Can Horse Racing Grow Without Passionate People?

Over the past 30 years, your fearless scribe has come to one unmistakable conclusion: I’m cursed.

It’s a curse that probably doesn’t sound like a heavy burden, but it’s one I’ve had to deal with all my life. You see, my mind doesn’t stop. When I get stressed, or frustrated, or whatever the case may be, I see things in weird ways and use the written word as a way to cope.

Sometimes, this works. At least one executive at The Saratogian wanted my written weekly column gone in late-2012, and it took a convergence of two bizarre happenings to save it. The first came when former Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Jovan Belcher committed a series of unspeakable acts, and his one-time teammate at the University of Maine, fellow Kingston High School graduate Andrew Downey (to whom I still owe a debt I cannot repay), agreed to talk to me. The second came when my grandfather passed away and I wrote one of the things I’m most proud of (I’d link to it, but The Saratogian changed website providers several years ago and lots of content was lost).

Sometimes, though, it doesn’t work. At least one track probably still has a bounty on my head for something I wrote for Horse Racing Nation in 2014, and I know for a fact several industry heavyweights have taken plenty of exception to things I’ve said and/or done. What I’m writing now is probably going to go in the latter pile, but this is an issue I feel incredibly strongly about, and one that I’ll always fight for.

It’s been a tough month or so for a lot of people in the horse racing industry. The genesis of this column came after a visit to Los Angeles last week, where a lot of people (including several of much higher status in the racing business than yours truly) came together to say goodbye to Lou Villasenor. Lou was one of the most visible front-side employees at Santa Anita for three decades. He worked for both HRTV and Santa Anita’s simulcast department, and he was one of the good guys. As Kurt Hoover said in a post-funeral gathering, if you had a problem with Lou, something was wrong with you.

Lou was a sweet, kind, passionate man who loved what he did and was loved by the people he worked with. If everyone in racing attacked what they did for a living with the zest and vigor that Lou did, the industry would be a much better place.

The problem is, it seems as though we’ve decided that people with this sort of passion are expendable.

Before I go any further, I need to point out that this isn’t about me. As many of you know, my position with DRF was transitioned to part-time in September, and I left that position in November. However, what I’m writing is much more about what others in the industry have had to go through over the last few weeks.

Michael Wrona’s abrupt dismissal from his post at Santa Anita came as a shock to the horse racing world. He won an unconventional contest for the job in 2016 following the semi-retirement of Trevor Denman, and over the past two and a half years, he called races in Arcadia with professionalism, flair, and enthusiasm.

I count new Santa Anita announcer Frank Mirahmadi as a friend. Whether Frank knows it or not, he did a lot for me during a brief time where we were both employed by TVG, and I’ll always be grateful to him for that. Santa Anita is his dream job, and I know he’ll do great work (as he has in each of his prior career stops). However, I feel terrible for Wrona, who, by all indications, was completely blindsided by Santa Anita’s decision to not renew his contract.

(By the way, if you want an example of how classy Wrona is, here’s one: Last Wednesday, during what had to be one of the worst weeks of his life, he suited up and went to Lou’s funeral. Michael Wrona doesn’t know me, nor does he have any reason to be reading this, but that was a first-class move from a man whose character has been vouched for by many others elsewhere.)

Unfortunately, that wasn’t the only rough news from Santa Anita. When Wrona was dismissed, word leaked out that several members of XBTV’s production staff were also shown the door. This included several former HRTV colleagues of mine, such as Aaron Vercruysse, Richard Migliore, and Michael Canale (among others). Additionally, following news that several of Santa Anita’s graded stakes races were downgraded, longtime racing secretary Rick Hammerle (who trainer Bob Baffert gave the utmost credit to for filling the allowance race Justify won prior to the Santa Anita Derby) was let go as well.

They’re all fantastic, talented people, and they’re too gifted to be unemployed for very long if they don’t want to be. Furthermore, none of them need me to vouch for any of that, and I’m sure at least one of them wishes I hadn’t (sorry, guys; it’s my website, and I like each of you very much!).

The reason I’m writing about this now, though, is pretty simple: In a time where horse racing needs to be focused on creating passionate fans in order to ensure the sport’s continued survival, why is it that we’re making a habit of kicking out passionate employees?

This isn’t solely a Santa Anita issue. As racing has slowly dwindled in popularity, no circuit or outlet has been immune from this trend. The folks from Thoroughbred Times have horror stories about the publication’s shutdown in 2012 (and the lean years that preceded it). TVG had a highly publicized round of layoffs in 2011, and had a less public round in 2017. Analyst Jason Blewitt, whose work very few have ever criticized, was let go from NYRA for reasons that remain unclear (though, thankfully, he’s since latched on at Gulfstream Park).

In order for handle and revenue to grow, the gambling side of racing needs to be marketed by smart, savvy gamblers that can convey what they know to a public that’s eager to learn. Forgive me, but this doesn’t strike me as a complex concept. Beer festivals, food trucks, and the like are nice (and one could argue that they drive attendance and look great on social media), but those don’t teach anything that would make good players out of mediocre players or indulge the curiosities of someone making his or her first trip to the track.

I’ve learned a lot over the past three months about doing what you genuinely love to do. I’m passionate about communicating facts and opinions about this great game, and having a full-time job allows me to keep my hand in some aspects of it. Similarly, I have no doubt that the people looking for work will be more than fine in the long run, and that they’ll be back doing what they’re excellent at in short order.

Unfortunately, this is a worrisome trend. While racing (like anything else) is a business, complete with profit/loss margins that must be met, it seems counterintuitive to not invest in passionate people that can help a racing company grow. We need those people in the game, because if they’re put in the right spots, they’ll create more people like them that will contribute to its growth. Maybe that isn’t a fan base that plays well on social media, but it’s a fan base horse racing cannot survive without.

(Rest in peace, Lou. We miss you.)

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