Growing up in California, I did not know of Harvey Pack. That was my loss. When he died this week, it was a loss for all of racing.
By the time I moved east in 1992, Pack had already made his mark on a generation of TV viewers across the tri-state area. That would be the New York-New Jersey-Connecticut tri-state area as opposed to Texarkana or the DMV. Those tri-state areas only knew Pack from his annual appearances on the Breeders’ Cup. So did I.
“Who was that guy from New York who was making picks with Pete Axthelm?” I would ask every October. “The guy who looks like Wallace Shawn with aviator glasses.” Lather, rinse, repeat. Every year I would see him and crave more as I asked, “Who is Harvey Pack?”
Hundreds of thousands of people living within a train ride of New York could answer that question with righteous indignation. Who didn’t know Harvey Pack? While I was blowing bubbles on the other side of the country, Pack was teaching a nightly class in horse racing to the nation’s biggest TV market.
A native New Yorker, Pack was 94 when he died Tuesday, passing away in his Upper West Side home with his wife Joy by his side. Exactly half a lifetime ago, Pack made the transition in 1974 from radio to TV. That was when he began to blaze a trail that would be copied by tracks and their TV partners all over the country.
Long before all the races were on demand on something called apps, even before TVG and HRTV, we all had those shows like New York’s “Inside Racing” or “Thoroughbred Action.” The tracks were the showrunners, buying half-hour blocks of local TV time to put their daily product on living-room pedestals.
At first these shows were on UHF stations that had high, two-digit numbers and low-cost, boiler-room rate cards. Then they were on cable channels that were so far upstream on the scrolling guide, they lined up with guilty-pleasure variety shows from Italy and the black-and-white movies that might or might not have had soundtracks.
Those racing shows were always on at odd hours, weren’t they? If they were not on in the middle of dinner, they aired in the middle of the night. If we were into horse racing, we had to learn how to program our VCRs so they would stop blinking “12:00” all day. Then we would program the recording of the replays and collect them on stacks of T-120 VHS tapes, always at that grainy half-speed so we could save more races.
“That horse that’s in the fourth race tomorrow, he was in the feature three Fridays ago,” I might have said to myself against the cacophony of plastic cassettes clunking against one another, always giving off that mildly toxic aroma of videotape. “Where is that race? It’s over here somewhere.”
I can only imagine someone in New York plugging in those old tapes and seeing Harvey pop up right away before pushing his image into the scramble of fast forward. “Was that what he was wearing when that horse ran last time out?”
My version of the TV racing ambassador was Sam Spear from Golden Gate Fields and Bay Meadows. Later when I moved to L.A., it was Trevor Denman from Santa Anita and Del Mar. All the while the tri-state area was luckiest of all. It had the avuncular OG. Every winter day from Aqueduct. Every spring and autumn from Belmont Park. And, of course, there were the Saratoga summers with Pack perched in his little gazebo.
I learned a lot about Pack this week thanks to YouTube. Check out the episode from the summer of 1994, when Pack was cued to start his show just as the main track was being groomed. And not quietly.
“I’m trying to stop the tractor,” he said. “I’m sorry, fans, but NYRA doesn’t care.”
Ah, the show must go on. With his gruff but good-natured humor, he carried on that evening as he had for 20 years before – and as he would for another five years after. Whether it was on UHF or VHS, there was Pack, calling up replays of races 1-8 or 10 or whatever.
There were always guests, too. It seems race caller Tom Durkin was on a lot – and not just on replays. So was his back-up John Imbriale, who is the current voice of NYRA. I found a show 25 years in the rear-view mirror. The guest was a young, dark-haired fellow named Todd Pletcher, talking about his graduation from the D. Wayne Lukas stable to train horses on his own. That was about 5,000 wins and $400 million ago.
At the end, after he and his expert co-host exchanged picks for the next day, Pack would look right at the camera. Whether it was on SportsChannel or NYRA’s original Off-Track Betting channel, he would grab his PPs and throw them at the viewer while uttering his “Star Wars”-inspired sign-off.
“May the horse be with you.”
Going back to when he was a kid going to the races, the horses were with always Pack. He has been eulogized the past couple days as the man who brought racing insiders inside racing. Old-timers like me who were regular viewers must remember Frank Wright and John Veitch. Newcomers may recall his work with the likes of Andy Serling, the shoot-from-the-hip handicapper who is now NYRA’s best-known personality. Serling was not only Pack’s protégé, he was a friend for 40 years, right up to Pack’s dying day.
“He loved the Mets,” Serling told me for the obituary I wrote for Horse Racing Nation. “And he watched the Mets last night.”
Serling said his fondest memories came after Pack had retired from NYRA in 1999. They came from a decade’s worth of summer mornings at Siro’s, the little restaurant with the blue awning that is an easy, five-minute walk from the paddock at Saratoga. Pack and Serling hosted breakfast seminars there before the races.
As Serling put it, “There was not a day when walking over I didn’t know that I would remember those days for the rest of my life.”
Haters say horse racing is an old guy’s sport. That, however, is actually the game’s greatest non-equine blessing. What those haters do not realize is racing has always been an old guy’s sport. It is just that there are new old guys who come along and keep it going. Even before millennials started to flex their alleged attention deficit, racing attracted fans and gamblers who were willing to take the time to learn it. Even millennials will eventually discover those traits come with age.
