Vic Zast: Turf Writer

[image url=""]Vic Zast[/image]

Chicago-based perfumer Vic Zast has been a participant in the sport of the Thoroughbred -- as an owner, breeder, innovator, observer, and fan -- for more than 45 years.

As an owner-breeder, Vic campaigned champion Illinois 3-year-old filly Comforts of Home, stakes winner Dash of Salt, and multiple race winners Comforts Abound and Prognosticator.

His many contributions to the game of racing include pioneering the field of television syndication of racing programs, creating the Jim Beam Stakes, and initiating the concept of bonus purse money with the advent of the Bluegrass Triple Crown in 1981.

Vic's adventures in racing also include publishing the first official Breeders' Cup Souvenir Magazine among a variety of related periodicals devoted to racing events around the nation, presiding over a network of pari-mutuel facilities, and serving as president and board member of several racing facilities.  

Zast began freelance turf writing in 1998, and has published articles about racing in Australia, England, Dubai and Hong Kong as well as the United States.  He is a member of the Chicago Literary Club, the National Turf Writers Association, and the American Society of Journalists and Authors. A columnist for the Illinois Racing News and the New York Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association Newsletter,Vic is also a regular contributor toThe Blood-Horse and its various publications.

Vic and wife Maureen -- the parents of three grown children who are all racing fans -- live in Wilmette, Illinois, except during the month of August, when they live in a home they own near the racetrack in Saratoga Springs, where Vic files his Saratoga Diary entries here on

Orlando, FL:
What do you think about Remarkable News beating the field at Saratoga? Do you see any potential in that horse to go to the Breeders’ Cup?

Remarkable News ran okay in an unremarkable race. He managed to take the lead with soft fractions of :24.52 and :48.22, then continued on against a very small field that was reduced to five because of the presence of the Breeders' Cup Mile champion Artie Schiller. Artie Schiller finished fourth, and afterwards his jockey said that the trip was fine, but that his mount didn't fire. With a record of three starts and no wins, Artie Schiller doesn't appear to be the horse that he was last November. Many things can happen between now and the Breeders' Cup, so it's hard to predict what fortunes will befall Remarkable News, whose record now stands at six wins in nine starts. However, the Fourstardave is a Grade II, so Remarkable News's win is a tepid endorsement. The best turf milers in the Breeders' Cup are racing now in Europe.

Wilmette, IL:
In all your years at Saratoga, what stands out as your most exciting moment at the track?

The memory works in such a way that the most recent events usually seem the most vivid. Perhaps that's why I am especially fond of the 2004 Travers won by Birdstone. Birdstone beat stable mate The Cliff's Edgebefore a huge Travers day crowd of about 50,000 people as a long shot. He had not run in a race since the Belmont Stakes, which he won, ruining the Triple Crown bid of Smarty Jones, and his trainer, Nick Zito, was 0 for 11 in Travers tries.

A thunderstorm hit about 20 minutes before the Travers, leaving the track boggish like a mug of old coffee. Come post time, the sky turned an eerie black and purple - you know the look, like a prizefighter’s eyes in the eleventh round. Track officials turned lights on at the finishing wire so the fans and the photo finish cameras could see the race's conclusion.

As soon as Birdstone won, the skies opened again and rain streamed down with the force of Niagara. But the inclement conditions didn't deter Marylou Whitney, Birdstone's owner, from going out on to the track to lead her horse back into the winner's circle. No doubt, the multi-millionairess ruined her shoes, her hat, and her pretty outfit -- but, at that point, she couldn't have cared less.

NYRA cancelled the last race on the card, but the crowd stayed on. Greg Montgomery's commemorative Travers poster captures the moment, but no piece of fine art could duplicate the flood of emotion.

Forest Hills, NY:
What ever happened to Masseuse? J.J. Toner's grass filly was pulled up out of the starting gate (Barbaro style) in a stakes race at Monmouth last month. No published works yet. Is she going to be retired?

