A tribute to Harvey Pack, and a plea to horse racing executives

A refrain we hear often after influential figures pass away is, “we’ll never see anyone else like him/her.” More often than not, that’s hogwash. Different versions of most of those people come along, we get used to it, and life goes on.

That’s why, when I say we’ll never see anyone else like Harvey Pack, it’s important to understand I’m not blowing smoke.

Pack was one of the most recognizable figures on the New York horse racing circuit for decades. He passed away at age 94 earlier this week, and tributes have poured in from those who knew him well.

I didn’t. As is the case with a lot of people I’ve modeled myself and my work after, I never met Harvey. This is probably a good thing, as he’d have been one of only two people I’d have been too intimidated by to interact with at the racetrack (for reference, the other is Andy Beyer, because what the heck would I tell him, that my name is Andrew, too?).

Having said that, I grew up watching shows Harvey hosted that recapped days of racing at Saratoga, Belmont, and Aqueduct. My dad and I would watch VHS tapes of Harvey chronicling the likes of Golden Tent, Boom Towner, and Kelly Kip, among other stalwarts of the early to mid-1990’s. Add in that we’d hear some of Harvey’s handicapping axioms, mixed in with tidbits from The Daily Racing Form and the racing sections of The New York Daily News and The New York Post, and you’ve got the foundation for how I found my voice as a writer, handicapper, and host.

I still use the things I learned as a kid in every single aspect of what I do. When I host handicapping seminars at Pleasanton, one of my most repeated refrains is a piece of advice Harvey used to trot out: “Never bet a horse, as the favorite, doing something it’s never done before.” Even as a kid, I got the logic behind it, and many of his core philosophies are ones I try to use in everything I do within racing (including the content I’ll be producing on a daily basis for the upcoming Saratoga meet).

This is the case for one simple reason: If I’m not providing an informative, engaging product to my audience, regardless of whether it’s their first time at the track or if they’re an everyday player, I’m not doing my job correctly. It’s a responsibility shared by everyone in the industry with a voice and a platform, and for two months or so, I’ve got one.

Most of racing’s on-air personalities are extraordinarily talented. However, they’re part of business models that are totally different from the one Harvey kept going for most of his professional career. When Harvey did seminars, people listened. There were times where he was standoffish, sure, but people came away more informed than they were when they arrived, which is the ultimate way to keep fans engaged.

What Harvey Pack did for so long provided a formula to grow the entire pie, not just some company’s portion of it. If more organizations took that model emphasizing fan cultivation and education, every single aspect of the game would benefit. Increased handle means bigger purses. Bigger purses mean more engaged connections. More engaged connections mean more money in the game and, in theory, at least a small chance the best horses stick around for longer than a handful of starts.

If major organizations in racing care about feeding that cycle, most of them do a lousy job of showing it. NYRA’s director of communications lambasted fans complaining about the experience at Belmont Park in a series of now-deleted tweets. Rumors recently flew that The Stronach Group is considering selling pieces of its portfolio, which includes tracks in California, Florida, and Maryland. TV contracts and petty disputes often leave fans confused about the best ways to watch races, and many small tracks show their gratitude to some of the hardest-working media and marketing professionals I know by forcing them to do the jobs of entire departments for just a single full-time paycheck.

Lots about this game is broken, and there are times where fixing it seems like a herculean task. However, Harvey Pack’s career provides a case study in how to do things correctly. Trot out a knowledgeable person who’s passionate about the game, let them be themselves with minimal interference, and use them as assets to grow the sport and leave the industry better than they found it.

Racing’s current construction won’t allow for the emergence of another Harvey Pack. There are TV anchors and handicappers for networks and simulcast feeds. They’re good. Many of them are excellent, and I’m proud to say a number of them are friends of mine. However, they’re serving different purposes than the ones Harvey did on TV and in seminars.

If you’re a higher-up reading this, and you want to pay tribute to Harvey Pack, consider going this route: Appreciate the talent you have, give them every opportunity to be the communicators they want to be, don’t burn them out, and watch as their passion and drive to educate the public about our game grows the fanbase at large.

I never met Harvey. I don’t know if he’d find all of this blasphemous, or at least something to throw at the camera with disdain at the end of “Thoroughbred Action” when he’d say, “may the horse be with you.” Whatever his views would’ve been, my view of him was simple.

Harvey Pack was the best to ever do what he did, and the racing world is a lesser one now that he’s no longer in it.

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