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The Conscience of Thoroughbred Racing

CELEBRATE A LIFE WORTH CELEBRATING, AN OPEN LOVE LETTER TO HARVEY PACK

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.

“May the Horse Be With You”

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.

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29 Responses

  1. Thanks John, definitely the end of an era for horseplayers of a certain age. So many characters at the track in those days. Never knew what he would say at the Paddock Club before it was broadcast on TV’s throughout the track. It was almost like the horseplayers attending were part of an insiders group. Thanks Harvey.

  2. Thanks for the nice remembrance, John. I was not close to Harvey, but am certainly aware of the deep and positive impact that he had on countless people in the game.

    T.D. Thornton wrote another good tribute over at TDN, and I got a kick out of this:

    Pack was quick to pick up on the nuances of both the Racing Form and the sociology of the betting public. When his mother told him that he had “surpassed his father” with his interest in horse betting, Pack recalled to Beyer, “I didn’t know if she meant as a handicapper or as a bum.”

    1. Indeed, Tink, he let us have it, but also was self-deprecating. I had not heard that line but thanks for the share…

  3. You were one of the first people I thought of when I heard the news, John. Harvey was a huge part of my childhood; I loved him as host of NYRA replay show and of Inside Racing. My favorite part was when he threw the program in he air at the end – that always stuck with me… I used to watch the racing recap show on Sportschannel (holy cow, that’s a long time ago, lol) and always rooted for Angel Cordero; for some reason, as a kid, I latched onto him. I loved your Derby segments – I may still have one or two on a video tape!

    Harvey was the kind of person any sport could use – he made horse racing fun while educating people. What an ambassador he was.

  4. Indeed Betsy, that was his gift. One oft-repeated line of his quoted everywhere is “never bet a horse to do something it never as done before as the favorite.” (Italics emphasis is Harvey’s, not mine).

  5. “Harvey Pack made us all look good, even while he was making us look bad.”

    A perfect description of my one and only experience with Harvey Pack. On February 15, 1989, I appeared on the nightly recap show as one of the ‘new faces’. For a few years in the late 80s/early 90s, Harvey invited amateurs like myself onto the show to provide commentary during the long siege (as he called it) Aqueduct weekday winter cards. I could tell he had a bad betting day after I enthusiastically informed him that 4 winners allowed me to cover the cost of round trip air fare from/to Boston. I told him I did not own an automobile and he downplayed my success by stating that I would “still be walking to the track” on my next visit to Suffolk Downs. He was gracious and professional, but it was apparent that winter racing on a Wednesday in New York was not his favorite part of the job.

    Harvey’s most memorable line to me that day came off-air during a commercial break. A horse named I’m A Good Girl was one of his selections. A clocker (or supervisor of clockers, I’m not sure which) named Lou was an occasional guest on the show. Harvey had labeled him Louie the fake clocker, shortened to “Louie the fake”. Harvey described the horse’s performance with the following:

    “I’m A Good Girl. Louie the fake said ‘I saw that filly run a nice three furlongs last week’. I bet her in this six furlong race and that’s exactly what she did. Run a nice three furlongs.”

    RIP to Harvey Pack. He was truly one of a kind.

    1. “Race a nice three furlongs…” LO f’ing L!

      Meanwhile, Dan, I remember those “New Faces” segments. I probably made fun of you while sitting on a bar stool at Esposito’s tavern. Just kidding, they were a lot of fun and it was good to involve the fans with guest appearances.

      The clocker story saddens me a bit as Louie passed away at a very early age. He was a sweet man who everyone loved, a rare thing at the racetrack. Thanks for the share…

  6. Thanks for sharing John. Before Harvey was on his cable TV show, I recall listening (and wagering) while following Harvey’s give and take “prattle” on the radio. Thinking the show on the radio was called “Pack at the Track”. I recall Paul Cornman once telling Harvey after several sequential “winning” appearances on the TV cable show, “I can’t come on your show anymore Harvey. I’m killing my own price.”

    Luckily I was one of the early Paul Cornman cadre believers who was writing down the names of Paul’s selections to follow that were mentioned on Harvey’s show. I also recall Harvey on the set one night revealing Paul’s new acquisition and partnership in “Win”. “Win” went on to do just that several times over. Win, and Win, and Win.

