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.

INTERLUDE: Gimmick Andrew, the Kentucky Derby, and horse racing insanity

We find Normal Andrew in his absurdly-overpriced Northern California apartment, mulling over the events of the strangest day in the history of horse racing Twitter. It’s quiet.

Too quiet…until music familiar to wrestling fans of a certain age blares from the parking garage next door.

Suddenly, we see the familiar flair and panache of Gimmick Andrew strut right through the front door and past Elliot the fearsome attack cat. Unlike past run-ins, this time, Gimmick Andrew is clad in a freshly-tailored suit, walking with a newfound spring in his step in time with “The Million Dollar Man” Ted DiBiase’s theme music, and speaking when marked in bold.

“Is the music really necessary? And the suit? And…is that a cane?”

“Everyone else is doing stupid things with no ramifications for their actions. Why not me?”

Both Andrews judgmentally look at a nonexistent camera for a few seconds, a stretch of time that feels like an eternity.

“You know what you need to do?”

“Write something that’ll go over the head of 90% of my audience but hit the other 10% square between the eyes?”

“…other than that.”

“Ask when you’re refunding the money you won on Derby Day?”

“Nobody’s going to make either of us feel guilty about hitting the race. I won’t allow it. All the naysayers can come take my Kentucky Derby winnings from our cold, dead hands, like Charlton Heston and his guns.”

“Credit where it’s due. We had Medina Spirit and gave out winning wagering strategies on every platform…”

“So why shouldn’t I be celebrating?”

“Read the room, dude. It’s not exactly a celebratory time.”

“What? Trainers cheating in horse racing comes as a shock?”

“Not quite. It’s moreso the fact that we’ve got so few chances to get things right as an industry and can’t do it. Then, when stuff happens, we have no uniform response because jurisdictions can’t work together.”

“Did I hear right that Baffert’s blaming a groom for urinating in a stall?”

“Yep. He’s also blaming ‘cancel culture.’”

“How is ‘cancel culture’ at fault with regard to a drug test? His horse tested positive. He’s either got a drugged-up horse or the testing system is flawed.”

“I wrote that.”

“Well, one or the other clearly has to change.”

“I wrote that, too. Read the site.”

“Sorry. I spent all day getting my suit worked on. It’s like an Italian sports car. Gotta get it fitted just right.”

“Whatever. It’s just sad.”

“Why do you feel that way?”

A pause.

“Don’t get all clammy on me. I’m your subconscious. If you can’t tell me, who CAN you tell?”

“I’ve given a lot to this game. A lot of passion, a lot of gambling money, a lot of time spent creating content. Now, everybody’s got an opinion, everyone thinks their opinion’s the only one that counts, and whether you’re being logical or not, and whether you have any credibility or not, isn’t worth a damn.”

“Welcome to Twitter.”

“It’s never been like this, though. Monday was unprecedented. Horse racing really can’t get out of its own way.”

“Then why do you care so much?”

“That’s why I paused. Between this situation, how it’s being handled by everybody, and the general disrespect being shown by everyone towards everyone else, it’s the first time I haven’t been proud to be part of the racing community. I just…wish there was room for some logic, somewhere, ANYWHERE.”

“You wish there was room for you.”

“…you don’t pull punches.”

“What good would I be if I did?”

“You want to fire up the CM Punk pipe bomb, or should I?”

“Go ahead.”

“Hey, WordPress isn’t allowing me to post a link to the spot in the video.”

“Tell them to scroll to 4:14.”

“Better now?”

“A little. There’s so much wrong that I want to change, except I can’t change it. Being passionate is almost a negative nowadays.”

“You wrote about that a few years ago.”

“Nothing’s changed. The people angriest about this situation may not be the connections involved in the Kentucky Derby. It’s the fans, the bettors, the people the sport cannot function without yet sometimes completely takes for granted and fails to appreciate.”

“You mean the people that groom from Claiborne went after?”

