http://www.signonsandiego.com/news/2010 ... -sullivan/
Familiar face taking the reins at Del Mar
BY TIM SULLIVAN, UNION-TRIBUNE COLUMNIST
WEDNESDAY, MARCH 24, 2010 AT 12:02 A.M.
DEL MAR — Joe Harper is as smooth as a jockey’s shirt. He has passed the torch at the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club and the flame didn’t even flicker.
No muss. No fuss. No power struggle. No political intrigue. After running racing’s surfside Shangri-La for more than 30 years, Harper has ceded several of his titles and many of his responsibilities to his chief lieutenant, Craig Fravel, and with less fanfare than a midweek maiden claimer.
There will be a meaningful change in Fravel’s paycheck, but the day-to-day differences at the track may be undetectable. The revised management team approved Monday essentially formalizes a succession plan that has been playing out by degrees for decades.
“We have two different managing styles,” Harper said yesterday afternoon. “I was thinking about it today. If somebody has a problem, I’m convinced that I can convince them that they don’t have a problem. Craig actually solves the problem.”
Their relationship, Fravel says, is “symbiotic,” and their philosophies are so similar that neither man was able to identify a difference of opinion, much less a dispute, despite occupying paddock-view offices no more than two or three lengths apart.
Their partnership has been as reciprocal as yin and yang. While Harper has been Del Mar’s charming public face, Fravel has been the brain in the background, seeing to the fine details and the small print.
“When I first came here, I always viewed my job as to make him look good,” Fravel said. “He lets me do my job and I can’t remember getting yelled at.”
When Fravel was hired away from a law firm handling the track’s contracts, his initial job description entailed all of those chores Harper didn’t want to do himself. That list has grown over the years and will henceforth include more of the tedious and repetitive meetings Harper desires to duck.
Harper, who will observe his 67th birthday on Saturday, will retain the title of Chief Executive Officer. Fravel, 53, becomes Del Mar’s President and General Manager. Simultaneously, Chief Financial Officer Michael Ernst and Racing Secretary Thomas Robbins have both added the title of executive vice president.
“Everybody keeps telling me I ought to sit down and write the book,” Harper said, lounging in the green leather chair behind his desk. “I can’t not do things, (but) I’ll try to stay out of Craig’s way. It’s important that Craig get the responsibility and the recognition. President and General Manager kind of says it all. That’s the meat of the coconut.”
The trick will be to keep those titles relevant with thoroughbred racing in steep decline; with numerous tracks already insolvent or dependent on casino-based life support. Location, tradition, ambience and marketing have helped to insulate Del Mar from many of the issues that have afflicted the industry, but the local track is not immune from them.
“As much as we love racing, Hollywood Park is going out of business and Santa Anita is going through bankruptcy,” Harper said. “There are a lot of headaches that aren’t just caused by the economy. So it’s hard to be positive.
“I think there’s a formula here that works and I feel confident that it’s going to be difficult as we go down the road here. There’s going to be some pretty big potholes in racing in general that Del Mar can’t avoid. But I can’t think of anybody in this industry I’d rather have coming up with solutions than Craig. He’s a lot smarter than me. He’s a solution kind of guy. He’s going to make sure that what works will continue to work and what needs to be tweaked will be tweaked.”
Fravel’s primary agenda is to preserve Del Mar’s stature and stability. When finances allow, he wants to expand the track’s turf course with an eye toward attracting the Breeders’ Cup.
“Racing is facing a lot of challenges and I think there’s going to be some pretty dramatic changes in it over the next three to five years,” Fravel said. “My vision is that Del Mar is going to remain the centerpiece of California racing. I think the fact that this is a property that’s dedicated to being a fairgrounds and a racetrack is going to put us in a good position to take a leadership role.”
Whenever developers act on their intention to convert Hollywood Park for more profitable purposes, Del Mar will stand to pick up additional racing dates. Like Harper, Fravel envisions adding a “boutique” fall meet. Shorter-term, Fravel is paying close attention to the installment of additional fiber on Del Mar’s polytrack surface. Noticing a water bottle in the middle of the track during a recent inspection, he considered disposing of it until he learned that it was being used as a marker.
He is not above grunt work, so much so that Harper says one of his first impressions of Fravel was of a lawyer “who didn’t want to be a lawyer.”
“That gave him 10 points right there,” Harper said. “So I asked him one day, ‘So how much less money do you want to make?’ He says, ‘Say what?’ I said, “Think about it.’ He thought about it for about 3 1/2 seconds.”
That was 20 years ago. Monday, after his promotion was confirmed by Del Mar’s board, Fravel called his wife to make sure she heard it first from him.
“I was going to get a sub at Subway,” he remembered. “She said, ‘You’ve just been named president and you’re going to Subway by yourself for lunch?’ ”
Hard to imagine a more routine transition. At Del Mar, change sounds like a bigger deal than it seems.