Jimmy Toner is reporting that Masseuse will be okay and that she will go back into training very soon. Edgar Prado was the jockey on Masseuse when she was pulled up shortly after leaving the gate in the Matchmaker, so immediately fear swept through the racing community that another tragedy had befallen one of its heroes. The injury is supposed to be a sore stifle on the left hind leg. Masseuse is not going to be retired, yet. However, we won't see her back in action until the late fall.

Alexandria, VA:
Mr. Zast, I have enjoyed your diary and look forward to learning about the Spa with every edition. I wanted to know a little history about yourself. One of my favorite questions for all Thoroughbred racing fans was: what was the first track you attended and with whom?

When I was 12 years old I used to run bets for my Uncle Stan, who owned a supermarket in Buffalo. The bet I conveyed to the bookie on a daily basis was "Two, two, if come, four, four in reverse, four dollar place parlay." The language of this wager was so intriguing to an impressionable youth, that eventually my curiosity got to me, and I asked my older sister to sneak me into Fort Erie Race Track, across the bridge from Buffalo, so I could see for myself what the sport was all about. of course, I won on the first horse I bet - a $90 payoff named Olantangy. Later, Woodbine was the racetrack where I conducted a three-year courtship with my wife Maureen. We've been married over 30 years, so I guess there was magic in those places.

Milton, FL:
Hey, Vic thanks for coming on to answer everyone’s questions today. Of all of the nice 2YO MSW winners at the meet so far, which one(s) do you believe we'll be hearing the most from in the future? In addition, do you know of any other 2YOs that may not have started yet - The Green Monkey aside - who are being talked about around the track?

There are other people such as Steve Haskin who write for The Blood-Horse that are better suited than I to provide you with tips about specific horses. Nevertheless, let me try to answer your question as one who is a seasoned observer and has seen many 2-year-olds debut at Saratoga and then go on to greater things. Two such horses come to mind - Afleet Alex - who enthralled racing fans with his daring-do in the stretch run of the Hopeful in 2004 - and Discreet Cat, who foretold his sale to the Sheikh with an incomparable performance as a maiden last year. I haven't seen any to rival those two, yet.

Todd Pletcher is dominating the 2-year-olds division, having won the three Graded Stakes for juveniles thus far. But his mentor, D. Wayne Lukas, sent out a Fusaichi Pegasus colt named Pegasus Wind that looked really good to win a maiden special weight race in the early part of the season. Lukas is quick to compliment any horse in his care, but I could tell that this one really excites him. I'd expect that we'll see Pegasus Wind in the Hopeful and, if he comes out of that a winner - watch out.

As for the fillies, well...I thought that in winning the Adirondack, Octave appeared suited for two turns and should get even better as the races for her stretch out. On the Q.T., I'm not certain that Pletcher liked her as much as he did her stable mate in that race, but there's no doubt that he likes her now. Remember also that the Starlight Stable of Jack Wolf, who owned Ashado, another filly that first came to prominence in Saratoga, owns Octave. I'm partial in my opinion, because Wolf is my neighbor. Regardless, he may be the luckiest man in racing.

Lexington, KY:
What is the best horse racing event you have covered?

Year in and year out, the Breeders' Cup World Thoroughbred Championships provide racing fans with the best competition. However, it is an expensive proposition and often devoid of entertainment for the casual fan, so I am hesitant to say that it's the best event I ever covered.

With that being said, let's make it the Melbourne Cup of 2002. The Aussies call the Melbourne Cup "the race that stops the nation," and this is literally true. You can roll a bowling ball down the main street of Melbourne at post time and hit nothing. Such passion for the sport is unparalleled throughout the world.

