06/23/2011 3:45PM

TOC says it has nothing to hide at open forums

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They won’t go so far as to wear hard hats and flak vests. Anyway, a protective cage might be more effective. Whatever defensive crouch they assume, when they submit to public forums Saturday afternoon at Hollywood Park and Sunday morning at Pleasanton the representatives of the Thoroughbred Owners of California board of directors will be braced for a vigorous airing of grievances.

Mike Pegram, who joined the TOC board last year, put it another way.

“What do you wear to a lynching?” he said when asked. “A smile.”

There will be rope. Count on it, whether it is brought by horseplayers’ advocates virulently opposed to the mutual takeout increases enacted this year in California, or by a rival horsemen’s group angling for greater representation on the TOC board, or from impassioned individuals taking exception to specific TOC actions over these last few years of tumult out West.

Uncertainty has abounded, fomenting unrest, and quite apart from the U.S. economy at large. The wholesale shift to synthetic surfaces isolated California to an experimental corner of the national stage. The bankruptcy of Santa Anita’s parent company shook the future of California’s most enduring emporium. The plans of Hollywood Park’s land developer/owner have kept that vital site in limbo.

The TOC, being a stationary target, has taken a lot of heat for not only failing to come up with solutions, but also being perceived as contributing to the problems. Pegram and his fellow directors on the firing line this weekend hope such issues will benefit from as much daylight as the forums can provide.

“I know that we have nothing to hide,” said TOC director Billy Koch, who manages the Little Red Feather ownership syndicate. “We believe in transparency. People have questions, they want answers, and we’ll give them the best ones we have. Our business needs to listen. For too long we rested on our laurels, because we were the only game in town. Obviously, the world has change, and we’re behind.”

Pegram added, “You’ve got to reach out. This sport belongs to everybody and everybody has to be heard. But there’s so many times people deal with rumors and not facts. If we end up doing one thing I hope it’s that everybody has a better understanding of the facts.”

For starters, it probably would help if the name of the organization in question is used more often than its initials. “TOC” is handy but leaves its purpose open to question, especially since the words “Thoroughbred” and “California” pop up in any number of other contexts.

The key TOC word is right there in the middle − “Owners” − and it is the interests of those who own racehorses the TOC will pursue first and foremost. That is why the TOC backed the California legislature’s approval of the increased takeout.

“When I first heard about the takeout increase I said, ‘Man, this ain’t the time for that,’ ” said Pegram, who made his fortune in McDonald’s franchises. “But sometimes it’s a matter of survival. I’m in a very price-sensitive business, and I never raise prices until I have to. This was a matter of survival.”

Activist horseplayers disagreed and launched an energetic campaign to marginalize the California racing product. Whether that effort has contributed to the marked decrease in out-of-state California handle this year is open to interpretation, but the figures don’t lie. In the meantime, California racing awaits the benefits of a trickle-down theory that goes something like this:

If parimutuel takeout is raised, purses will increase. When purses increase, more owners will be inclined to continue owning and racing horses. When that happens, field sizes will increase, and the betting on those larger fields will increase, which will result in larger purses. Then, eventually the national economy will turn around, and takeout can be lowered to previous levels.

Right. And tax cuts for upper income brackets create jobs. It is clear by now that the takeout increase was an impossibly tough sell from the beginning. Shared sacrifice was never mentioned. What the increase did, if anything, was provide a shaky plug in a leaky dike that lit a public relations nightmare. It is the heat from that PR nightmare the TOC forum hopes to cool, because − and this is no news flash − with the exception for a few betting packages like the Pick 5, the takeout isn’t going anywhere south.

“What we’ve found is that field size is the major, major component of handle, and everything that can be done must be done to increase field size,” Koch said. “Everyone’s seen the foal crop numbers. We just don’t have the horses.”

There it is, the 19-hand Clydesdale in the room. The issues of takeout, field size, and horsemen’s representation are all subordinate to a single, monumental reality: The sport is running short of horses.

“One thing about it, you can’t be afraid of the truth,” Pegram insisted.

Even when the truth is terrifying.