They also come with a firm grip on nostalgia. The collections of VHS tapes that were used as a yesteryear handicapping tool are long gone. Thankfully, remnants are on YouTube, grainy though they may be. As long as the information superhighway is not blocked by villainous hackers, the TV hosts who brought racing to us in our own hometowns across the country will live forever.
Then as now, Harvey Pack will lead them.
Racing notes and opinions
What is the right way to go on the Pick 6? A $1 minimum? Or 20 cents? The biggest summer meets on opposite sides of the country are going in opposite directions. Del Mar is cutting the stake to 20 cents when it opens next Friday. “The 20-cent minimum gives small- and mid-level players the ability to spread deep throughout the card,” said Bill Navarro, Del Mar’s director of mutuels. Yet in the end the public player will be drowned out by the batch wagers, because the lower minimum gives big-foot, computer bettors an edge by providing more combinations on each wager. It amounts to much more bang for their big bucks. Then there is the matter of the takeout rate, which a track spokesman said will remain 23.68 percent for the Pick 6. One respected horseplayer said that statement hides a deeper truth when it comes to carryovers. “Say the pool is $100,000,” he said. “The regular takeout is 23.68 percent, which means $76,320 remains. If 30 percent ($22,896) of that is carried over, that leaves $53,424 to be paid out. The effective takeout is really 46.57 percent.” The moral to the 20-cent story: You get what you pay for.
When the Saratoga meet begins Thursday, NYRA will maintain the $1 minimum that it established for Pick 6 wagers during the about-to-end meet at Belmont Park. NYRA tried the 20-cent minimum during the past year, but it also took an aggressive, public stand against computer players who have enjoyed rebate benefits at rival tracks. In the long run this looks like a much better deal for players, even if they do not look beneath the surface of the higher stake. With fans being welcomed back at near-capacity after COVID locked them out in 2020, the 40-day Saratoga meet runs through Labor Day, Sept. 6. More about the opening of Saratoga and next Friday’s start of the Del Mar summer were in my story posted Wednesday in VSiN’s digital sports-betting magazine Point Spread Weekly.
Irish shippers trained by Aidan O’Brien and ridden by Ryan Moore are the morning-line favorites for Saturday’s Grade 1 turf races at Belmont Park. Bolshoi Ballet (7-5), a three-time stakes winner, figures to be the top choice for the 1¼-mile $1 million Belmont Derby Invitational at 5:12 p.m. EDT. The Galileo colt comes off a seventh-place finish as the favorite last month in an English classic, the Group 1 Epsom Derby. The ground was soft that day as it might be this weekend, what with rain in the Long Island forecast through Friday. If that is the case, my bet will be with Sainthood (10-1), trainer Todd Pletcher’s colt that is going for the first time on grass. Last time out he won the Grade 3 Pennine Ridge in the Belmont slop. Soft ground might also be anathema to Santa Barbara (1-1) at 4:06 p.m. EDT in the $700,000 Belmont Oaks Invitational, also going 1¼ miles. Sired by Camelot, she was a close second less than two weeks ago in the Group 1 Pretty Polly at the Curragh. Again, if the turf is softish, I will turn to Pletcher. This time it would be his Commissioner filly Con Lima (5-1), the Grade 1 Wonder Again winner last month over a nine-furlong Belmont course rated good.
Ever the durable gelding, 8-year-old Extravagant Kid (20-1) tries for his second Group 1 victory this year – and in his career – when he is sent off Saturday as a long shot in the July Cup at Newmarket, England. He drew post 12 in the open-company field of 19 going a straight six furlongs on the turf. “Good draw in the middle of them,” his trainer Brendan Walsh said. This will be Extravagant Kid’s second start since he won the Al Quoz Sprint on March 27 at Dubai. That long-awaited, top-level breakthrough was followed by a third-place finish last month in the Group 1 King’s Stand Stakes at Royal Ascot. With Frankie Dettori getting the ride for the second time in a row, Extravagant Kid will not have the firm going that he would prefer since rain is forecast through Saturday. King’s Stand winner Oxted (9-2) and springtime Group 2 winner Starman (9-2) were the co-favorites Thursday afternoon in U.K. betting, according to Racing Post. My choice here is Dragon Symbol (5-1), the horse that crossed first at Royal Ascot before being demoted behind Wesley Ward’s Campanelle in the Group 1 Commonwealth Cup. The July Cup is scheduled for Saturday at 11:25 a.m. EDT and is available for ADW betting in a separate U.S. pool.
In addition to this weekly article, Ron Flatter’s racing column is available every Friday at VSiN.com with more frequent postings during big events. The Ron Flatter Racing Pod is also available every Friday morning at VSiN.com/podcasts. This week’s episode looks ahead to Thursday’s opening of the summer season at Saratoga. Tom Law of the Saratoga Special offers an on-the-spot preview. Horseplayers Association of North America president Jeff Platt discusses the evolving rules for Pick 6 wagers at Saratoga and Del Mar. Rampart Casino sportsbook director Duane Colucci handicaps weekend races. The Ron Flatter Racing Pod is available via free subscription at iHeart, Apple, Google, Spotify and Stitcher and may also be downloaded at VSiN.com/podcasts. It is sponsored by 1/ST BET.