HALLANDALE BEACH, FL, July 7, 2021 – The story of Harvey Pack, for me, has no beginning and no end. He was and always will be there. Tomorrow, or the day after, I will smile, recalling the time we spent together.
But for today the news of his passing, which came via text Tuesday night, leaves me profoundly sad, guilty for having lost touch recently, a sense of loss for anyone who also loves racing the way Harvey did will tell you.
For a small piece of every horseplayer of a certain age died yesterday, too.
Harvey didn’t just happen; he was a self-made phenomenon, inventing and re-inventing himself. His love of horse racing and horseplayers pre-ordained that once he got his foot in the door, he would never leave.
Harvey’s passion for all things Thoroughbred racing was so naturally infectious that he became the poster child for horseplayers and fans, but mostly a horseplayer with whom most fans could identify.
Pack appreciated the fact that without horseplayers, there is no game, only a rich man’s hobby absent the collective excitement. To paraphrase Huey Long, every horseplayer a king.
Pack was present for every $2 bettor at the Big A. Yes, there is Belmont Park and, of course, Saratoga Race Course, too, especially Saratoga.
In addition to his nightly TV duties as host of the Thoroughbred Action replay show, Pack’s noon handicapping seminars at Saratoga drew hundreds of fans to the other side of the old racing office building hard by the paddock to hear his gambling stories.
Pack virtually told the same tale every day before introducing his guest handicappers. “The prattle,” he called it. The faces in attendance were at once the same but different.
Regulars sat in the front row and laughed at the same jokes no matter how many times they heard them. True horseplayers have an aura about them and Pack was just Harvey being Harvey, and that was enough for everyone.
Pack create racing jobs for himself and loved and promoted handicappers and players he invited into his world. There were the Runyonesque characters he loved, making every-day horseplayers into celebrities because they walked their talk in the universal language of racetrackers.
When issues got weighty, he tapped professionals such as legendary NY Daily News handicapper Russ Harris; NY Times racing correspondent Steven Crist; professional horseplayer and successful horse owner, Paul Cornman, and me, Newsday’s racing editor without portfolio.
As many HRI Faithful know, we did a pilot program for John Tatta, head honcho at Cablevision and a big Pack fan, who signed off on the idea of turning Harvey’s CCTV between-races on-track handicapping segments into a nightly cable recap show, an industry first.
I don’t remember that program but do recall the show we did the day Mike Venezia suffered a fatal injury at Belmont Park, October 13, 1988. Well-practiced by then, I was shaking on set that night, but Harvey carried the day per usual.
I followed Pack into the studio, the red light went on and Harvey had to inform a large segment of the audience who might not have heard the news of the Venezia tragedy. He was flawless, like always.
Like many analysts, one had to be prepared for any challenge Harvey would throw your way. An hour’s worth of preparation went into every five minutes of face time.
Every night at show time, he grabbed a track program, which would serve as a prop at show’s end, took his seat, and started talking. There never was a lick of preparation. Harvey was the greatest natural talent I ever saw or had an opportunity to work with.
He taught me, guided me, scolded, and ridiculed me in the same manner that Don Rickles would his colleagues. And you took his guff because you loved him and because, as he would often remind Mr. Crist and myself, “I made your careers.”
One afternoon at Aqueduct, a colleague, Larry Owens, a stringer for the Associated Press and a respected handicapper, stopped Harvey in the corridor. Owens spoke of his credentials and wondered why he never was asked to be a guest on Harvey’s show.
“Larry, you do a very good job. You’re not on the show because I don’t like you very much.”
Racing was conducted six days a week back in the day and on Monday’s we taped a magazine show, Inside Racing, on which we voiced-over an analysis of stakes races from around the country and suggested we do a novel segment that covered the “Road to the Kentucky Derby.”
Before the initial segment, Harvey informed the audience of what we were about to do and that “John Pricci will be our three-year-old expert—not because he thinks like a three-year-old but because he is our expert on the horses leading up to Triple Crown.”
We had a long, warm association except for a short time when Harvey gave me “days” for something I said on the show.
Less successful riders often gained a reputation for being “good longshot riders,” mostly because their low win percentage stood in the way of securing top mounts. Consequently, they had to cash bets to survive which meant darkening a horse’s form until “go day.”
On balance, these riders were very skilled at getting horses to underperform without attention, but not so this one rider in a particular race. During my voice-over, I criticized the jockey badly, virtually accusing him of stiffing the horse.
If you think stakeholders are overly sensitive to criticism now, it was unheard of then. Harvey got in a lot of trouble with racing executives as horsemen called the racing office to complain about what I had said on the show.
Harvey called me down to his office, told me what happened and said he’d have to bench me for a while. I told him I could have been more tactful but that I would continue to call them as I see them. “In that case, you’re done.”
We hadn’t spoken for a year. One summer night in Saratoga, the Packs and the Priccis were invited to the same party, unbeknownst to each other. When we arrived, the Packs were talking with the host at the entrance of the party area.
There was no way I could avoid saying hello, and so I did. We exchanged pleasantries, as did our wives, talked about the day’s races, and as we parted company he said “you’re back on the show.” He didn’t have to ask twice.
Absence made the hearts grow fonder. I was back in the Saratoga dinner rotation along with other Thoroughbred Action regulars—“not as a thank you but because I get to expense these meals separately at the best restaurants in Saratoga.”
Harvey and Joy also gave us shelter when, while living on Long Island, our oldest daughter was scheduled for surgery at 7 am at Lenox Hill Hospital on the upper West Side the following morning.
I can’t speak for the others but Harvey gave me a brand before brands became a thing and for that I am forever indebted.
To be part of racing’s infancy on cable TV was a privilege and an honor. Like most people who knew him well, I loved Harvey Pack. He made us all look good, even while he was making us look bad.