Horse racing has been facing a number of problems in recent years, with and horse deaths not far behind.
The cancellation of the HBO series during filming at and recent in-depth negative stories in the New York Times and Los Angeles Times cast a particularly dark cloud over the sport.
Into this kind of setting rides Mark Verge, the new CEO at Santa Anita Park who could provide a much-needed breath of fresh air.
Verge assumed his position on St. Patrick’s Day, March 17. He prefers to call himself “the guy” at Santa Anita rather than anything else. Stuffy executive titles are not his cup of tea. But he leaves no doubt he is now the boss. He said he told Santa Anita owner Frank Stronach when he was hired, “I don’t answer to anyone but you.”
remains the president, and Verge said the two will work together. Haines, formerly the track’s general manager, was the No. 2 guy under Ron Charles, Santa Anita’s highly respected and popular president from 2004 until he resigned in May of 2010.
Haines, back to being No. 2, seems impressed by Verge. “Mark brings a lot of new ideas to the table,” Haines said.
One of the first things Verge did was re-install “Free Fridays” in which patrons get free general admission and $2 beers, hot dogs and sodas.
How Stronach ended up hiring the 44-year-old Verge, a successful Southern California entrepreneur, is a story in itself.
On Feb. 27, Verge was looking forward to a relaxing evening with his wife and two children at his home in Pacific Palisades when he got a call from his longtime friend Jimmy Allard.
“Buddy, Frank Stronach wants to have dinner with you tonight,” said an excited Allard, who is better known in horse racing circles as Jimmy the Hat. He has been a full-time professional horse player for about 25 years.
Stronach was at the hotel where he usually stays during visits in Southern California, the Langham in Pasadena.
“You’ve got to get over here to Pasadena,” Jimmy the Hat insisted. “Frank really wants to meet you.”
“Jimmy was pretty insistent, but I told him I wanted to stay home and relax with my family,” Verge said. Also, the drive from Pacific Palisades on the Westside to Pasadena during rush hour would be a tough one.
“I’ll meet with him tomorrow,” Verge told Jimmy the Hat.
Verge and Stronach met for breakfast and Stronach picked his brain about what he would do to improve attendance at Santa Anita.
“We had a good talk, but I had no idea it was a job interview,” Verge recalled during an interview. “I just thought he was picking my brain.”
A week later, Verge and his wife Lani were headed to Gulfstream in Florida as a guest of Stronach. It was there that Verge and Stronach talked about Verge running Santa Anita. He essentially replaced Greg Avioli, who on March 14 resigned from his position as the head of racing for the Stronach Group. Avioli, previously the CEO of the Breeders’ Cup, had been with Stronach for only 11 months.
Dennis Mills had lasted in that position for only seven months.
Verge said he isn’t planning to make any personnel changes at this time. When interviewed, he had only good things to say about Haines and others at Santa Anita, singling out marketing executives Chris Quinn and Nate Newby.
“I love Chris Quinn,” Verge said. “Nate Newby is great.”
A person close to Verge who asked not to be identified said, “He doesn’t like stubborn people. If someone is unwilling to change, that person could be gone.”
One of Verge’s biggest supporters is trainer Doug O’Neill, who has known Verge since they were in sixth grade together.
“I was 10 and had just moved to Santa Monica with my family from Michigan,” O’Neill said. “In Michigan we all took big duffle bags to school with our hockey sticks and everything else. So the first day of school, I walk in carry this big duffle bag and this kid yells at me, `What, you moving in?’ ”
That was the start of a close friendship that grew at Santa Monica High because, for one thing, they shared a love of horse racing. Verge is a horse owner and O’Neill is his trainer.
“Mark loves the game, is hard working and is wired to be an entrepreneur,” O’Neill said. “He’ll shake thing up if he has to. He won’t fail. I’ve seen him do it before – take a business that is in neutral and put it in drive.”
Verge owns more than a dozen businesses, which include a number of bars, restaurants and hotels. But he 1990 UCLA graduate is probably best known as the owner of Westside Rentals, a business he founded in 1995 that lists rental properties.
One of the things he did to promote Westside Rentals is hire an independent “marketer” named Phil Parks, who called himself “Rental Man.” Parks would show up at sporting events wearing a red cap, jester hat and “Rent-Me” T-shirt and would dance in the stands while flailing his arms.
This reporter once had the misfortune of sitting next to Parks at a Los Angeles Laker game. I was continually ducking to avoid that flailing arms.
If a “Racetrack Man” shows up at Santa Anita — Verge didn’t rule out the possibility — I’ll make sure not to sit next to him.