Flemington Race Course, where the race is held, packs in over 100,000 fans for the Melbourne Cup, and another 375,000 for the additional four days that comprise what is called the Spring Racing Carnival. The crowds begin gathering to party at 8 a.m. in the car parks, which are called marquees, and unlike the United States - where sitting in a tent outside the racetrack would be unfashionable - here it is the thing to do. Olivia Newton-John and Sir Richard Branson were two of the many celebrities that I interviewed there. The ladies wear finery as they would on Derby day at Churchill, and there's a fashion show with big prizes as part of the festivities.

The particular Melbourne Cup that I've designated as the best event that I've covered was the one won by Media Puzzle, a British invader trained by the Irish trainer Dermot Weld. What made it so outstanding, however, was not the winning horse or its trainer, but the jockey - a fellow named Damien Oliver, who rode wearing the pants of his brother Jason, also a jockey, who died only one week earlier as a result of a riding accident. The day after his winning ride, Damien buried his brother, and at the funeral, he dedicated the Melbourne Cup to him, as well as their father, who died the same way 27 years earlier. Stories don't get any better than that.

Grass Valley, CA:
What do you consider the best racetrack (all around amenities and racing) in the U.S.? In the world?

I guess that I'm supposed to answer Saratoga, because I've been coming here for 45 years each August, and there must be a good reason that I keep returning. However, I believe that the lure of Saratoga doesn't stem from its amenities, nor from the quality of its racing - both which are above average.

Saratoga is good for the soul. It appeals to people who like romance and history and who appreciate that the best things aren't available every day. There is no air conditioning, a table on the Turf Terrace is expensive and cramped, the boxes are tiny and uncomfortable, and poles ruin the sight lines. Nevertheless, where else can a guy bring in a cooler of beer and camp out in the backyard under a shade tree to watch racing?

I don't like Arlington - it is cold, treeless, and empty and reminds me of a hotel lobby; and the racing, unfortunately, isn't good. But I know that I am in the minority with these opinions.

I like Del Mar, but because the racing there takes place at the same time as Saratoga, I rarely visit there. Santa Anita has never failed to impress me or entertain me; a racing fan couldn't ask for more.

Churchill Downs and Gulfstream Park are two racetracks that were better before renovation. Hialeah was a gem and would head my list - if still open. Keeneland is enjoyable, the racing is top class, but you feel more welcome if you're from Lexington.

As for the world, that's easy. Woodbine in Toronto offers the best racing in Canada and has the best facility for watching it, but Sha Tin in Hong Kong is without equal, a small step ahead of Happy Valley, the Hong Kong Jockey Club's other track. This is a racetrack with endless suites, restaurants, and gathering places for hospitality, stadium-style seating with perfect sight lines, 21st century technology for betting on and viewing the racing (video boards the size of football fields, for example), a world-class event (the Hong Kong International Races in December), and a paddock with a retractable roof that allows thousands of race-goers to see the saddling process.

Fairhaven, KY:
What do you think is the best horse racing town in the U.S.?

In Saratoga Springs, the front page of the daily newspaper is the racing sheet. Photos of famous horses line the walls of restaurants. Avenues are named Funny Cide, Birdstone, and Fourstardave. Jockeys are stopped in the streets to sign autographs. The racetrack is on the Register of National Historic Places. They have raced horses here since 1864. Now, please, you tell me what's the best horse racing town in the U.S.

Saratoga Springs, NY:
Regardless of who gets the franchise to run NYRA, what do you envision for the future of Saratoga Race Course? Will they eventually put slots there in some discreet way, or will they leave slots market up to the harness track?

Oh, my. I wish I had a crystal ball to help me give you the right answer, and, believe me, I'd use it to look into Saratoga's future before I'd apply it to this afternoon's feature. In the next 10 years, I believe that it's more likely we will see an increase in the number of live racing days at Saratoga than the introduction of slot machines. Politicians being the procrastinators and compromisers that they are, it's probable that the changes in the racing law next spring will be minimal. Slots may be introduced to Belmont, but that's not a shoo-in. The expansion of the Harness Track is. Today (but only today, tomorrow I may think differently on this one), I predict a new operator who will work in cooperation with the OTBs as a not-for-profit. Improvements to the facility and the barns and the dormitories will be mandated. The backyard, or the picnic grounds, will change. Over time, the issue will become whether or not more slots at the racetrack are indeed a desirable thing. If attendance at the tracks doesn't improve, eventually all jurisdictions will determine that they can do a better job at taking people's money.

