by | 11.17.2010 | 12:46am
By Ray Paulick
Alex Waldrop is a good soldier who reminds me of Hiroo Onoda, the World War II legend who in 1944 was sent to Lubang island in the Philippines and told by his Japanese superiors to wage guerrilla warfare against the allied forces and to never give up. Along with a few others who survived a 1945 invasion by American soldiers, Onoda conducted operations from a base in the mountains of the island, even after leaflets were dropped saying the war had ended. Letters from loved ones begged Onoda to come home, but even after his fellow holdouts left him or died, Onoda carried out the orders given him.

It wasn't until his one-time commanding officer flew to Lubang in 1974 that Onoda gave up the fight.

Waldrop, in his capacity as CEO of the National Thoroughbred Racing Associations, hasn't fought as long as Hiroo Onoda did, but someone needs to tell him the war is over. The NTRA has about the same relevance and power as the Japanese Imperial Army did after the end of World War II.

It's not Waldrop's fault. He came into an untenable situation in December 2006 when the unraveling of the NTRA and Breeders' Cup relationship was complete and the NTRA was left with little money and even less authority to carry out a mission to be the “league office” for horse racing. An organization that began in 1998 with high hopes and lofty goals of organizing and marketing a dysfunctional business that lacked structure, coordination and a strong central authority — the hallmarks of success for other sports — was, by 2006, a pale shadow of its former self.

What survived of the NTRA after its divorce from the Breeders' Cup in 2006 was an understaffed press office and an industry lobbying effort in Washington, D.C., and not much more. Illusions of marketing grandeur or meaningful changes in how the sport was structured were gone like the budget the NTRA once had.

Eighteen months into Waldrop's tenure at the NTRA, the Thoroughbred industry had a serious implosion. The filly Eight Belles died after the finish of the Kentucky Derby with millions watching on television in horror. Compounding the problem, Rick Dutrow, the trainer of Derby winner Big Brown, revealed one of our sport's dirty little secrets, that anabolic steroids were in rampant use and, shockingly to many people, were perfectly legal. The public outcry was enormous, and the NTRA was ill-equipped to deal with it, because it lacked the authority to speak for the industry over which it had little control.

When hints of a Congressional inquiry surfaced, there was a scramble to react. The industry did what it always does: form committees and make recommendations. Foremost among those was a decision by Waldrop and the NTRA board of directors to create a new entity, the Safety and Integrity Alliance, which drafted an ambitious code of standards on a variety of safety and welfare issues for horses and jockeys. It was and is an admirable document, however meaningless it mostly likely will turn out to be.

Tracks that comply with the code of standards will be accredited by the alliance, sort of a “good horsekeeping seal of approval” that a track owner can frame and hang on his wall. And what about tracks that don't comply? Well, they'll have a little extra wall space. That's the carrot and stick that Waldrop is armed with.

It goes back to something said during the Congressional inquiry held last June, when members of the House of Representatives repeatedly pointed out to Thoroughbred industry leaders how important it was for them to get their act together and establish a meaningful central authority unless they wanted the federal government to do it for them. After Alan Marzelli, the president of the Jockey Club, testified about some of the safety recommendations his organization was making to the industry, he was asked how the Jockey Club intended to have its recommendations adopted.

Marzelli's response: “We believe in the power of persuasion.”

The power of persuasion (aka, committee recommendations) is what has kept this industry from realizing its potential as a major league sport. The harmless carrot and stick that Waldrop now carries in his briefcase is about as powerful as the army that Hiroo Onoda commanded on Lubana island for all those years after World War II.

Onoda survived, which I'm afraid is about all Waldrop and the NTRA and the rest of the racing industry can do with our current structure (or lack thereof). Maybe, just maybe, if enough tracks comply with the Safety and Integrity Alliance's code of standards, we can stop the bleeding that's been going on for some time, long before Eight Belles took her last breath or Rick Dutrow uttered his last insult. But stopping the bleeding is not a cure for what ails us.

What we have isn't working. What we need are fewer organizations and fewer committees, more followers and fewer (but stronger) leaders. Why, someone pointed out to me the other day, do we need separate organizations like the NTRA, the Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association, the Jockey Club, the Breeders' Cup, the National Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association, the Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association and so many others? He answered his own question: because none of those groups is willing to cede authority and lose whatever little fiefdom they control.

Waldrop keeps fighting, seemingly against all odds. When racing's obvious problems were brought up twice recently in the New York Times, first by sports columnist William Rhoden and then by turf writer Joe Drape, Waldrop fired back in a blog at the NTRA's web site, defending the Safety and Integrity Alliance and pointing out progress that had been made since the death of Eight Belles. He even tried to incite an angry mob to join his army and attack the messengers at the New York Times for the audacity of their observations.

It was rather pitiful. I'm not sure that Waldrop, like Hiroo Onoda, is much more than an army of one.

Copyright © 2009, The Paulick Report

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