Updates on life, the Kentucky Derby, and one of horse racing’s biggest issues

It’s been quite a while since I’ve written something here. There are a bunch of reasons for that, and a bunch of reasons why I’m putting this together.

My “new” job

As you probably know, I’m back in the gambling industry on a full-time basis. A bit more than three years after The Daily Racing Form saw me as surplus to requirements, I’ve latched on at Catena Media as a Content Manager. They’re an affiliate marketing company in the space, and I’m having a blast wearing many hats.

Since coming on board in January, I’ve assumed a leadership role with several sites in the company’s “play” network. Each state gets a site, and the ones in my bucket are California, Florida, Maryland, Massachusetts, and Ohio. I’m managing a fantastic team and working with people who are insanely passionate and spectacular at what they do. It’s been a fun few months, and it feels good to be back.

In addition to managing those sites, I’ve also started producing plenty of horse racing content for Playfecta, the company’s resident racing page. This includes betting strategies and looks at Kentucky Derby prep races.

Catena’s also been wonderful about allowing me to freelance for non-competitors. You may have seen my Derby Bubble column for the fine folks at The Paulick Report, and, predictably, the one thing I insisted on prior to coming aboard was an ability to continue my role with The Pink Sheet each summer for as long as they’ll have me. They were fantastic about this, so my summer Saratoga coverage remains unchanged.

If I may be allowed a quick detour into “wrestling promo” mode: This means that your reigning, defending, undisputed Saratoga all-media handicapping champion will be back this July to defend his title. If you don’t like it, play along for 40 days, publish your picks, and beat me. Contrary to what some may like to believe, if you do that, I’ll be the first in line to shake your hand, say “good game,” and mean it.

All of my Kentucky Derby stuff

I figured it would be handy to have a one-stop shop with links to all of my content focused on Kentucky Derby Week. The below list includes written articles, podcasts, and videos, and if you’re curious about how I see things over the next few days at Churchill Downs, these are what you’ll want to dive into.

FRIDAY

SATURDAY

Horse racing has a problem

Earlier this week, the plight of a young woman in racing got my attention. Mary Cage chronicled what went into an excruciating decision to leave the game she loved. Her explanation was raw and honest, and what some interpreted as “millennial softness” was, in actuality, a much-needed dose of humanity.

I related to this right away. When I feel something, I feel it more intensely than most. That’s a quality horse racing doesn’t have much use for. My career almost ended before it really got started due to a situation where that came into play (we’re getting closer to when I can feel comfortable telling that story publicly, but we’re not there yet). It played a role in why I left TVG, despite 99.9% of people I worked with/for being outstanding professionals and people (I spent most of an afternoon with several of them last weekend at Golden Gate Fields!).

When Mary talked about the issues she faced, it hit home. My challenges were different, but rooted in a lot of the same concepts. I bent over backwards to help a variety of companies and people. I wore many hats, I worked long hours, and I was ultimately deemed expendable by a machine that seems to take pride in chewing up and spitting out those who care about maintaining it.

Predictably, while Mary got plenty of support from some of the industry’s best people, she was dragged by some of the worst. Not everyone is going to agree on everything, and that’s fine. Some of the attacks got personal, though, with insinuations made that she lacked a proper work ethic or other qualities commenters deemed necessary for success in racing.

At the same time this was going on, a company came out with the first of several “explosive videos” designed to lobby for causes and people in racing. Predictably, the name “Bob Baffert” was dropped four seconds into the video, which aimed to pit Baffert’s camp of loyalists against Churchill Downs and its backers.

This is going to sound harsh, and perhaps the firm has better ideas up its sleeve moving forward. Having said that, after seeing the nonsense Mary had to deal with (as well as stories of other young people in racing being forced to question the longevity of their careers)…I really don’t care about what happens to Bob Baffert anymore.

Racing is the only billion-dollar industry I’ve discovered where passion to make things better, and ideas that require short-term sacrifice for long-term gains across the board, are frequently frowned upon. People like Mary shouldn’t be chased out of the industry. They want to work, and they want to make things better. Instead of deciding they’re expendable, give them all the work they want, and get out of the way while they do it.

