before or since.

When the Helen and Martin Kimmel Center for University Life was built at NYU, Mike and Rena thought it appropriate, since NYU had provided the beginning of their life together and represented their dedication to the performing arts, to provide a gift to the center. The box office in the Skirball Center for Performing Arts was named in their honor.

Even after a stroke and cancer struck him down, Mike showed up at racing conferences across the land. A walker did not slow his speech or his thoughts, and he rose, as usual, to explain, criticize, or correct points made from the rostrum or the floor. When he spoke, all listened, recognizing the wisdom and vast knowledge of the speaker.

During the formative and frequently rancorous meetings that led to the formulation of the Interstate Horse Racing Act, Shagan was representing New York OTB's interest. I was there, and he did it cogently and convincingly. It was clear, then and even more in retrospect, that he realized exactly where racing was headed.

This was years before simulcasting, but not years before Shagan realized that it was coming. The horse racing act is a work of compromise and give-and-take, as is most legislation, but it carried, and still carries, the strong imprint that Shagan placed upon it.

The fact that it governs relationships between horsemen and racetrack management today, 29 years after its passage by the U.S. Congress, and that it is the platform on which horse racing's exemption from the federal Internet gambling ban last year was based, is perhaps the most eloquent eulogy that can be delivered for Mike Shagan.

He was a man before his time, a mover and shaker in American racing. His participation has been missed in recent years because of his illness, but his contributions remain bright and shining, and his foresight and prescience about where racing was headed made him a clairvoyant in a game in which there are few.