Shortly after being named chief editor of Blood-Horse magazine in the spring of 1992, I attended my first meeting of the company's board of trustees, which consisted of five well-known industry leaders who all happened to be members of The Jockey Club.
After the business session was concluded, the board chairman, G. Watts Humphrey Jr., asked if there was anything the trustees could do for me.
“I've never had the opportunity to meet Dinny Phipps,” I said of The Jockey Club's chairman whose formal name, Ogden Mills Phipps, was seldom used. “Maybe you could help set up a meeting.”
“I can do that,” Humphrey said. Then, sensing some trepidation on my part, he chuckled and said, “He doesn't bite, you know.”
A meeting was arranged for Belmont Stakes day, when I was told Phipps would be expecting me in the paddock between the second and third races.
He was a no-show.
A couple of races later, however, I saw him as he was leaving the paddock and returning to his clubhouse box. I introduced myself and his reaction was one I'll never forget.
“Oh, (expletive deleted),” he roared, adding a couple more choice words. “I'm sorry. I completely forgot.”
We had a good laugh and he asked me if I had a few minutes right then. We sat down on the bench inside the walking ring and had a wide-ranging discussion. I quickly learned Watts Humphrey was right: as intimidating as he might seem to strangers, Dinny Phipps didn't bite.
The one thing I remember most about our talk that day was his sincere concern about integrity and the damage that drugs in racing were doing to the sport's reputation.
Cleaning up racing has been a life-long mission that, ultimately and unfortunately, Dinny Phipps was not able to complete.
His death on Wednesday at the age of 75 is a profound personal loss for his family, friends and associates. His passing is also enormously significant to those of us who want horse racing to overcome the stigma of a game where cheating is often perceived to be as important to winning as superior bloodlines and good training. Though others will carry the torch forward, it is difficult to see how anyone will be as committed to the cause of clean sport as Dinny Phipps has been for decades, both as one of the game's leading owners and breeders and as a fearless industry leader.
He wasn't perfect and we've taken our shots at Dinny Phipps over the years. He thought The Jockey Club should be in control of many aspects of racing – sometimes to a fault. His desire for Jockey Club control or oversight of things occasionally could be to the detriment of initiatives from other groups or individuals. The Jockey Club was run privately; membership qualifications have never been disclosed, and its operations have never been particularly transparent.
However, during his 32-year run as chairman from 1983 to 2015, The Jockey Club stepped in to lead where others wouldn't, or couldn't. In the late 1980s it was the driving force and financial backer of Equibase, which allowed the Thoroughbred industry to collect and own the sport's data, something that previously was controlled by the privately-owned Daily Racing Form.
More recently, The Jockey Club created and funded the Equine Injury Database, which has given researchers and regulators greater insight into the prevention of injuries and fatalities in racing. The Jockey Health Information System is designed to assist medical professionals when jockeys are injured. The Grayson-Jockey Club Research Foundation provides vital research funding and guidance for equine health and safety studies, and the Jockey Club Safety Net Foundation provides financial relief for horse industry people and families in dire need.
When the National Thoroughbred Racing Association was unable to sustain television and marketing initiatives, The Jockey Club stepped up, buying time to put major races on television and creating a promotional office for the sport. It would later buy my former employer, Blood-Horse magazine, prompting one Jockey Club critic to say that its control of the publication went from “de facto to in facto.”
The Jockey Club's technology divisions help breeders and owners, auction companies racing secretaries, simulcast coordinators and others do their work more efficiently.
It's a lot for a company that started out simply as the breed registry, and most of these important initiatives happened under the watchful eye of Dinny Phipps.
But nothing is more important to the sport than its integrity, and no one has been as vital to that cause as Ogden Mills Phipps, even in recent years when his health began to fail him. Phipps often used the annual Jockey Club Round Table Conference on Matters Pertaining to Racing in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., as a forum to spur the industry to act on these issues because regulation was beyond The Jockey Club's reach. Finally, frustrated by what he saw as a lack of real progress in reforming medication policies, he threw his and The Jockey Club's support behind federal legislation to create an independent, non-governmental agency to oversee Thoroughbred racing's medication rules, drug testing and enforcement.
There will be no greater way to honor his memory than to redouble efforts to bring about the integrity-based reforms he had hoped to see in his lifetime.
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