“I’m not touching that with a 10-foot pole.”

“You’re no fun.”

“Anyway, it really stinks to be passionate about something when a perfect storm of horrible things comes together and threatens to destroy it.”

“You’re not going to quit betting, are you?”

“No, why?”

“Because if you did, I’d say, ‘see you tomorrow,’ which is literally the only possible retort against an attention-seeking person who resorts to that.”

Normal Andrew smiles.

“I’ll give you that. But what do you do when the thing you love very much seems hell-bent on destroying itself and doesn’t much care what you think about it?”

“You be yourself. In your case, it means being the very best you can be, doing things very few other people can do as well as you can, and hoping that one day, it’ll be enough for…well, whatever it is you’re chasing.”

“What am I chasing?”

“It seems like a moving target. But if it’s meant to be, you’ll hit it. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m double-parked outside.”

“You bought a car?”

“Yeah! Brand new Camaro.”

“How’d you afford that?”

“What I made on Medina Spirit pales in comparison to what I made buying Dogecoin.”

Medina Spirit, the Kentucky Derby, and two important words

A long time ago, I composed a 50-point plan to improve horse racing’s future prospects. One of the most important ones was also probably the simplest one on the list. It was two words, and comprised a philosophy that racing had yet to embrace at that time.

“Optics matter.”

You know why I’m writing this column. It was announced Sunday morning that Medina Spirit, the winner of the 2021 Kentucky Derby, tested positive for a banned substance. We’re now playing the waiting game as a split sample gets tested. If that comes back positive as well, we’ll see just the second medication-based disqualification in Derby history.

When trainer Bob Baffert was reached for comment on the situation, he denied giving Medina Spirit the illegal substance.

“I don’t know what is going on in racing right now but there is something not right,” he said to reporters Sunday. “I don’t feel embarrassed, I feel like I was wronged.”

This is consistent with his responses to situations involving top-tier horses such as Justify, Gamine, and Charlatan, among others, all of whom tested positive and have largely had those situations swept under the rug. In the latter two cases, the Arkansas Racing Commission recently overturned rulings made by its own stewards and reinstated victories for those two horses. Justify, meanwhile, tested positive for scopolamine following the 2018 Santa Anita Derby, but was not disqualified, either immediately after the test results came in or after lengthy legal proceedings stemming from a lawsuit filed by Bolt d’Oro’s owner/trainer, Mick Ruis.

I’m not a vet. If you’re looking for a detailed analysis of the substance Medina Spirit tested positive for, you’re going to need to look elsewhere. What I am is a lifelong racing fan, a handicapper since I was in middle school (for better or for worse), and someone with a career in marketing and communications that can provide some insight into how this will go over with the people racing needs in order to survive.

Spoiler alert: It’s not going over well.

Many in racing want the sport to be mainstream, as it was many years ago. As Alicia Hughes, a friend of mine and one of the best writers in the game, continually points out, this means an acceptance of criticism and coverage that is good, bad, and indifferent. Right now, what we have are a bunch of people who are very angry, for legitimate reasons.

Those who bet Mandaloun, who ran his eyeballs out to be second and tested clean, feel robbed. Those who took to social media to complain after the Derby, either because they didn’t use a 12-1 Bob Baffert trainee in a race he’d won six times before last weekend or because they genuinely felt something was afoot, have all the ammo they need to say the game is crooked (though cries of “I’M NEVER BETTING AGAIN” from those who shove the GDP of a developing nation through the windows or ADW’s will always come across as hollow and/or ego-driven).

How does any of this help racing draw the new fans it desperately needs? How has racing’s continued inability to effectively police itself in any way, shape, or form helped ensure a place for itself moving forward? And when will people who have the ability to make decisions that impact the sport moving forward realize trainers constantly complaining about being wronged are taking lessons from the Taylor Swift School of Spin, where nothing bad is ever their fault?