We can go on and on about things like Baffert, trainers, breeding, and any number of issues. Contrary to the belief of some of the trolls out there, I welcome respectful disagreement on all topics (it’s the “respectful” part that’s often a bridge too far, I’ve found).

Here’s a much more important thought to ponder, though: If we’re turning away people who actively want to have long, sustained careers in racing, what chance do we have to attract those who are indifferent about the sport? Furthermore, what chance do we have to change the minds of those who have decided they don’t like it?

Look up at the amount of content I’ve produced for two days of racing, on top of my normal, 40-hour job. In addition, I’m writing this at almost 11 pm Pacific time on Thursday, May 5. Tomorrow is Kentucky Oaks Day, with a 7:30 am first post. I’ll be up for all 13 races, from maiden claimers to the main event, and I’ll be ready to do it again for 14 more races Saturday, including the sport’s biggest one.

All of this is my contribution to the game. I’m a handicapper and content creator. I write and produce things for people to enjoy, with the hopes that some of it helps people make money. It’s why I enjoyed last year’s Kentucky Derby so much. My show (which included a special appearance from my father) gave out $30 in tickets that returned more than $1,000. As hokey as it sounds, buying him and my girlfriend a nice dinner after the races is something I’ll remember for the rest of my life. If my analysis and insight helped give someone else a moment like that, even better.

I love horse racing.

There are times I wish horse racing loved itself.

Medina Spirit, One Handicapper’s Peaks and Valleys, and Horse Racing’s Next Steps

It was 8:38 am when I got the text message.

I had just gotten out of bed and was getting ready for work. My phone vibrated with news that Medina Spirit had died following a five-furlong drill at Santa Anita.

I almost went back to bed.

I’m not a vet, I’m not an expert on the structure of the American thoroughbred, and I’m not here to bash certain people within the game just because it’s the fun, trendy thing to do. I’m a fan, handicapper, and content producer that’s had, simultaneously, the best and most chaotic year of my life betting on and talking about horses.

Medina Spirit is a big reason for that. Sent away at 13-1 in the Kentucky Derby, he was left alone on the lead when Rock Your World didn’t break. Mandaloun, Hot Rod Charlie, and Essential Quality came up to challenge him, but Medina Spirit refused to yield, got home, and triggered a celebration in my Northern California apartment that was probably audible up and down the West Coast.

We know the rest of the story. He tested positive for a banned substance, and a lengthy legal battle has outlived its subject. After his death, we still don’t know if we can call Medina Spirit the official Kentucky Derby winner. He won a few races, was ridden for second behind Knicks Go in the Breeders’ Cup Classic, and may very well win Champion 3-Year-Old Male honors at the Eclipse Awards.

On its own, Medina Spirit’s death would be bad enough. A high-profile Bob Baffert trainee dying of an apparent heart attack after a workout, while the subject of a lengthy drug investigation, is reason enough to cringe. However, it’s the latest blow to a sport that’s been crippled lately by one public relations disaster after another over the past few years.

Santa Anita was put through the ringer in 2019, when a series of breakdowns caused an avalanche of bad press (including an astoundingly tone-deaf one-liner on the ABC show “Black-ish”) and forced significant changes to the racing product. I worked at Santa Anita for a year and a half. It’s a cathedral with fantastic people steering the ship and making the engine go. They’re back racing down the hill, and the surface is far safer than it was nearly three years ago.

Good luck, however, telling that to people whose exposure to Santa Anita comes in the form of blurbs on the ESPN “Bottom Line” talking about breakdowns and deaths rather than consuming the product on a regular basis.

Medina Spirit’s win in the Kentucky Derby triggered legal activity from all corners of the racing world. After news of the positive test made national headlines, some handicappers felt cheated enough to file a lawsuit against Churchill Downs, demanding that bettors who were beaten by a drugged horse be properly reimbursed.

Speaking of bettors, there’s no other way to explain what happened on the first day of the 2021 Breeders’ Cup than three simple words: They got hosed. Modern Games was let through a starting gate prior to the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf. In a sea of confusion, he was scratched, then un-scratched, then announced as running for purse money only. The talented Charles Appleby runner won as much the best, because of course he did, and the reaction from the Del Mar grandstand was a thunderous chorus of boos, one that I’ve never heard at a track before and don’t plan on ever hearing again.

