Joe & Barbara Harper Honored

Joe & Barbara Harper

Gregson Foundation Honors
Joe & Barbara Harper

By Steve Schuelein

Twin Palms in Pasadena was jammed with 400 guests on April 23 to honor Joe and Barbara Harper of Del Mar at the annual Edwin J. Gregson Foundation benefit hosted by California Thoroughbred Trainers.

About $100,000 was raised for the foundation, which since its inception seven years ago, has raised close to $1 million specifically for educational purposes for backstretch workers and their families.

“Joe is simply the best,” said Robbins. “His demeanor and style are perfect for the job.”

Following a video tribute and an introduction by Peter Tunney, Del Mar Thoroughbred Club officials Craig Fravel, executive vice president, and Tom Robbins, vice president-racing, spoke glowingly of the track’s long-time president, CEO, and general manager and wife Barbara.

The Harpers have long been viewed as the unofficial hosts and ambassadors of good will of the seven-week summer meet at the San Diego County coastal track.

For those in the racing industry who view Del Mar as a sort of summer camp, Joe and Barbara are perceived as its counselors.

CTT honored the Harpers for their outstanding leadership and countless charitable efforts to benefit those in need and for their many achievements and contributions to the horse racing industry.

Joe has donated his time as chairman of Winners Foundation, director of Grayson-Jockey Club Research Foundation, chairman of the advisory board of the UC Davis Center for Equine Health and a member of the advisory board of the University of Arizona Race Track Industry Program. Barbara has been busy with roles in numerous civic projects.

Joe and Barbara have been married 43 years and are the parents of four daughters. Joe, grandson of legendary Hollywood director Cecil B. de Mille, joined the track in 1977 and since taking over its leadership has orchestrated one of the biggest success stories in the sport.

“Joe is simply the best,” said Robbins. “His demeanor and style are perfect for the job.”

Fravel added, “Joe and Barbara both know the importance of putting on a good show.”

Harper took the microphone from his wife with his usual impeccable timing, deferring to her as the power behind the scenes and saying, “Thank you, Gracie.”

After several moments of roast-style humor, Harper turned serious and underscored the significance of the event and the late trainer after whom it was named.

“Eddie Gregson was a guy I always went to, and he’d give it to me, right between the eyes,” said Harper appreciatively of the trainer’s no-holds-barred candor. “I wish there were more guys like him in the industry.”

One of the most fruitful programs in the foundation is a fund for scholarship grants that has enabled more than 60 individuals to attend college.

New grant recipients last year were Michael Ascanio, Bobby Ochoa, Lyssa Ortega, Francisco Rangel, Mayra Salmeron, Angel Solorzano, Luis Solorzano, and Daniel Valenzuela.

Noting the myriad problems plaguing the industry in recent years, Harper hoped the scholarship money would be well invested. “I hope some of you kids stick around to help us,” said Harper. “Our future is in your hands.”

Joe & Barbara Harper

By Jay Hovdey

Barbara and Joe Harper, honored tonight by the Edwin J. Gregson Foundation for their many charitable deeds, have been married for 43 years and have known each other for 50, dating back to the warm Arizona evening they were fixed up as a couple for a prep school dance.

For the past three decades, the Harpers have been indelibly linked to the racing fortunes of Del Mar Racetrack, where Joe has served as general manager, president, chief operating officer, and a member of the board of directors of the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club. He takes no direct credit for the fact that Del Mar has become a power player in the industry during his tenure, but his fingerprints are all over the evidence.

For her part of the bargain, Barbara raised four Harper daughters, managed their home, played hostess when necessary, and made sure Joe got to work on time. Then, when he was safely out of the house, she turned to her true calling as a driving force behind the many civic projects–most of them benefiting children–that have become her personal legacy.

Not to be outdone, Joe Harper has spent his career as a racing executive at the ready for almost any charitable approach, whether it is to serve as emcee or auctioneer for an evening of fundraising, or earmark specific Del Mar funds for a Thoroughbred cause like the California Equine Retirement Foundation.

He serves as chairman of the Winner’s Foundation, a director of the Grayson-Jockey Club Research Foundation, chairman of the advisory board of the UC Davis Center for Equine Health and a member of the advisory board of the University of Arizona Race Track Industry Program, as well as maintaining staunch support for the work of the Gregson Foundation.

Because the Harpers share such a long common history, and in order to get at the truth of all the meaningful contributions made to both their community and the racing industry, it was necessary to put them in separate rooms for questioning under hot lights to see if their stories panned out. Joe was happy to be interrogated first, while Barbara insisted that she had much better things to do, which was true.

Following is a partial transcript:

Question: What was the earliest indication that Barbara was more suited as a charitable fundraiser rather than as a racing executive’s wife who would only speak when spoken to?

