Fred Pope is back.
As if he ever left.
Pope, a determined Lexington, Ky., advertising executive, racing commentator, and iconoclast, issued another lengthy commentary on the state of the game this week – this one taking up six pages of single-spaced copy on a PC printer – continuing his decades-long effort to convince racing it is following the wrong road.
Writing in Thoroughbred Times, Pope once again made his case for what he calls a “talent-centric” sport, rather than a “facility-centric” one. He says the track-centric approach is “the real tragedy of racing, so flawed it has made those in the industry believe there is little hope for the sport’s future.” And he says that simply isn’t true.
If racing only would do it his way, Pope argues, it could be saved. His way is major league racing, where horse owners would control medication rules, provide a central authority, and provide control of distribution of horses and purses.
This is not a new Pope idea. He still smolders over the rebuff racing handed him almost two decades ago, when he formed a National Thoroughbred Association – the NTA – to provide a vehicle for major owners in the sport in North America and overseas to create a “talent-centric” league to provide top racing everywhere on weekends.
Pope blames the New York Racing Association for undercutting his idea, and accuses the NTRA, which was formed instead, of taking hundreds of millions of dollars from breeders and owners while rebating fees to track operators.
Unfortunately for him and his league, racing in this country has for most of its history been presented by track operators, providing the stage for the talent to perform. It had huge investments in facilities and their upkeep, and was not about to forfeit them.
In a switch difficult to understand, Pope thinks his league idea would also solve the medication problem. He blasts 2-year-olds racing on medication – an idea we have bitterly opposed since it was first allowed, and which is one of the great disgraces and hypocrisies of the game today – and he ignores the fact that racing is finally moving in precisely that direction, admittedly years after it should have. He also suggests that rule be expanded gradually to older horses, another proposal which is a natural and logical progression. But it is primarily horsemen, including owners, who have in the past resisted such changes – and still do, in large part – so how his league would change this is problematical. There are major owners today who actually gravitate toward horsemen with bad reputations within the sport. Converting them, league or no league, will be a difficult task. Greed beats league any day, unfortunately, and only chemical research and stronger testing will break that wicked truth. There are many major owners and breeders today who bitterly oppose destruction of the breed and the game thru chemical warfare, but only the ability to find substances undetectable today and oust those using them will solve the problem.
We have known and followed Fred Pope and his ideas for years, with interest and admiration for his creativity, courage, and persistence. We still do. But his insistence that the “Build it and they will come” theory of Field of Dreams, with which he opens his current essay, died 60 years ago, is not true.
On the same day his piece appeared, one of the most successful of all of the overseas operations he admires – the Hong Kong Jockey Club – announced it was spending $7 billion to add new construction to its already hugely impressive plants to keep them state-of-the-art. The South China Morning News reported in its headlines that “a dazzling grand entrance is planned for Sha Tin and exclusive corporate boxes for Happy Valley.” The improvements include 1.8 billion Hong Kong dollars for a new, modernized Telebet center and advanced IT and audio-visual production facilities.
On this side of the world, nine “suits” in hard hats, with spades, were shown in the very magazine printing Pope’s piece in a story telling of Hialeah Park breaking ground for its $150 million casino, due for completion a year from now. And of course NYRA itself, the evil empire of Pope’s essay, is building a huge casino that will, like it or not, increase NYRA purses incrementally.
“Build it and they will come” did not die 60 years ago. It simply has transformed itself and evolved, Darwin style, into survival of the fittest. Purists like Fred Pope and others in racing will not like it. But horsemen will, when the clinking of casinos and whirring of new machines pour monies into purses.
How long this artifice will hold up is an open question. But for now, with the appeal of racing challenged by a new generation of humans and their drives and desires, racing had better take what it can get.