The answers: It doesn’t, it doesn’t, and they won’t, at least not without significant prompting to do so.

It took the FBI moving in for Jorge Navarro and Jason Servis to be run off the racetrack. In Navarro’s case, he had a rap sheet as long as Giannis Antetokounmpo’s arm but continually received mere slaps on the wrist as he took bottom-level claimers and turned them into stakes winners. All the while, bettors had an idea of what was going on, bet money accordingly, and watched as racing took no significant action despite enough smoke to indicate a giant wildfire.

At a time when perception is everything, it seems racing is deliberately choosing not to be proactive. In combating the issue of race-day medication, the sport decided to phase out Lasix, a substance designed to stop horses from bleeding. While Lasix may be A problem, the Medina Spirit situation shows it was not THE problem. Add in that horses may need Lasix to run at the sport’s highest level due to the way horses are bred in 2021, and that several of those top-tier equine athletes have bled during races, and anyone who’s watching closely knows significantly more work is needed in order to ensure any consistency and integrity moving forward.

If Medina Spirit’s split sample comes back negative, I hope it’s a stimulus for the complete and total rebuild of post-race testing from coast to coast. I don’t care what it costs, nor what the hurdles are in instituting a nationwide system where all results can be trusted. If we can’t get this right when the entire world is watching, who’s to say we’re getting this right when it isn’t?

If Medina Spirit’s split sample comes back positive, I hope it’s a stimulus for a new era of stricter sanctions for trainers who cheat. Horses run for millions of dollars, and paltry fines that amount to change “supertrainers” might find between their couch cushions means the usual punishment doesn’t come close to fitting the crime. Meaningful fines and suspensions, ones that shut the door for assistants to step in as program trainers and allow a “business as usual” mentality, are long past due.

Optics matter. And if for horse racing doesn’t apply those two words to this situation on a national level, it casts doubt on if the sport ever will in a meaningful way.

INTERLUDE: Gimmick Andrew Returns

The following conversation took place on Normal Andrew’s couch on a recent day off from work. Those unfamiliar with the Gimmick Andrew concept should read this piece published in 2018, at which point many perceived notions about Normal Andrew’s behavior should evaporate.

To make things easier to read, Gimmick Andrew’s quotes will be in italics.

– – – – –

“…who let you in here?”

“You did. This is YOUR subconscious, dude.”

“Fair enough.”

“What’s new?”

“Rushing Fall cost me a Pick Six and I’m sweating The Pink Sheet’s pick box like it’s a life-or-death situation.”

“So not much.”

“Yeah, that’s all pretty on-brand.”

“Why am I here, then?”

“What do you mean?”

“I only come out when there’s a defined reason for my existence. Clearly, something’s got you acting pensive and thinking weird thoughts. What is it, Saratoga running without fans?”

“No, that was actually the right move.”

“No fans at the Derby?”

“Unquestionably the right move, and one that should have been made months ago.”

“Your new podcast, ‘Champagne and J.D.?’”

“The one everyone should open in a new tab to check out? No, that’s going pretty well. We’ve gotten a great assortment of guests on a wide range of topics, and J.D. Fox and I are really proud of what we’ve built.”

“I’ll go build a fake Gmail account and subscribe.”

“Good. Tell your friends to do the same.”

“Why’d you even start that, anyway?”

“A couple of reasons. We wanted to give people something to have fun with during the pandemic, and neither of us were particularly happy with…oh.”

“What?”

“I just figured out why you’re here.”

“Keep going, then. I’d prefer if you didn’t waste my time with commercials nobody asked for that wind up making horse racing content impossible to watch, read, or listen to.”

(An uncomfortably long pause ensues as both Andrews glance deeply into an imaginary camera.)

“Well, I’ve got genuine issues with the way the sport is being marketed.”

“How’s that any different from what you’ve believed for years?”

“I don’t work in horse racing full-time anymore. I haven’t for two years.”

“Do you miss it?”

“Working in horse racing?”