Joe: Barbara started out when we lived in Los Angeles, fundraising for the John Tracy Clinic for children who have hearing disabilities. She put together a huge tennis tournament at the houses of all the swells, with the finale at Hugh Hefner’s place, and raised a lot of money for the kids served by the clinic.

Q: And this continued when you relocated to Del Mar, in 1977, to go to work as Donald B. Smith’s assistant?

It would seem to take a pretty thick skin to ask people for money, no matter how good the cause. Joe’s says you make them laugh then swoop in for the kill.

Joe: Yes. I remember the day some guy knocked on the door and said they were going to turn the old Del Mar Hotel Powerhouse by the beach into a restaurant. Barbara said no you’re not, and became the driving force in turning it into a community center.

Barbara and I were also on the board of the San Dieguito Boys and Girls Club at a time when the main branch was kind of falling apart after years of use. Someone said they ought to sell the place. Again, Barbara said no, and went out and rassled up about four million dollars. Fortunately, it wasn’t all from me.

Q: Barbara also has been one of the prime movers in Del Mar’s hugely successful “Celebrate the Champions” fundraiser that has meant so much to the veterinary program at the University of California Davis. Why is she so good at prying money away from people?

Joe: She uses her sense of humor, and while they’re yucking it up, they find their wallet is missing. For the Boys and Girls Club project, she got a couple

Barbara Harper Branch of the Boys and Girls Club

people to give more than a million dollars. When it came time to name the place, the club went to the major donors. They said no, it was Barbara who deserved it. So the whole club complex is named for her. It will be the Barbara Harper Boys & Girls Club–not the Joe & Barbara Harper Boys and Girls Club.

The questioning shifted over to Barbara, who had made 25 phone calls and raised $100,000 while waiting. She was asked if her ability as a fundraiser ever tiptoed near a career path.

Barbara: Joe keeps telling me that I could get a job as a professional fundraiser, make a lot more money than him, and then he could stay home. But I don’t even have a business card. The thing is, I’m not one to do ladies’ lunches. I do know that I have been very lucky in my life. There was a point I started to think that maybe I could do something to help people in the community. And there are always things that need to be done. It’s not like I had to look very far.

Q: It would seem to take a pretty thick skin to ask people for money, no matter how good the cause. Joe’s says you make them laugh then swoop in for the kill. Are their tricks to the trade?

Barbara: Humor helps, but I don’t like to really bug people. I like to get a person comfortable with the idea, contribute at a level that works for them, and then really make them feel like they are a part of it.

I watch the way Joe deals with people in racing. He speaks his mind, but he doesn’t seem to offend, and he gets done what he wants done. It’s a real knack. I have a tendency to speak right up and then think, aw, I might have hit that one too hard. We’re kind of the yin and the yang. We’re a good combination in that sense.

Q: Joe’s background, besides being the son of a prosperous businessman and a famous horsewoman, includes a stint working in Ronald Reagan’s campaigns for governor of California. As a lifelong Democrat, did it ever occur to you that you were enabling the opposition by simply feeding him all these years?

Barbara: That’s the only thing Joe and I every really disagree about–politics. When our three oldest girls were old enough to vote, I ask them how they registered. One of them said Democrat, one said Republican, and the other said independent. I asked her why she was an independent. She said because “one of you has the power and one of you has the money, and I’m not going to mess with either one.”

With its mandate to help the sons and daughters of the backstretch community further their education, the Gregson Foundation plays to the heart of both Harpers. Closer to home, Joe never hesitated to seek Gregson’s council.

“I loved Eddie,” Harper said. “If you had a backstretch full of guys like him, the game would be so much better. I would stop by his barn every morning, because I knew I could get an honest answer for whatever questions I had, whether it was about the track, the condition book, almost anything. And that was invaluable, even if the answer was one you didn’t want to hear.”

Long before they knew each other as pillars of the racing community, Joe Harper and Eddie Gregson had a tenuous connection through Hollywood.

As the grandson of Cecil B. “Part the Red Sea” deMille and son of respected Thoroughbred owner and breeder Cecilia deMille Harper, Joe appeared as a young stunt rider in “The Ten Commandments.” As a child–a real movie set brat–he was chased through the wreckage of a circus train by a black panther in “The Greatest Show on Earth.”

Gregson, who died in 2001, was once a fledgling actor before turning to a career as a trainer. He got his one and only big break playing a doomed soldier in the 1958 film version of Norman Mailer’s “The Naked and the Dead.”

“The panther never caught me,” Harper recalled, “but a snake got Eddie in the picture. Still, he was definitely on camera a lot more than I was.”

Edwin J. Gregson Foundation
Joe & Barbara Harper Benefit Dinner Photos