Remembering New York’s Harvey Pack

by Jim Reisler for NYRA.com

Harvey Pack, who became an unlikely broadcasting pioneer by delivering a blend of insightful, irreverent and heartfelt commentary on horse racing as host of the country’s first nightly racing replay show, died Tuesday in New York City. He was 94.

For more than three decades starting in the mid-1970s, Pack was one of the best-known personalities in New York racing, celebrated as the voice of the common fan, the $2 bettor. At NYRA, Pack created and hosted racing replay shows like “Thoroughbred Action” and “Inside Racing,” sprinkling the replays of races with his analysis, predictions and lively tales about the Runyonesque characters who frequented Belmont Park, Aqueduct Racetrack and Saratoga Race Course.

As NYRA’s Director of Promotions and Special Events, Pack created and hosted “The Paddock Club” at Belmont and Saratoga in which fans gathered to discuss racing and handicapping, often joined by special guests.

In the early 1970s, Pack was a 40-something Manhattan-based syndicated writer whose job allowed him to spend afternoons at the track. Off-track betting had just launched in New York, and many radio stations were reporting race results – none with much vigor, Pack noted.

That inspired an idea: Why not call a race with the excitement of a track announcer and squeeze in some stories, Pack reasoned, all of it condensed into a 30-second spot, the average length of a highlight reel. He even had the perfect name for his reports: “Pack at the Track.”

The idea, common today, was revolutionary for its time. He sold the idea to WNBC, and “Pack at the Track” proved so popular that NYRA hired him in 1974, where he spent the next quarter-century.

“Harvey Pack was an authentic voice and an innovator who turned a lifelong passion into a career and became one of our sport’s greatest advocates and ambassadors, all in his unique, ‘only in New York’ way,” said Dave O’Rourke, NYRA President & CEO. “He was a visionary who meant a great deal to thoroughbred racing and we look forward to honoring his legacy in the near future.”

At a time when broadcasting was transitioning to cable, Pack hosted the nationally syndicated race-recap show on SportsChannel, which became the way that many owners and breeders around the country in those days were able to see their horses run. Starting in 1984 and for the next 10 years, Pack was also part of the NBC broadcast team for the Breeders’ Cup World Championships, including those held in 1985 at Aqueduct; and in 1990, 1995 and 2001 at Belmont.

At the root of Pack’s popularity – his NYRA business card described him as “Doctor of Equine Prophecy” – was an ability to convey his love of horse racing and handicapping to fans and doing so with humor and humility.

“Harvey knew horse racing and made it a lot of fun to watch,” said NYRA Senior Racing Analyst Andy Serling, Pack’s broadcast partner for a time and a friend for more than 40 years. “Whether he was on the air or just talking with fans, he connected with everyone and never took himself too seriously. A lot of what we do on the air today goes right back to Harvey. He was the forerunner and a trailblazer in how we cover horse racing today.”

Even after leaving NYRA, Pack remained a familiar presence at all three NYRA tracks. At Saratoga, Pack and Serling hosted Daily Racing Form seminars across the street from the track at Siro’s restaurant, where he presided over a panel of rotating handicappers, offering his wit and wisdom to fans who showed up in droves.

Pack’s 2007 book, May The Horse Be With You: Pack at the Track, written with Peter Thomas Fornatale, is a window into how the racing game hooked him as a kid and never let go.  https://amzn.to/2V9qaGJ

Pack, born and bred on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, grew up during racing’s golden era when huge crowds packed the New York tracks on weekends and horses like Omaha, War Admiral and Stymie were front-page celebrities. As a boy, Pack would be given $10 by his father to take the first train from Penn Station to Belmont and hold a couple of seats. Arriving before post time, Pack perused the Daily Racing Form and became a handicapper.

 

Later, while serving in the U.S. Army and based at Fort Dix, New Jersey, a Colonel discovered his interest in horses and made Pack his personal handicapper on frequent trips to nearby Atlantic City Race Course.

Pack once said that he told “the same three jokes for 20 years.” But his stories about the colorful characters he came to know at New York tracks were seemingly endless. At the top of his list was a disheveled handicapper named Mr. Dirt, a Columbia graduate, who, as Pack put it in his book, “had an Ivy League mind, but not the wardrobe.”

Asked why his television work on NBC with the late Peter Axthelm was so popular, Pack had a one-sentence answer: “We were successful because nobody ever televised racing (before) with a sense of humor,” he said. Told that he may have been the most famous person in the history of New York racing, Pack corrected his admirer. “I’m ‘horseplayer’ famous,” he said.

