Note: A version of this article appeared recently in a magazine. The article was edited, cut down to half its original size--and thereby lost the emphasis on the issue of racing's need for a Commissioner. I've tweaked the piece, because I really want you, my readers, to think about the fact that horse racing is in dire need of direction. It's the only major sport in the United States that doesn't have a regulating body--and that, as we've seen, has led to a mess. States regulate medications, race days and everything else--but there's no formal organization that represents everyone in racing--including the horses--to sit down at table with the states' various boards and talk turkey.
A fine example of how to run a governing body is Svensk Galopp, the Swedish horse racing authority. Svensk Galopp regulates all the racing in Sweden--both Arabian and Thoroughbred. With a Board made up of horsemen and -women at the helm--people who genuinely love horses, and the sport of racing them--Svensk Galopp successfully has run the business of racing for many years. And the Swedes know racing: they've been at it since 1810--a full 53 years before the first horse ran his first race at our beloved Saratoga.
Until American racing has a Commission and a strong, savvy Commissioner--racing will always be at the mercy of the states. And some states, as we've seen, have it in for racing. For some puritanical reason, legally betting on horses is frowned-upon by many in political power. And that prejudice can become a vendetta. Unfortunately, we've seen, up-close and personal, what it looks like when a state takes it upon itself to make Life as difficult as possible for racing organizations.
Ironically, I'll wager that 90% of the politicians who'd like to deep-six horse racing--et illegally on...say...football.
So racing needs a Commission. And a Commissioner who knows the horses, the people and the sport, cold. Someone who wouldn't be afraid to meet in the office of any state regulating board, and tell it like it is.
My vote for Commissioner goes to...
The Hall of Fame trainer is admired by fans and his peers. There are ample reasons for the admiration: the blue-eyed genius knows more about horses than, well, almost anyone.
Dctionary.com defines "taciturn" as,
"inclined to silence; reserved in speech; reluctant to join in conversation."
Leroy Jolley is the very soul of "inclined to silence" and "reserved in speech." The man doesn't talk much, and speaks softly when he does. But the words he speaks are full of wisdom and insight. Warm with love for his horses, Jolley's few words speak volumes: a smart horseman would set up a lawn chair and spend a week just watching the great master at work.
Jolley is one of the few trainers who've been around since the 1950s--you might say that he's old school. He got his trainer's license at age 19--but by that time he'd been working with horses for 12 years. He was born in Hot Springs, Arkansas, and learned his art in the barn of his father, trainer Moody. His deep understanding of horses is the result of over half-a-century of in-the-trenches work, and the osmosis of information from his sire.
One might speculate that he was destined to become a trainer--no other career option could have tempted the young horseman away from his treasured charges.
The man is old school, but not old-fashioned in his thinking or his methods. Insight like his cannot be acquired by reading a book or attending classes. His methods are a reminder that not everything (or everyone) who's new and modern is best. Contemporary training methods may produce slick, runway model horses--but too often those horses are brittle. Relatively few could compete with the great horses of even 30 years ago. (Curlin, Rachel Alexandra, Zenyatta and Quality Road being a few of the exceptions.) Too many of the horses who race these days are the result of the "get 'em to the track fast" philosophy--and that way of thinking doesn't always produce a strong, healthy horse who can last, and make history.
Statistics about Jolley's achievements can be found at the Racing Museum 'site--but he's so much more than stats. Numbers rarely tell the whole story: a trainer may win 100 races in a row--but what's the level of those races, and of the horses? The quality of the achievement and of the horses matters far more than mere numbers.
For those of you who need to see numbers: he was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1987. He's trained six champions--so far--including two Kentucky Derby winners, Foolish Pleasure (1975) and the brilliant Genuine Risk (1980). (Genuine Risk, by-the-way, was the first filly to compete in all three Triple Crown races. She came in second in the Preakness and Belmont.)
On any given day, whether up north or down south, the legend can be found at his barn, doing the job that he performed originally for his dad: hotwalking a horse. Feeling down the horse's legs, taking note of the fineness of the skin around the horse's nose. Reveling in the quietude of the backstretch. New York and Florida are blessed that a legend moved his tack from Hot Springs to the East Coast.
