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Vic Zast

From the perspective of being an owner, an industry pioneer in corporate sponsorship, a track president and fan, Vic Zast writes the "Destinations" column for The Blood-Horse. His five-star ratings of international events have shed light on racing in all corners of the globe - from England, Australia, Hong Kong, Dubai to Japan.

Vic is a regular contributor to MSNBC.com, a columnist for the Illinois Racing News and has written on racing for ESPN.com, National Public radio and The Age, Australia's leading daily.

Vic makes his home in Chicago and lives in Saratoga Springs in August.

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Monday, March 07, 2011


Human Resources


(CHICAGO, IL – March 7, 2011) From the blast of Internet news and commentary that followed the resignation of Greg Avioli from the Breeders’ Cup, a person reading the horse racing press this past Friday might have easily concluded that the ruler of Oman had stepped down.

People change jobs every day but this move was revolutionary. It wasn’t just that there was an abdication of the throne at one of the Sport of Kings’ top institutions. But the person wearing the crown was leaving at the bidding of a man with a hat size, and a reputation to boot, that are bigger than Barry Bonds’s.

Avioli has become overseer of the horse racing and gaming interests of Frank Stronach’s MI Developments, the owners of Gulfstream and Santa Anita among other equities. There’s been little to report on which of horse racing’s key operatives sent Breeders’ Cup chairman Bill Farish invitations to join their LinkedIn communities. But when a job that pays close to a million dollars a year opens up, it’s most likely that every guy with a suit and a laptop will chase it.

Someone will fill Avioli’s plumb spot – that is certain. Nobody’s irreplaceable. But it’ll be a tricky call because so much has happened under his management. Say what you will about how the Breeders’ Cup’s evolved in Avioli’s five Breeders' Cup years. The former CEO of the National Thoroughbred Racing Association is a man leaving his employer in far better shape than when he first met it. More importantly, Avioli re-energized an enterprise that was running on empty. To cause such a revival, a man needs an ego that can weather doubt and occasional failure – one that's forged from the same steely drive and thick skin that his new boss is made of. He has it.

When any administration comes to power, it often provides a contrast to the one it replaces. The big question is will the new Breeders’ Cup Board Chairman (to be voted in next year) want relief for his team from the energy that cursed through the organization like brushfire? Humans believe naturally that things can be improved upon, so the changes we make often end up in compromise. Still the least effective managers are people who believe that their job is to provide stewardship - the non-polarizing type. The world is a dynamic place that requires deft maneuvering.

Before Avioli stepped into his role, status quo was considered appropriate. Custodians, not architects, held the keys to the corner office – good men, but not men that wanted to rock the boat, ruffle feathers or re-define the program’s original character. After one year as president and CEO of the Breeders' Cup, Avioli had awakened the organization out of slumber. Four years later, he’s leaving the organization in a fashion that causes some fans discomfort, but not one that’s boring.

The record indicates that Stronach, in addition to being the consummate predator, is a poor leader of people – well, at least, he hasn’t many (any?) that have stayed long in positions reporting to him. He’s the textbook corporate autocrat, who preys on his chosen recruits with money and then casts them aside when they dare to do something he doesn’t agree with. Through countless iterations, Stronach’s business was a revolving door for one manager after another. Yet, that uncompromising side is what’s made him notorious. It’s not easy to see the world through Frank Stronach glasses, but that’s what's required if you work for him.

“Nobody has ever done what he’s done,” cited Tim Ritvo, the new manager of East Coast racing for M Developments, using Gulfstream as an example of Stronach’s maverick tendencies. “The racetrack, the casino, the Villages (a mall) - these were built to introduce new fans to racing. Frank understood the old way of doing things wouldn’t be good enough if we are to survive. Other people just splash some fresh paint on their buildings and leave everything else the same.”

Stronach’s dedication to growing the game is unquestionable, believes Ritvo, who is still in his employer’s good graces. “We are fifteen percent up on-track, five percent up nationwide without (New York City) OTB; we had 9000 people on Fountain of Youth day,” he boasted, acknowledging that weather’s played a part in the growth. “It’ll take time to develop a fan base, but we’re on the right track, I believe.”

At the time of the interview, Ritvo was unaware that Avioli would be his new boss or, at least, he didn’t let on that the change was coming. Yet, it seems that the two men, plus Stronach, for that matter, share the same opportunistic outlook. None wants to surrender to forces that will render the sport obsolete without fighting them with change.

For what it’s worth, Avioli told the Louisville Courier-Journal’s Jennie Rees that his new job was a “year-round opportunity,” as if he didn't work on the 363 days of the year when the World Champiuonship races weren't held and that teaming up with Stronach would be like hosting Breeders' Cup events daily. Rees reported also that Avioli said something that many people say when you ask them about Stronach – “You may not agree with all his decisions, but I don’t think anyone can question his commitment.”

Stronach’s the game’s biggest player and Avioli its most effective practitioner. Friday’s news might cause two of horse racing’s greatest institutions to improve immediately. At the very worse, only one might become hurt from it. The headhunters in search of Avioli’s replacement should check into each candidate’s heart to see if he has the courage it takes to press on. If the headhunters don’t find it, have the candidate move on – it’s that simple. Going backwards should not be an option.

Vic Zast has a Facebook page and stays busy with posts on Twitter.com. You're invited to meet him there.



Written by Vic Zast

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