Pack is survived by his wife Joy, two children, five grandchildren and one great grandchild.

 

Andy Serling sat down with Pack in April of 2017 for the debut episode of NYRA’s Across the Board podcast. That wide ranging interview can be found at https://soundcloud.com/acrosstheboardwithandyserling/episode-1-featuring-harvey-pack.

Industry Profile: Jockey Frankie Pennington

He still has the traces of a Texas accent, but this soft-spoken young jockey has established himself as one of the leading riders in Pennsylvania.

With 2652* wins in his stellar career to date, jockey Frankie Pennington is currently 2nd in the jockey standings at Parx, and he’s happy to have made his way here after learning to ride when he was a teen in his hometown of Big Spring, Texas. “When my mom met my stepfather, Rodney Faulkner, who trains horses, he started teaching me to ride by galloping babies and horses around the cotton field,” he remembered. His career path then became very clear to him. “Once my Mom introduced me to the man who would eventually become my stepfather, when he brought me around horses, I knew right away that’s what I wanted.”

 

Faulkner relocated to train in Ohio, and Frankie followed him. In 2003, he started riding at Thistledown, and a year later, at age 16, moved in with his agent Robert Martel in the Philadelphia area, and started riding at Penn National and at Philadelphia Park (now Parx)…

Read on about jockey Frankie Pennington

Industry Profile: Hall of Fame jockey Bobby Ussery

Horse racing fans have been in their element recently with the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes grabbing national attention. Nothing can compare to the adrenalin rush fans get when their favorite horses come charging down the stretch in the sport’s most iconic races.

Controversy is nothing new in the horse racing game and Hall of Fame jockey Bobby Ussery can attest to that with some firsthand knowledge. The affable 85-year-old lives in Presidential Place in Hollywood and still counts himself as a big horse racing fan. Robert Nelson “Bobby” Ussery was born in Oklahoma and retired in 1974 with 3,611 race wins. He was inducted into the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame in 1980.

Medina Spirit, the winner of the Kentucky Derby, is embroiled in controversy after testing positive for the steroid betamethasone in post-Derby testing. If the second round of testing comes back positive, Medina Spirit will be disqualified…

Industry Profile: Racing’s longest-tenured announcer – Richard Grunder

Heading to the stretch with horse racing’s longest-tenured announcerRichard Grunder has been at Tampa Bay Downs for 37 years, but his love affair with the sport has gone on much longer….

Like a magician rehearsing his tricks in the dark, Richard Grunder is whispering horses’ names to no one.

The day’s fourth race is still minutes away, but Grunder looks out the window of the Tampa Bay Downs announcer’s booth with binoculars raised and softly runs down a litany of calls for a race yet to be run. My Dirty Martini is leading, Sip ‘n Dip on the outside, here comes Crystal Sky. With nine races and 80 entries on the day’s schedule, Grunder takes a few minutes between bugle calls to memorize the names of the horses and the colors of the jockeys’ silks. Hello Rosie Say has moved to second, Yes It’s Free is third on the rail, two lengths back is Ellie Be Dancing.

Once upon a time, the names came much easier to his tongue but Grunder is not at all self-conscious about the extra effort it takes these days to make sure he gets it right. To Grunder, now 68, this is not so much a job but a calling that he has been following for a lifetime.

As a little boy, he would ride a train with his father from Dodge City, Kan., to Raton, N.M., for a weekend’s worth of action, then come home with a racing form in his fist and pretend to call races in the family’s living room.

Those were the first steps of a journey that took him to tracks across the Midwest and Canada before he eventually settled at Tampa Bay Downs and became the longest-tenured track announcer in the country. At least, until Sunday afternoon.

Industry Profile: Remembering the greatest horse in racing history – Secretariat

Secretariat was, and still is, considered not only the best in horse racing history, but one of the best athletes in sports history.

Not only did the thoroughbred set the track and stakes record for a mile and a quarter at Churchill Downs in winning The Kentucky Derby (which still stands), but also won the Triple Crown by setting a world record for the mile and a half in the Belmont Stakes which also still stands.

He was truly something special.

Secretariat died in 1989 at 19 years old after losing a battle with laminitis, a painful and debilitating hoof condition.

It’s estimated that Secretariat’s heart was 2.5 times the size of a normal horse. This would account for his historically fast speed at long distances.