“Yes.”

“Every single day. And that’s not to say I don’t like what I do now. But there are days where I firmly believe I was put on this planet to make a positive difference in the sport I love.”

“You have.”

“I’d like to think so.”

“Well, again, this is YOUR subconscious.”

“I miss the racetrack. I miss being able to promote the sport in a meaningful way, with people recognizing I know what I’m doing and letting me do it.”

“Is anyone else out there doing the stuff you want to do?”

“Nowhere near enough. I was born about 50 years too late. There aren’t full-time turf writers left, and a lot of good, solid racing people have been shown the door.”

“Then why put so much time and energy into something that doesn’t seem to want you around?”

“Because I care. Because there are issues I can fix.”

“Like what?”

“Who out there is creating content produced by horseplayers, for horseplayers? Some people. Not many. Racing is bound and determined to market to an attractive potential audience rather than the one it actually draws. What I do isn’t sexy. But what I do works, and there’s data that shows it.”

“What do you do, exactly?”

“I write, I produce videos, and I do so in a way that appeals to the biggest audience possible, the one horse racing wouldn’t survive without. Everywhere I’ve gone, social and digital media numbers have shot through the roof. And when people in charge of this stuff around the industry now do so in a way that’s sloppy, or insulting, or shows a defined lack of research…I get angry.”

“As angry as you got three and a half years ago?”

“Not quite. Close, though.”

“So what’s your plan?”

“Well…”

“Say it. If people are going to think you’re loud, or pompous, or have an ego, give them a reason.”

“You’re a horrible influence.”

“Say it.”

“…if nobody else is doing it, maybe I should.”

“That’s the spirit.”

“If not enough people are creating meaningful content for racing’s biggest audience, and if I’ve shown that’s something I can do effectively, maybe it falls on me to do that.”

“My work here is done.”

“Wait. How do I start?”

“What do I look like, your assistant? Finish Saratoga, then figure that out. If you need me, start having internal dialogues. If I’m not busy abusing your Netflix account, maybe I’ll come back.”

“Is that why I’m getting weird documentaries as recommendations?”

“Watch ‘Tread.’ Dude makes a bulldozer and tries to steamroll an entire town.”

“You’re strange.”

“I’m you.”

“Well, I’m the guy bound and determined to do something positive for horse racing.”

“Good luck.”

TO BE CONTINUED

Andrew Plays Golf: Prepping for Pebble Beach

My dad’s coming to the Bay Area in a few short weeks. Thanks to the coronavirus pandemic, many of our usual father-son activities are off the table. For instance, in-restaurant dining is out of the question (even if it was allowed, we almost certainly wouldn’t do it, for understandable reasons), and while horse races will be run at the Alameda County Fair in nearby Pleasanton, fans will not be allowed on the grounds.

One thing we can do, however, is play golf. My dad is a lifelong player, a multiple-time club champion at various courses in upstate New York, and a single-digit handicap who often finds ways to grumble about scores in the high-70’s. I know this because he usually calls me on his way home after posting said scores.

In my case, though, “play golf” is a relative term. Perhaps the more appropriate description of my activity would be “attempt to not awaken the ghost of Old Tom Morris by partaking in the biggest earth-moving project in the history of Contra Costa County.” My all-time best round was a 96 at Rancho Park in Los Angeles, the former site of the LA Open before it moved to Riviera. I finished par-par-par, including a 5 on a finishing hole that once induced a 12 from Arnold Palmer, and I felt like turning my driver into a bull, a la Adam Sandler in “Happy Gilmore.”

I’ve never been a consistently active golfer, even after moving to California, where the golf season doubles in length from where I grew up. I enjoy the game, but between working on weekends for most of my career and having a lot of other stuff going on, I’ve never had the time to devote to being good at it. Add in that they don’t really make golf clubs for people who stand 6’5” and that most golfing activities involve bending something that usually doesn’t bend much for people my height, and you wind up with an awkward marriage of hobbyist and hobby.

