Ogden Mills "Dinny" Phipps' role as chairman of The Jockey Club often had been dismissed as a position atop an ivory tower, far removed from the realities of Thoroughbred racing.
It is true Phipps was born into wealth and privilege, inheriting an extraordinary racing stable and breeding operation with a deep genetic pool of talent. But to wave off his involvement in racing as something at arm's length is not only disrespectful to a man who devoted his life to improving the sport, it's simply wrong.
"Yes, he was lucky growing up; we're all lucky," said Phipps' daughter Daisy Phipps Pulito. "But racing is what we do. This is what we talk about at dinner. We go to the races on the weekend when other people may go to baseball games or golf tournaments. Racing was something that my family all did together. In his last few days he was asking about all the runners. He asked about the foals and wanted to see the photos.
"My father always, at the core, respected and admired the animal," she continued. "He wanted to see them succeed and do well and be happy. And he always wanted what was best for the sport and worked hard to achieve that."
Seeing Thoroughbred racing grow and thrive was the primary driver behind Dinny Phipps' restructuring of The Jockey Club more than 30 years ago. With a disjointed collection of organizations spread across the American Thoroughbred industry landscape—not terribly different than today—Phipps saw an opportunity for TJC to play a greater leadership role. He shared that vision with former Breeders' Cup president D.G. Van Clief as they sat on the porch of Phipps' Saratoga home one early August morning in 1985.
"That conversation has stayed with me these 30 years because it was distinctly progressive, especially for the time and the organization. More importantly because the vision he sketched out that day he has realized and then some," Van Clief recalled last August during the Chairman's Dinner, which is held the night before TJC's annual Round Table conference. Having announced his resignation in June, this would be Phipps' last dinner as chairman. "He was going to change the profile of the membership. It was a one-line organization, with the stud book as the only core focus, and it was an all-men's club. He said he was going to bring women in and put the emphasis on members who would serve and were making contributions on a consistent basis to the industry. He said, 'I want this to become a meaningful and powerful service bureau for the industry on a multi-faceted basis. I want it to be able to occupy positions of leadership that benefit horses, horsemen, and the industry as a whole.' The Jockey Club now fills a void; that was part of his vision."
Under Phipps' leadership, TJC grew into an organization of 12 subsidiaries that utilize 30 different brands.
"All the money gets upstreamed to a variety of good works that would have been impossible to conceive of 30 years ago," Van Clief said. "In an industry where successfully executing your game plan, much less realizing your vision, is about a 10-1 shot on a good day, it's impressive Dinny achieved his vision and more, and the industry has been the beneficiary."
Such an aggressive plan attracted a barrage of criticism, but Phipps never wavered.
"He was fantastic at letting it roll off," Pulito said. "I'm sure it was frustrating to work so hard on things and not see them succeed. But he continued to put in the time, a lot of time on projects that, quite frankly, he didn't have to do."
The work was essential to Phipps, however, because Thoroughbred racing was his sport and because the welfare of the horse came above all else. Horse welfare drove his latest cause, to continue reducing an escalating reliance on therapeutic medication and to push the creation of a truly uniform, national testing program armed with harsh penalties for people trying to cheat.
"It seems to me he had one guiding principle, to light a candle instead of curse the darkness," said Nick Brady, a longtime friend of Phipps, also during the Chairman's Dinner. "Never mind what people say, do something that is relevant."
The loss of Phipps' dedication, energy, and commitment leaves its own void. Fortunately, his children have inherited his determination to find success in racing, to protect the welfare of the horse, and to grow the sport.
"We were lucky to be able to spend time together those last few days, and he gave us our marching orders," Pulito said. "My dad and my grandfather loved this sport, and we're going to make them all proud."