Industry Profile: Trainer King Leatherbury, The King of Maryland

Editor’s Note:  I had the good fortune of working for trainer King Leatherbury one summer at both Pimlico and Laurel.  Although I worked on the backstretch for him, I was also doing a college internship in which I analyzed his accounting ledgers dating back a couple of decades to determine whether or  not his owners made owners.  Incredibly, they actually did.  An article was written, and with the help of editor Mark Simon, it was published in the now-defunct Thoroughbred Times (April 24, 1994).  ~ Rich Nilsen

King Leatherbury knows how he wants his training career to be defined. He knows how he would like to be remembered.

“If I wanted something on my tombstone,” he said, “it would just be, ‘He won races.’ ”

Leatherbury, 87, has won races all right. He ranked fourth all-time with 6,455 victories when he was inducted into the National Museum of Racing’s Hall of Fame in 2015, the ultimate exclamation point to a career that has spanned parts of seven decades. He currently ranks fifth on the all-time list of leading trainers by wins with more than 6,500.

The Maryland native stayed close to his roots in winning at least 100 races per season for 26 consecutive years from 1972 to 1997. He won at least 200 races every year from 1974 to 1984. He won more often than any other Thoroughbred trainer in the nation in 1976 and 1977.

Business boomed even as he competed against the likes of [trainers] Bud Delp, Dick Dutrow, and John Tammaro, a group so formidable they became known as the “Big Four.”   Continue reading about legendary horseman King Leatherbury.

Industry Profile: Legendary Australian race horse, Phar Lap

Phar Lap movieMaybe you’ve seen the movie…

The story of Phar Lap has all the drama of a soap opera, a murder mystery and an episode of The Sopranos, all rolled into one. Let’s start with this horse and his accomplishments.

Phar Lap was a champion racehorse who was foaled in New Zealand in 1926 and mostly raced in Australia. He dominated Australian racing, winning major races such as The Melbourne Cup, two Cox Plates, The Futurity Stakes and an AJC Derby. In the final race of his career, he won the Agua Caliente Stakes in Mexico and broke the track record while doing so. He was victorious in 37 of 51 races and captured the hearts of depression era people who longed for some hope and sunshine…

Read the rest: The dramatic life and times of legendary Australian race horse, Phar Lap

 

Track Announcer Keith Jones retires from Parx Racing after 34 years

“There’s also a lot of excitement and anticipation about what lies ahead and I say thank you to everyone who has shared the journey with me,” Jones said.

Longtime Parx Racing booth announcer Keith Jones has officially retired after 34 years calling horse races at the track in Bensalem.

Jones began his announcing career as an assistant at Garden State Park before taking on full-time duties at the former Philadelphia Park Racetrack & Casino in 1987. His 34-year tenure is the second-longest, behind only Tampa Bay Downs’ announcer Richard Grunder.

“As much pleasure as I’ve gotten from calling the races, what I’ll always treasure most are the relationships —the friendships — that have been so rewarding over the past 34 years,” Jones said in a statement earlier this month. “From fellow staff to the many members of our PTHA to our passionate and supportive racing fans, I’ve had the good fortune to cross paths with an amazing group of people. This track, this job, these people —have been my professional life for a long time and I will miss all of it.”

Jones plans to relocate to Texas with his wife, Kelly.

Over his 34-year tenure, Jones called more than 60,000 races and 32 Pennsylvania Derbies…

Industry Profile: Bruce Lunsford, Art Collector’s Owner

LOUISVILLE — Bruce Lunsford, who will have his first Preakness Stakes (G1) entrant when Art Collector takes on Kentucky Derby winner Authentic Saturday at Pimlico, knows something about tough races and taking on formidable opponents.

After all, as the Democratic nominee for Kentucky’s U.S. Senate seat in 2008, he gave Mitch McConnell the closest call of the Senate Majority Leader’s long political career.

“Oh sure, even in politics there’s a common thread,” said Lunsford, comparing it to horse racing. “I went into a race that nobody thought I could win. I was 25 points behind; I was tied with two weeks to go. It was like the stretch drive. It was fun, exhilarating, and I got to meet a lot of people. Mitch and I still have a decent relationship today. I think he respected what I did, and I saw where he was quoted as saying the only time he’d had his people write a concession letter was in the race with me. Because two weeks out, it looked like we were going to win.”

The 72-year-old entrepreneur and philanthropist from Louisville has been many things: Founder of a Fortune 500 company, investor in a myriad of start-up companies, producer of movies, partner in the Kentucky Kingdom amusement park and Hurricane Bay water park. He worked in state government as Kentucky’s commerce secretary. Now Lunsford would love nothing more than to add classic-winning horse owner and breeder.

