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Poor leadership is causing California's demise...

Posted Tuesday July 7, 2009 2:55:24 PM EDT

For almost four years CTBAboardwatch has been asking the question, "Where are our leaders?" as we have watched the once-buoyant California Thoroughbred industry slide into oblivion. And make no mistake, racing and breeding as we've known it for the last 50 years is fast slipping away, perhaps never to return. 
Since our first issue in 2005 our sport's reality has become even tougher. Racetracks are closing, owners are leaving, racehorses are declining, fans are disappearing.  Markets have plummeted, costs have skyrocketed, farms have closed and breeders have fled. 
Good news is rare; scandals aren't. The public's perception of horse racing vascillates between indifference and insufferability. What once was a highly revered and popular sport has disintegrated into one whose mainstream media coverage merits only an occasional story buried in the bowels of the sports pages.
We are especially sad to witness the evaporation of an era in which we have been involved since childhood, through grandparents', parents' and our own breeding and racing efforts. We have seen the best of California, in the 1960's and 1970's, and the worst of it too, primarily in the last two decades.
And along with it we've watched our earlier leaders apply their wisdom and foresight in planning for the future. Many of their innovations succeeded. We've also seen the most recent generation of leaders fail in their responsibilities to keep California's racing and breeding industry viable and sustainable.
It's the fruit of their lax efforts in the last 20 years that imperil us today.  Our industry is not the victim of Indian tribes, a poor economy or high land prices---it sits on the economic precipice because of our leaders' unwillingness to LEADLong before casinos, high unemployment and expensive farmland affected our business,  California racing and breeding was in sharp decline.  And most of the 'leaders' who reigned during that period--and who waged no counter-offensives to new challenges--are still in power today.
In spite of CTBAboardwatch's calls for the replacement of board and staff members of the CTBA, CHRB and Barretts Sales in the last four years, most of the old guard who lead us into today's quagmire are still in charge, using their same failed leadership skills.
You may ask, "exactly how have they failed us?"
We believe history points to one singular difference between the leadership styles of past directors and the current inhabitants of their offices: INNOVATION, the implementation of creative ideas designed to expand an entity's influence and to overcome external forces of destruction.
When was the last time any of California's Thoroughbred organizations developed a SUBSTANTIVE innovation in response to our present woes?  We're not talking about $1 hot dogs and free CTBA-member admission to near-empty clubhouses.  We're talking about bold way-out-of-the-box methods to cataclysmically alter the manner in which our sport is conducted. (We offered our own 13 proposals two weeks ago but none of our elite rulers has thus far shown any interest in them. They do like to talk about expanding their cheap beer gimmick, though.)
We know it's human nature to resist change. The widely respected MIT and USC scholar Warren Bennis wrote about this phenomena:

"Innovation— any new idea—by definition will not be accepted at first. It takes repeated attempts, endless demonstrations, monotonous rehearsals before innovation can be accepted and internalized by an organization. This requires courageous patience."
It's that 'courageous patience' that our leaders in the CTBA, CHRB, TOC, Barretts Sales and most California racetracks haven't the foggiest clue about. Years of timidity enshrouded by self-seeking grandiosity have replaced the golden era of selfless dedication to our industry.  Even if these elites had shown any sign of peeking outside of their cozy board rooms we doubt if many of them have the cojones to take concerted innovative actions.
Why is it that so many leaders choose to pretend their failures are successes?  We've seen it for years from CTBA board members and management; and more recently from the worn-out crew that binds the hemorrhaging Barretts Sales.  To read and hear the endless self-congratulations from these people makes one wonder what social intoxicant they've ingested.
Why can't they just say, "we've messed up but we are completely reversing course by enacting these exciting new innovations: ......."?  Wouldn't some straight talk from these organizations be the best policy for everyone?
Polaroid inventor Edwin Land once said of his own success story, "the essential part of creativity is not being afraid to fail."  His ethic should be embedded in the job description for all leaders who preside over our industry.  Real leaders---innovators who practice Land's philosophy---haven't seen the light of day in California since people like Lou RowanCecelia de Mille Harper, Clement Hirsch, Charlie Russell, Brian Sweeney, Nancy Wood and Col. Bill Koester left this world. None of them allowed fear of failure to inhibit their work on behalf of the entire Thoroughbred world.
Take, as one small example of this leadership vacuum, the most recent agenda of the California Horse Racing Board: . Spend a moment to check it out. It's an agenda very typical for the CHRB. 
No discussion on racing's core issues and possible solutions appear on it.  Nor does any report from the CHRB's in-house counsel to help the board utilize it's legal authority to instigate powerful changes. There is no formulation of board policies through group discussion, and next to no review of existing ones. We've never seen the board examine the agency's budget,  or it's legal rights and responsibilities.  The breeding industry is a complete mystery to CHRB commissioners, except chairman John Harris, so the CTBA is never held publicly accountable by the entire board. Of course, we believe this clear conflict-of-interest helps explain why the CTBA can pay General Manager Doug Burge over $250,000 in yearly compensation in spite of the organization's hideous performance.
Most of the CHRB agenda is filled with "housekeeping items;" requests perfunctorily approved with little discussion. This is most common in the board's issuance of racing dates. Perhaps the CHRB's strongest tool to extract concessions from racetrack operators, the valuable racing dates are never held in abeyance until improvements or contracts are completed, as we believe they should.
In actual meetings, most CHRB commissioners sleepily consent to agenda items without comment or question. Several of them who speak up, other than Harris and David Israel, are painfully unacquainted with the horse industry. Their homework is done at the board table; thus their poor preparation results in meetings which are long on talk and short on direction. As chairman, Harris naturally does most of the talking but, as we have previously noted, his pontification weighs in heavily on opinions and lightly on solutions.
Of course there's no way of knowing precisely what, if anything, transpires at CTBA or TOC board meetings.  Those super-secret private clubs do not release budgets, agendas or minutes, to their members or anyone else. But from what we've been told by insiders their board meeting activities are much the same as the CHRB's---dodging bullets without a plan to fire back.
It would be easy for us to pin the blame squarely on the backs of these imposter-leaders.  Certainly much of it does belong there.  But in the wider sense all horsemen are at greater fault for tolerating their incompetence.  We didn't vote them out, or lobby against their gubernatorial appointments. We bought their excuses and defended them from their critics (like CTBAboardwatch) because that's what good members are supposed to do, after all.  We believed their press releases and felt reassured by their smiles.  We allowed them to remain when they should have been removed.
Yes, poor leadership in the last 20 years has caused the gutting of California's Thoroughbred industry---and horsemen let them do it.
Let us know what you think!


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