This may seem verbose, but you need to have a clear picture of all of it, as everything you’ve just read leads to a two-part declaration.

Part one: My father and I will be playing Pebble Beach.

Part two: I am mortified.

This is the most renowned public golf course in the country. It’s hosted six U.S. Opens. Nicklaus hit one of the best shots of his career with a 1-iron here. Watson holed the ultimate “you could put a bucket of balls out there and never do that again” chip here. Tiger could’ve won the 2000 U.S. Open here playing on his knees.

And they’re letting ME play there?

I sweat over the pick box in Saratoga’s Pink Sheet every day of every meet. I hurl my phone into the couch when horses I bet lose photo finishes (my phone and couch can attest this happens often). I rage-quit video games, and I full-heartedly fling myself into things where nothing more than bragging rights are on the line (if you’re in Group Four in the contest being put on by the fine folks at The Daily Gallop, you know this already). Put that together with a tee shot that naturally veers further to the right than Mitch McConnell, and you have a recipe for disaster.

EafS2CIU8AAjpw1I need help, and lots of it, so I’m trying to work my way into something resembling decent form ahead of my father’s visit. Step one came Sunday with a trip to Diablo Hills, a nine-hole, par-34 course a few miles from my apartment. I got thrown into a foursome with three nice, outgoing people who were kind enough to laugh at my usual pre-round proclamation, “I suck, but I suck quickly.”

Early returns were not promising. After teeing up the first of three Titleist golf balls marked, “I’M NOT LOST, I’M HIDING FROM ANDREW CHAMPAGNE,” I took a deep breath through my mask, pulled, my driver back, and gave it a big move through the ball. True to form, the drive looked great for about 75 yards before making a hard right turn and ignoring my pained cries of, “hold, ball!” When the ball stopped 200 yards from the tee, it did so thanks to a conveniently-placed fence that trapped it in its wiring.

EagTZUBUwAACFutAfter thanking the fence profusely for its service and giving myself a drop that was questionable in legality (basically, I treated the fence as though it was a hazard and used the foolproof, “I’m not walking all the way back there to hit another tee shot,” defense), I pulled out a wedge, and all of a sudden, things got weird, as my body was momentarily possessed by a golfing spirit that knew what it was doing. My uphill shot dodged a nearby tree, floated through the air, and came to rest on the front part of the green about 40 feet from the cup. I salvaged a two-putt bogey, and with that, we were off and running.

Diablo Hills is built around several apartment complexes, several of which must feel like war zones in the summer with golf balls bombarding roofs, walls, windows, and parked cars from dawn to dusk. The fourth hole is a 90-yard par 3 down a hill near a major road in town. My playing partners confirmed moving cars had been hit by errant tee shots in the past, so I had plenty of apprehension as I stood over my ball (especially since said ball had my full name on it and could be used against me in traffic court).

I gave it my best three-quarter wedge swing, and it looked good off the clubhead.

“Be right,” I pleaded as it approached the green and a bunker guarding it.

It was, but barely. It missed the side of the bunker by about three feet, bounced once, and skidded to a stop about 10 feet past the hole.

Fear not, though, as I remembered my lack of skill on the green and squirted the birdie putt a foot or two past the cup on the right side. Crap.

Still, I wound up playing like I actually had some sort of clue, which shocked me. Despite a three-putt double-bogey on the course’s lone par-5 (a devilish, 500-yard uphill hole that points and laughs at walkers too brave/cheap to rent a cart), I signed for a respectable 44, and it could’ve been two or three shots lower with better putting and/or drives kept on the planet.

IMG_8239I felt strangely optimistic as I took my golfer’s mask off in the car. Diablo Hills is no Pebble Beach, but if I can straighten out the big stick and start making some putts, perhaps I won’t totally embarrass myself on a big stage.

Then again, if I do, it’ll make for a pretty funny column.