Art Collector, out of Lunsford’s mare Distorted Legacy, is his first Preakness entrant and his second in the Triple Crown, following Vision and Verse, the 1999 Belmont Stakes (G1) runner-up to Lemon Drop Kid at odds of 54-1. Art Collector — who is 4- for-4 this year, including the $200,000 RUNHAPPY Ellis Park Derby and Keeneland’s Toyota Blue Grass (G2) — was supposed to be the first Kentucky Derby starter for Lunsford and trainer Tommy Drury.

Within days of being fulfilled, that Derby dream was derailed when Art Collector sustained a minor and fleeting, but untimely, foot issue. A month later they are back on solid ground for another swing in the Triple Crown.

“It’s the only thing you work on, probably, that you spend weeks and days and everything to get ready and it lasts two minutes or less,” Lunsford said. “So a lot of stuff is just outside your control. I do like the way this horse runs. They all have to get out of the gate. We’ve seen a lot of horses over the years who are really good break bad and it takes them out of the action. This horse has not shown a propensity to do that. If he gets in the flow and we get a fair trip, I’ve got to like our chances to hit the board. Anything above that gets to be gravy. But a lot of the handicappers all of a sudden are picking him. So I don’t know exactly what that means.”

Lunsford wonders how the Derby might have been different had Art Collector been in the field, given that his horse and jockey Brian Hernandez Jr. logically figured to put more pressure than the front-running winner Authentic faced in his absence.

“The good thing is that speculation doesn’t matter, because we’re going to get a chance to run against each other,” Lunsford said. “I’m hopeful both have a good trip, and I’d love to see them down the stretch together. I’ll take my chances.”

Lunsford grew up in Kenton County in northern Kentucky near Cincinnati, his dad a union shop steward who wound up buying a small farm. Young Lunsford got interested in horse racing while attending the University of Kentucky and going to Keeneland. In the summers he’d go to Ellis Park with his fraternity brother and close friend Greg Hudson, whose dad owned horses.

A CPA who also received a law degree from Northern Kentucky University, Lunsford in his early 30s was Kentucky’s commerce secretary under John Y. Brown. In that capacity, he helped bring United Parcel Service’s worldwide air hub to Louisville and was involved with launching the Kentucky Center for the Performing Arts.

A few years later, Lunsford got into horse ownership by claiming a couple of cheap horses with his pal Hudson.

“The good news or bad news, whichever way you look at it, both of them won about $100,000,” he said. “So we thought this game is easy. We found out later it’s a little more complicated.”

A couple of years later, Lunsford wanted to get involved in the breeding side of racing. He purchased one of his first broodmare prospects in 1994, paying $500,000 for a 3-year-old filly out of the Greentree Stable dispersal upon the advice of Claiborne Farm head Seth Hancock.

“You know Bruce, he wanted action,” Hancock recalled. “We said, ‘Well look here. You can have your cake and eat it too. Greentree is dispersing these things, and here’s a pretty good racemare who’s got a great pedigree. You’ll have some fun running her and maybe we can make a pretty decent broodmare out of her.’ ”

That half-million dollar filly, Bunting, had one win out of 13 starts for her prior connections, but she also finished second in Keeneland’s Ashland (G1) and Pimlico’s Black-Eyed Susan (G2). In four starts for Lunsford, she won a Gulfstream Park allowance race before being retired to Claiborne Farm. She proved far better than pretty decent as a broodmare.

Bunting’s first foal was Vision and Verse, who won the Illinois Derby G2) and also was second in the Travers Stakes while earning $1 million. Her 11th foal was a filly named Distorted Legacy, a minor stakes-winner who placed second in Belmont Park’s Flower Bowl (G1). Distorted Legacy’s second foal was Art Collector.

Until Art Collector, Lunsford’s home-run horses came around 15 years ago.

His $160,000 yearling purchase Madcap Escapade won 7 of 9 starts and more than $1 million, including Keeneland’s Ashland G1), and finished third in the 2004 Kentucky Oaks. The Frankie Brothers charge was being pointed for the 2005 Breeders’ Cup Sprint against males when she suffered a career-ending injury. He sold a half-interest in Madcap Escapade at auction for $3 million, staying in for the other half, to another trusted advisor, John Sikura, with whom Lunsford also boards mares at Hill ’N’ Dale Farm.

The Brothers-trained First Samurai, purchased as a yearling with his friend Lansdon Robbins of Louisville, won his first four starts in 2005, including New York’s Grade 1 Hopeful and Champagne before finishing third in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. The winner of Gulfstream Park’s Fountain of Youth (G2) upon the disqualification of Corinthian for interference, First Samurai’s Derby aspirations ended when he was injured in Keeneland’s Blue Grass. He retired to a stallion career at Claiborne.