    Harvey would have enjoyed your tribute and recap I am sure John. You might be recognized by some as only “a three year old specialist”, but by my take, your verse is often right up there with your former friend and late partner Paul Moran. Lets celebrate them both as Paul M. greets Harvey as he now enters the fullness of life. For us maybe an end for now, but for them, maybe only a beginning. I’m wishfully and hopefully believe Harvey now has a million new ways to recreate a new job for himself. Riders Up Harvey. And Ride in Peace.

  7. I will always remember Harvey opening the nightly show. “Good evening welcome to the show” and ended it with “May the horse be with you”.

    He always mentioned on New Year’s day- every horse player is even for the year before the first race. Harvey will be missed and thank you John for the kind words for Harvey.

    1. Obviously Dan, he had a profound effect on my life personally and professionally. A curmudgeon; obviously. A mensch? Yeah, that, too!

  8. That’s really a phenomenal piece of advice………I’ll bet that’s saved a lot of people a lot of money!

  9. John,
    I was fortunate to have been picked for a new faces segment on his nightly show. After the show we spoke for about an hour, which was mostly track talk.
    Great old racing days.
    Mark

  10. Oh no no no no no. I’m not ready to live in a world where Harvey Pack isn’t with us. I hadn’t heard him since the Andy Serling podcast a couple of years ago but kept my fingers crossed that all was well with him. There isn’t a more iconic name in New York horse racing. And to me it’s not even debatable. The Channel 9 replay show indoctrinated me and countless others into thoroughbred racing growing up and I hold Harvey to this day as a larger than life figure. He always came across as a sweet, kind person.

    It hits so hard because I think I was always in denial of this day ever coming. My heart goes out to his family.

    RIP Legend

  11. My mind isn’t playing tricks on me, is it? The show WAS on Channel 9 at one point right? I remember it on SportsChannel of course, but I could have sworn it was on regular TV when I was growing up. I’ve seen so many of them that I should know this, but time plays tricks on the mind.

    1. No Doc, never CH 9; that was Frank Wright, Charlsie Cantey with a young Marshall Cassidy as a paddock reporter. Can’t remember, was it called “Race of the Week?”

      Anybody…?

      1. Thanks. I didn’t see the old school version, so I’m just remembering the SportsChannel shows as Channel 9 – probably due to Channel 9 having the harness recap shows back in the day. Thoroughbred Action was just such an incredibly great show.

  12. Doctor, I didn’t have cable for the longest while (2 kids and a mortgage, yada, yada.) and only remember Frank Wright and Charlsie Cantey on WOR. As for names of gentlemen of the past who are no longer with us, please add Bob Flynn who was a Director with NYTHA and also on the NYRA board for a while. Bob’s departure was abrupt as he went from a fully functional talented man to an adolescent over the period of only a few months. Bob suffered from frontal lobe dementia and was sheltered in a home for several years after. His illness was attributed to an injury in childhood sports. Could have been anyone of us. Bob Flynn was yet another race track friendship that I treasured and still celebrate.

    I often wonder what ever became of “Gentleman Tom” from his post at the will call entrance. Another class act was he. Recall he always wore a tie ,and he always also wore a smile.

    1. Bob Flynn was a good man who absolutely loved the game, sad story…

      And McD, I remember a nice man named Tom, not by his nickname, a real gentlemen…

  13. Good info – I might be thinking about the Yonkers or Roosevelt replays that I think came on at night.

  14. JP–
    Thanks for sharing your memories about the legendary Harvey Pack. Harvey himself was one of those Runyonesque race track characters who make attending the races in person so much more special than playing from home.
    I rarely missed one of Harvey’s replay shows and always enjoyed watching your appearances as well as Louie the Fake Clocker. RIP Harvey and there is no doubt that the horse will always be with you!

  15. “Gentleman Tom” was simply how I addressed him at the Will Call John. Respect was always warranted.

  16. JP,
    I moved West before Harvey Pack’s “arrival” in NY. Consequently, I only read second-hand references to him, and never experienced his presence until just listening to the Serling podcast.

    Interesting that both you and Serling credit him with helping your respective careers.

    1. And, I, we were only two of the people Harvey helped along the way. Have a feeling the man is going to be missed for a very long time…

      1. Received this in a private email and thought I would share via this transcription…

        MR. PRICCI,
        WHEN I READ THAT HARVEY PACK PASSED AWAY IT BROUGHT BACK A LOT OF
        FOND MEMORIES. I WATCHED HIS SHOW EVERY NITE ON CABLEVISION.
        YOU AND STEVE CRIST WERE MY FAVORITE GUESTS. GREAT MEMORIES.

        BEST WISHES
        DAVID ALBERT
        BOSTON

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