As a sport, where are we on controlling the narrative that reaches novices and those who have never been to the track before? Where are we on a response that reassures the racing fanbase that the racetrack is still a fun place to go, and that one’s gambling dollar is more respected there than at a blackjack table, a slot machine, or a daily fantasy sports provider? How is it possible that a sport with many incredibly wealthy, smart people at the top level can be playing defense this much?

– – – – –

I can’t address those questions without a look at where I’m at. I don’t work in horse racing full-time anymore. I’ve been out of the business for three years, ever since I was a casualty of budget cuts at The Daily Racing Form. To some, that’s a very good thing, and to others, I’m no different from other ignorant washouts who like to toot their own horn.

Those people don’t know me. By and large, they know the silly guy who posts professional wrestling memes and fires up Ric Flair’s promo from the 1992 Royal Rumble when he wins. News flash: If any of you, and I mean ANY OF YOU, take that stuff seriously and think that’s a true indication of how much I think I matter, re-evaluate your life choices and check your rear end for a stick.

If you took this seriously…really???

What people other than my family and closest friends don’t see is the time I spend, on top of a full-time job, creating written and video content with the intensity of someone who still does it on a full-time basis. I’m probably the only guy left who attacks the Saratoga all-media handicapping race the way writers and horseplayers did 20 years ago, and I make no apologies for that. When kids my age were reading Roald Dahl, I was reading Russ Harris. Putting out a quality product matters to me, and that’s not going to change for as long as I do it.

My main rush, though, comes from helping the once-a-year track-goers cash tickets and enjoy themselves at the track. I had a friend tell me once that I cared more about people knowing I was right than actually being right. Heck yes, I do, and it’s because if people know I was right and they bet what I liked, they made money! What rush is better than that?

I said all of that, and went on what seemed like a few meandering tangents, to bring it back to one point: If racing continues to shoot itself in the foot with no plans to convince people it’s fun to come to the track, there may not be once-a-year track-goers anymore.

– – – – –

I still love this game. I love writing about it, I love going on-camera to talk about it, I love reading the form to find an edge, I love betting that edge, and I love being right. I’ll answer questions from people about the sport all day long, if I can, and any sort of ambassadorship I can provide pales in comparison to what horse racing has given me.

That said, I’ve never been confrontational when I meet people who don’t like (or, in some cases, actively hate) horse racing. It’s not going to be everyone’s thing, and that’s okay. Where we find trouble is when we ask ourselves this dangerous, two-part question: How many people have been turned off by issues in racing the past few years, and what can we do to bring them back?

Remember what I said about how much I think I matter? If you think I’m an egotistical maniac, strap in for this one: For all of my flaws (and there are people who will gladly take the time to list all of them), I’m REMARKABLY self-aware. If I took my annual handle (it’s none of your business, but it’s not totally insignificant) and put that money and my content creation efforts into any other relevant field, I know I wouldn’t be missed by racing at large. That isn’t a knock on myself. It’s just a fact.

The same can be said for people I know who have bet considerably more than me and vowed that they’re done with the sport. On their own, one’s individual handle going elsewhere isn’t going to break the game or send shockwaves through the industry. However, if the whales leave, and the medium-sized fish leave, and the small fish leave without laying eggs (in this hypothetical, the eggs represent people introduced to the game and given reasons to be excited about it), what’s left? In that instance, horse racing suddenly turns into yacht racing, where rich people compete for each other’s money and nobody in any other tax bracket cares.

Any changes made are going to take time to implement. Expecting an overnight revolution when the status quo hasn’t been seriously threatened on a national level for decades is irrational, and anyone taking the opportunity to demand such a movement should know that. However, those in the game who think everything is fine and that the sport can police itself are also misguided (not to add yet another tangent, but if the sport could police itself, why did it take the FBI to run Jorge Navarro and Jason Servis out of the industry?).

There need to be constructive, inclusive conversations about how to fix the issues in our game. Women, minorities, and those that haven’t traditionally had prominent seats at that table need to be involved. Bettors and owners need to be respected in equal measure, because the sport doesn’t work without both revenue streams. The words, “but that’s the way we’ve always done it,” should be cause for a public flogging, and anyone with conflicts of interest should be required to leave the room when a close-to-home topic is being discussed.