Lunsford also bred and sold Golden Missile, winner of the Grade 1 Pimlico Special in 2000, then sold that horse’s mom, Santa Catalina, for $1.35 million five years later. He also bred and sold Canada’s 2006 Horse of the Year Arravale, a two-time Grade 1 winner.

For all his success, Lunsford knows well how difficult it is to just get to the championship races, let alone win.

“Just like the experience at the Derby,” he said. “All things went right, and then he winds up getting what is almost like an ingrown toenail. You’re talking about creatures that have large bodies and small legs. And things happen. Seth Hancock told me one time, you’ve got to learn to take the hard blows in this business… My good friend Don Dizney told me that it’s the lows that make the highs so good. There’s a lot of truth to that. If you can win 15, 20 percent of your races, they cover you pretty well. It’s like the baseball player who bats .300.”

Lunsford today is chairman and CEO of Lunsford Capital, a private investment company he founded in 2003. The companies he has founded include Vencor, a Fortune 500 company now known as Kindred Healthcare, and its spinoff real-estate company Ventas; Atria Communities, the third-largest assisted-living company in America; and Valor Healthcare, Inc., a company that develops and operates outpatient clinics for military veterans under the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

“I was a start-up guy,” he said. “Now what I do is I invest in people that I think have it. I tell people I don’t invest in financial statements, I invest in people. When I realize they have the skillset, we try to give them the things they need to do to make it work.”

Drury is an example. Lunsford one day this summer asked Drury what he had going on for the week. The trainer mentioned the various trips he’d be making up and down the highway to Belterra Park and Ellis Park. “He said, ‘Man, we’ve got to get you to the point to where you’re not bouncing around so much,’” Drury recalled. “He said, ‘Better-quality horses is going to do that to you. We need to sit down and talk.’

“And that’s the kind of guy Bruce is. He’s always willing to help others. Always willing to try to help you reach your goal and get to the next level. It’s like the Blue Grass,” Drury continued, referencing Art Collector giving him his first graded-stakes victory. “It took me a long time to get to that. He knew that and I think he was genuinely happy for me. He’s got a heart the size of Texas. It makes you want to work that much harder and want to win that much more for people like that.”

Lunsford said that at this stage of his life, he only wants to do things that are fun and challenging.

“The thing I’ve done well is I’ve built a really nice staff,” he said. “The guy who runs the whole real-estate company which is assisted living and apartments, his dad was my barber. His son Brian (Durbin) is like my right-hand man. Every time I get out of Jerry’s chair, I say, ‘I just can’t tell you how he’s changed my life.’ I have a team of about six people of his quality. I’ve built a team of people where, if I drop dead tomorrow, they can keep it going.”

Lunsford laughed when asked if he’s an under-the-radar Shark Tank.

“I can relate to everything they do, except I don’t have as much money,” he said.

So maybe a Shark Tank Lite?

“That’s right,” he said. “You know I was in the movie business for a while with Ed Hart, had about 10 movies we made. We had a lot of fun. Made a little money, lost a lot of money. But I will say one thing: I was in the two toughest business anybody can be in: the horse business and the movie business.”

Making having a horse of Art Collector’s caliber even more satisfying for the father of daughters Amy, Cindy and Brandy and grandfather to six is sharing the experience with his significant other, Eleanor Porco.

“I have a lot that I enjoy in life, because I like action a little bit,” Lunsford said. “I don’t think I’m an action junkie or anything. But this is one of those things where my friends are able to enjoy it. My two best friends are still alive. I mean, we’re at the age where that could not be true. The whole idea of having a horse of this quality and at a time in my life when I’ve really got a great soulmate with me has just really turned it into a great blessing.

“There are only so many interesting things you can do in life. Outside of having your children and things you do as a kid, sports and otherwise, when you’re older, it’s harder to keep it exciting. I’m 72 years old and my life is still exciting.”

Source: Maryland Jockey Club

Industry Profile: Racehorse Owner Jack Knowlton

From Fairy Tale to Triumph

In 1995 Jack and five pals of his formed Sackatoga Stable. The name was a play on words. A combination of letters from the crew’s hometown of Sackets Harbor along with Jack’s residency in Saratoga Springs creating an amusing name for the enterprise. They chose the staid checkered colors of maroon and gray that matched those of their high school for the stable’s jockey silks.

They liked the name so much that they named their first horse Sackets Six. Little did they know that eight years later lightning would strike them in the form of a three-year-old gelding with the name Funny Cide…