12/17/2008 12:00AM

Shapiro sees need for 'tough love'


Jerry Giesler, America's highest-paid attorney in the 1940s and 1950s, went to bat for Bugsy Siegel and Charlie Chaplin, lawyered Errol Flynn out of two statutory rape charges, represented Marilyn Monroe in her divorce of Joe DiMaggio, and got Lana Turner's daughter Cheryl Crane off light after she murdered the abusive two-bit gangster Johnny Stompanato.

Giesler was also chairman of the three-man California Horse Racing Board.

As chairman, Giesler continued his crusade from his days as head of the state boxing commission to clean up the influence of high-profile gambling rings polluting California sports. On his own dime, Giesler braced a collection of bug boys linked to fixed races and got them to finger Big Mooney, the spider at the center of the web. Later, when a number of trainers and owners were hit with charges of doping horses with caffeine, Giesler came down hard but then backed off with token penalties after the tests themselves were proven to be shaky.

Before his resignation this week, Richard Shapiro was described as a "controversial" chairman of the California Horse Racing Board, proving that it doesn't take much to be branded as controversial these days. Compared to the provocative Giesler - who once wore a woman's wig in court to make a point - Shapiro was nothing more than an outspoken advocate for a handful of progressive positions that stirred the waters of the reluctant racing industry in ways to which it was not accustomed.

On Monday, during the racing board's monthly meeting in Arcadia, you could almost hear Shapiro sigh in weary frustration as the commissioners took up the issue of penalties for failing to report freshly altered geldings. The measure passed - huzzah! - and once again Shapiro couldn't help thinking that yet another chair had been rearranged on the deck of the Titanic.

In the end, Shapiro resigned because he finally recognized that the state racing board is equipped no better than an altered racehorse, at least when it comes to making fundamental changes in the way the industry does business. He came to this conclusion even though the board, during his tenure, ushered in a mandate for synthetic racetracks, banned steroids, and effectively attacked milkshaking, and brought the Maddy Laboratory at the University of California at Davis fully online as the region's foremost drug testing facility.

More deck chairs, though, as far as Shapiro is concerned, rearranged in the face of deeply seated flaws in structure of racing and its relationship to the state.

"It's sad - leaving the board," Shapiro said. "It is sad because I came to the realization that the problems that racing is facing are not going to be solved by any regulatory body. The problems of racing are business problems, and it takes business people to create business solutions.

"It's no different than what we're watching with the automakers," Shapiro continued. "There they were, asking for a handout. But they got their hands slapped when they showed up arrogantly with no plan. That's our problem. Our problem is that the industry for too long has had so many different stakeholders and so many divided interests that we have not spoken with a unified voice to tell our story, and to get the help the industry needs. As a result, we're watching the industry die before our eyes."

Shapiro's dire warnings are hardly news. The leading indicators of handle, attendance, and horse ownership all have been pointing toward a contraction in the sport - both in California and nationwide - and earnest people are tackling the questions. Shapiro vowed to linger in the wings, racing his handful of horses and hoping for a "platform" that he could join to help could turn the game around.

"I think the various stakeholders are sufficiently frightened that we're going to die," Shapiro said. "But frankly, I believe we can get help. The state must understand that this golden goose is about to lay its last egg. I'm convinced that if the industry went to the legislature with a unified plan, they would want to reach out and help save us. Only right now, and I heard someone in Sacramento say this, listening to the problems of racing was like putting your mouth on a fire hose - so much coming from all directions.

"So we need to throw everything on the table and start over," Shapiro went on. "There needs to be a business framework with which to say, 'We're not going to fight in public anymore. We're going to hash these things out and everybody has to look at the other side.' It's going to be tough love for many, and the industry doesn't have the luxury anymore of not facing that tough love."

Despite a request from the governor's office that he remain, Shapiro has chaired his last board meeting. Even his critics concede that he has been an energetic and tireless servant for the racing business (at a cool $100 a month stipend), sometimes overly animated, but always keen to try new approaches to old problems. Shapiro board meetings, though freighted with boring regulatory details, could always erupt into entertaining dramatics, with the chairman playing the most devilish of advocates.

"Okay," Shapiro conceded. "I know I'm controversial. I'm a lightning rod. But frankly, we need lightning to shake things up. So I don't mind."