I don’t know how we get fans back who say they’re done with the game and mean it. We don’t know the official Kentucky Derby winner. We don’t know for sure which trainers are dirty and which ones are clean. We don’t have a concrete plan in place that ensures a Modern Games fiasco doesn’t happen again. Shoot, going back to the 2019 Kentucky Derby, we still don’t have one uniform answer to the question, “what is a foul that merits disqualification?”

What I do know is that doing nothing won’t work.

I’m not asking racing to solve all of those problems instantly. However, here’s a simple prayer from someone who gives a damn about the sport surviving and thriving at all levels: Can’t we at least get the car out of “neutral?”

For Norm Macdonald

Earlier this month, I went to a wedding and saw a bunch of people I hadn’t seen for 3 1/2 years. When I lived in Los Angeles, I was a regular at Tompkins Square, an old-school bar near Loyola Marymount with a weekly trivia night (for a brief time, it was two, until your fearless scribe killed the sports game by winning enough that nobody else showed up). I started going with a friend who got married in Mammoth Lakes a few weeks ago, and in turn made several new friends I hadn’t seen since moving to Northern California in early-2018.

That intro had a purpose, trust me. Also at those trivia nights, sitting in a corner booth with a small circle of friends and fellow trivia competitors, was Norm Macdonald. LA is full of random celebrity sightings, so seeing the former “Weekend Update” host indulging an urge for friendly competition wasn’t anything too unusual.

What WAS unusual was how accessible he was, to everyone. He’d hang around after the games and chat with anyone about anything. He wasn’t the former SNL cast member, or the guy who headlined stand-up shows everywhere in the world. He was just Norm.

We had a few really good conversations, especially once he realized I worked in horse racing. One of the first things he brought up was the story of Sylvester Carmouche, who famously hid in the fog at Delta Downs and came out of it a city block clear of the rest of the field. It was funny, and our conversation was interrupted a few times by cheers at the nearby television. There was an NBA game going on, and he had the “over.”

“Norm’s a great guy who’s very approachable and has a significant gambling itch,” I’d tell friends and family members. “In other words, he’s my kind of human being.”

Well, he was. Norm passed away Tuesday morning after a nine-year battle with cancer very few people knew about.

I’m not going to pretend we were super close. We saw each other once a week for about two and a half years. After I moved, we still followed each other on Twitter and we exchanged direct messages a few times. We briefly talked about working on a book together, and while I’m not sure Norm was totally serious, it sure made my day when he brought it up.

Time passes way too fast. Many of my friends from Tompkins Square moved to Alaska. The bar closed not long after I moved, the longtime trivia host passed away in early-2020, and other than a few very brief trips (most recently for a funeral in late-2018), I haven’t been back to Los Angeles.

I didn’t see Norm in-person between when I moved and when he died. I certainly never knew he was sick.

A lot of people have their memories of Norm as a comedian, and for good reason. Much of his stuff stands the test of time, including his recent work for Netflix (which, as we now know, came when he was fighting a secret battle with cancer). This tribute wouldn’t be complete without a video of my favorite bit of his, so here you go.

All of that being said, though, I won’t remember Norm, the comedian. I’ll remember Norm, the person, who was incredibly kind to many people when he didn’t have to be.

I remember one night after trivia, everyone congregated by the bar. Someone walked up to Norm and asked if he wanted to play golf that Friday at Westchester, a golf course just down the road. Norm paused, and looked genuinely downtrodden as he responded.

“I don’t think I can,” he said. “I think I’m in New York with Sandler.”

Norm Macdonald was a kind, gentle, decent man, and the world’s a lesser place without him in it. Some trivia bar in the sky somewhere, though, got itself a heck of a competitor and someone who’ll hang around to watch whatever game is on the big screen.

Rest in peace, Norm. We’ll miss you.

A Different Kind of Recap

“Writing is easy. Just sit in front of a typewriter, open up a vein, and bleed it out drop by drop.”

Red Smith, one of the best writers of all-time, said that, and anyone who’s ever tried to put their thoughts into prose can relate. It’s in that spirit that I’m sitting down to write this and feeling equal parts pride and exhaustion.