It is not an exaggeration to say that Leroy Jolley is one in a million, a shining example in a sport that badly needs to see how it's done, right. He is the classic Good Man.
We need a Commission...
There's been much talk lately about horse racing's need for a Commission--OK, maybe I'm doing a lot of the talking, but it's still true. We need Commisioner. Not just a figurehead, but someone who is smart, experienced and strong.
Horse racing is the only major American sport that doesn't have the protections afforded by such a governing body--don't you find that to be unacceptable? State governments control racing: those who want a Commission have stated that the sport needs not just a figurehead, but a hero to stand between the sport and the governments.
Someone with a sign on his desk that reads, "The buck stops here."
The Commissioner should be a leader who can go toe-to-toe with the media, lawmakers, horsemen and disgruntled fans. A horseman (or -woman), not a Madison Avenue marketing wonk.
We need someone who genuinely loves horses--that should be obvious, and first on the list. A person with a keen sense of real marketing--horse racing is in dire need of simple, solid marketing. This sport could be overwhelmed with the sheer numbers of fans who flood any given track, on any given day, as in the 1930s. (Saratoga is a rare exception.)
The product is there, but too often racing officials are stymied as they try to figure out what the public wants.
Saratoga horseman Bill Higgins (a trainer who, himself, brings over 30 years of experience and love to the sport)--as suggested that Leroy Jolley should be Commissioner, and his idea has merit. Jolley brings to the table a wealth of knowledge, and always--always--has the best interest of the horses in mind. It's the "hay, oats and water" philosophy, applied across-the-board. The basics--and most obvious--usually prove to be the best route to success.
So, too, with marketing horse racing. Five yeras ago, Jolley commented to me that no one loves a horse more than a 13-year-old girl. He further stated that racing officials should market the sport to women and girls. (My heart smiled, and excitedly, I weighed in on the conversation. Finally, someone understood what the Sporting Goods Manufacturers' Association had stated twice,in two different surveys: that this demographic--females--comprise the majority of paid admissions at American horse race tracks--making horse racing the only major American sport for which females form the majority of the fanbase.)
Mr. Jolley understood, also, that this group of horse fans probably holds the most fanatical love for the equine athletes.
A wise man, this Leroy Jolley. In western society, the thinking is all screwed up: newer-is-better, and old school is, well, old. But this trainer proves, once again, that the word, "wisdom" never is applied to a 20-year-old.
No, that praise is granted only to those who've earned their stripes, who've seen the wrong way to do it--and did the opposite.
As Saratoga horseman, Joe Gleason, observed, "How many Hall of Fame trainers do you see hotwalking their own horses?"
Indeed. Leroy Jolley would not want a barn with 400 horses in it, because numbers like that would prevent him from having time with each horse, daily. And his interaction with his horses is vital. So many young fans, new to the sport, may walk right by the "older" gentleman with the brilliantly-blue eyes and heavenly smile--and not realize that they are in the presence of true greatness.
The Hall of Famer may not mind the relative anonymity among the masses, for truly, he seeks not the spotlight. His taciturn nature keeps him in the background, quietly observing the world and the chatterers who talk much but listen rarely. If ever racing is smart enough to create our Commission, and they have the brains to hire Leroy Jolley as Commissioner--he'll have to accept some spotlight now and then. '
He wouldn't be allowed to stay in the background--but who knows? His love for horses, his racing community and the sport may convince him to sacrifice his solitude for the greater good.
Still, he would be afforded some quiet moments at his desk in the Commissioner's Office. Time to regroup, to be with his thoughts and to create new initiatives, based on age-old, tried-and-true practices. To paraphrase the biblical proverb: in quietness and confidence is Leroy Jolley's strength. I hope that, someday soon--that strength is applied not just at his barn, but across-the-board in a sport that desperately needs his brand of Wisdom.
* Photo of horses racing: Tak! to Svensk Galopp.
* Photos of Hall of Fame Trainer, Leroy Jolley and Hall of Fame Jockey, Julie Krone: Thank you to NYRA/Adam Coglianese.