I’m going to do something I don’t do often. There’s no shtick here. There’s no over-the-top, wannabe-pro-wrestling-manager delivery with a message that flies over the heads of two-thirds of my audience but hits the other third right between the eyes (often with words they don’t want to hear). This is me, as stripped-down as I can possibly present myself, explaining the mental construction of my brain for two months of the year, why certain numbers matter to me that couldn’t matter less to a lot of people, and what my next steps are.

You might’ve seen it or heard about it by now, but I had a really good summer at Saratoga. With 142 top-pick winners, I led The Pink Sheet for the third consecutive season (and fifth overall), and that total paced all members of the media who picked every race, every day, for a variety of different outlets available to the public. If you think that’s an easy job, you’re incredibly ignorant. The people who do this are sharp, dedicated to the game, and enjoy informing and educating the public, and every man and woman in this group has my eternal respect.

If you were on Twitter Monday night, what you saw was me comparing myself and a few friends/family members to Ric Flair and his entourage. I can be a little twisted, and rest assured, living with the way my mind works is a heck of a cross to bear sometimes.

Here’s what you didn’t see: After Ocean Air and Don’t Wait Up won the sixth and seventh races of the day and clinched the all-media title for me, I excused myself from a Labor Day party at my girlfriend’s house, went into the bathroom, locked the door, and cried my eyes out.

That probably sounds crazy to some of you. I don’t blame you for thinking that, and contrary to what some may think, I’m not writing this to change anyone’s perception of me. The Champagne family curse is that, no matter what, we can’t be invisible, and people cannot have neutral opinions of us. I’ve found ways to live with it, and I can sleep at night knowing those who have taken the time to get to know me know who I am and (mostly) seem to like me. What this will do, however, is peel back the onion in a way I’ve never done before. At a minimum, I hope it pays an appropriate amount of respect to a few things I’ve dealt with this summer.

I grew up in upstate New York going to Saratoga with my family. I’m not in New York anymore, and I don’t see my family nearly enough. That’s why I took a spur-of-the-moment, cross-country trip last month that involved more time on planes and in cars than time spent doing meaningful things.

I worked for The Saratogian as a full-timer for a year and a half, and was part of a packed press box during the 2012 and 2013 summer meets. The press box now looks like Thanos snapped his fingers and wiped out half the population. When I made my appearance at Saratoga, I didn’t even bother going up there.

I wanted nothing more than to be part of the horse racing industry, and for six years, I did a lot of great full-time work for some of the most recognizable brands in the business. I’ve been out of it for three years, ever since my position at The Daily Racing Form was shifted to part-time as a money move three days after I worked 36 hours over Labor Day weekend.

I’ve busted my butt freelancing for several outlets, and I’ve done work I’m incredibly proud of (including for DRF, the source of several relationships I greatly value). Much of the industry, however, has put me in a pool with other incredibly passionate people that it keeps at an arm’s length.

My full-time job is as a Communications and Marketing Manager for SHELTER, Inc., a non-profit in Northern California’s Bay Area. I enjoy what I do, but after putting in eight hours a day, the thing I most looked forward to other than spending time with my girlfriend was going home, handicapping, writing up cards, and going on podcasts/shows to talk about what I saw and how I planned to attack the racing programs in question.

If you saw me use the hashtag #OutWorkEveryone this summer and thought it was a total ego trip, you were wrong. I spent 40 hours a week getting the word out about how my agency is battling the homelessness problem in Contra Costa, Solano, and Sacramento counties, and then went home and, on average, produced between 10,000 and 12,000 written words per week for The Pink Sheet, TwinSpires Sportsbook, and Oddschecker US. In addition, I co-host my own YouTube show, am a weekly guest on Gino Buccola’s podcast, produce several weekly video hits for DRF, and was a featured guest at seminars held at this summer’s Pleasanton meet, which shared a weekend with Saratoga in July.

I’m not in an office at a racetrack, or in a casino somewhere mooching free wi-fi. I’m a guy with a “normal” job that, two months out of the year, has as abnormal a job as possible on top of it. It isn’t because I need the money, it’s not because I crave attention, and it’s not even because of the competition that comes with doing what I do.

It’s because I love Saratoga, I love horse racing, I love turf writing, and I long for the days where EVERYONE took it as seriously as I do.

I sat behind Paul Moran and John Pricci, and next to Tom Amello and Mike Veitch, in 2012 and 2013. This was a summer after I worked for the Clancy brothers at The Saratoga Special, and those three summers gave me as good of an education as I could’ve hoped for. The stories I heard about packed press boxes and every writer/handicapper actively competing with one another for the best stories and handicapping records inspired me and lined up with how I’d approach days at the races as a kid. I’d tear out pages from The Daily News and The New York Post, grab whatever papers were available for free on the way in, and soak up as much as I could.

Russ Harris was the dean of New York handicappers, and the stuff he did allowed mine to exist. The Battle of Saratoga in The Daily News was required reading, for aspiring turf writers and handicappers alike, and I pay homage to that with The Pink Sheet’s daily bankroll blurb. 

The people who created that content are mostly gone now. They’ve either passed away, retired, or moved to freelance work. Paul Moran passed following the 2013 meet, John Pricci’s in Florida, and the Daily News and Post both eliminated most of their racing staffs in similar cost-cutting moves. Nick Kling, my Pink Sheet predecessor, retired after a stellar career a few years ago, and Harris passed in 2016. I’ll spend the rest of my career (or however long The Pink Sheet will have me) chasing the success rates they had.

It’s easy to take what you see on social media and extrapolate that into an image that isn’t the real McCoy. I sometimes do myself no favors in this regard, and I’ll be the first to admit it. Between several stories involving major entities within the game, and the fact that nobody is doing the sort of thing I’m doing the way I’m doing it, it sometimes feels like a “one vs. all” situation, and there are times that bites me in the butt. That was the case a few weeks ago when trainer Chad Brown took exception to a tweet of mine. I didn’t say what he thought I said, but I understood why he thought I said it (I sent his barn doughnuts a few days later, along with a note I hope he read, and I’m going to call us even).

Chad’s response didn’t bother me. What hit me hard was the fact that people automatically assumed I said something I didn’t say and believed things I didn’t believe. That’s a byproduct of the age we’re in, and my body of work, skill as a writer/horseplayer, and history of turning my passion into final products didn’t matter one bit.

This is who I am: I’m the guy who works a 9-to-5 shift, goes home, eats dinner, and is up until after midnight working a day in advance so his editor doesn’t have to worry about a dude who left the paper eight years ago to live three timezones away blowing a deadline. I’m the guy that isn’t supposed to be a big deal in the business, and one who, 10 months out of the year, generally isn’t. However, I’m also someone who drove nearly 22,000 hits to the little-promoted website you’re on right now with daily content that had the highest strike rate of anyone actively handicapping Saratoga and giving information out in this way.

I don’t do what I do for points or political capital within the industry. If something hits me as broken, I’ll say it and I’ll say it in ways everyone can hopefully understand. I’m probably never going to be a simulcast host, or someone trusted by a major circuit to convey points on television and drive fan interest and betting money. I’ll never shut the door on that sort of opportunity, and I firmly believe I’d excel in that capacity, but I’ve come to terms with the fact that the call’s probably never coming.

There aren’t many people in racing like me. Some people think that’s a great thing, and those are the people my success ticks off. A bunch more, though, see past the gimmicky, sarcastic exterior and have said very positive things about the breadth and depth of my work, and that’s always something I’ll greatly appreciate. If you like what I do, know that I deeply value your support. When I thanked readers in my final bankroll blurb of the season, I meant every word. If even one person is enjoying my stuff like I enjoyed the work of Russ Harris and the Battle of Saratoga crew, that’s a win.

Now that Labor Day is over, though, we’re in the 10-month period where, to many, I’m just another guy who knows how to read a form. I’ll still be around, hosting my show and helping anyone who’ll have me, not because I’m some attention hound or someone who needs a spotlight, but because I want the industry to be at its best and I want to produce content that helps it get there.

My mind works in unconventional ways. With how much I work and how much of myself goes into each product, you bet I’ll celebrate when great things happen. If you think I’m an arrogant showoff, that’s your right, but it’s my right to tell you how hard I work and how much passion goes into what you see in articles, podcasts, and shows. Without that passion, I’m useless, so that’s a trade-off I’ll take 100 times out of 100.

142 winners is a big part of the story. However, it’s nowhere close to the full story…and THAT is called foreshadowing, kids.

Stay tuned.

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.