Richmond, VA:
Do you think that Bright One will enter into the mix before they reach the wire in the Travers?

Unfortunately, it looks as though Bright One isn't coming to Saratoga for the Travers. Can you blame him? After seeing Bernardini win the Jim Dandy, I'm surprised that the race isn't a walkover. That same evening, Bill Nader, the Chief Operating Officer of NYRA, predicted that there would be five horses in the race. He figured that a purse of $1 million would bring out the others. I guess Todd Pletcher really liked the Haskell by Bluegrass Cat. I know John Ward believes that Bluegrass Cat and Bernardini will be pre-occupied with each other, so he's giving it a shot.

Plano, TX:
As a prospective writer, I'm interested to hear your thoughts on racing in literature. Do you think books by Dick Francis, Walter Farley (Black Stallion series), and the like do a lot to attract people to the racetrack, especially younger folk? With the recent surge in racing biographies - from horses to jockeys - do you think the public is taking a bigger interest in racing?

Great writers such as William Faulkner and Mark Twain have written about horse races. Biographers such as Laura Hillenbrand made a hit with "Seabiscuit." How many mysteries by Dick Francis made the best seller's list?

I believe that the exotic nature of racing makes it a fertile subject, and despite how cultist or small the market for racing becomes, there will always be a market for writing about horseracing. Unlike many other pastimes or sports, racing embodies a sub-culture that is rich with language, customs, and lore. It has a unique set of characters that transcends a stereotype. It is replete with tales of success and failure. Moreover, it has to do with animals, which people seem to like more than other people.

Keep writing, but write about places, people, and events in a way that others don't. Try to see things beyond the replays and the results. Motivate your reader by inviting him into your experience. Then, your audience will want to join you at the racetrack, and you can contribute to the rise in attendance that's sure to follow.

The biggest problem facing racing today is that there are not enough people in the grandstands. An emphasis on building handle through technology took over when the frustrations of changing the sport for the better to attract new users failed. But racing's biggest events are better attended, have higher ticket prices, and seem more popular than ever. How much of this is a result of literature? I imagine, very little. Yet, it was the Black Stallion series that got me hooked 50 years ago.

Marco Island, FL:
Hello Vic, thanks for stopping by. Going by all your experience in racing, what could the racing industry have done in the early days of television to make itself a more prominent player today? There were some local shows (Win Elliot in New York on Saturday afternoons) but never a daily coverage publicized in the manner of the NFL. The Breeders’ Cup finally came, but it was way too late to capture the fan base that television would have brought this most exciting of sports. Thanks for all you have done to keep it on the map of the media both electronic and print.

Thank you for your compliment, and thanks for participating in this chat. It's difficult to look back and to imagine what could have been, but I'm not certain that the sport could have done more to popularize itself through television to such an extent that it would be competitive with the NFL and NASCAR. As television content, horseracing is a sport in which the action lasts only two minutes. The horses look the same, and to the uninitiated, the races do, too. Furthermore, many people are drawn to racing because of the gambling, and that's a feature that couldn't be implemented then.

Believe me, if the producers of television thought that racing would draw audiences, they would have made certain that it was on television regularly. The truth of the matter is that all televised racing programs, regardless of importance, draw about the same ratings. I remember when I was syndicating the Jim Beam Stakes before its ESPN coverage, and even thereafter, that the Jim Beam, an upstart Kentucky Derby prep from an obscure track in Kentucky, would draw the same TV audience as the Wood Memorial in New York or the Florida Derby at Gulfstream. Now, what does that tell you about the audience?

Playing Monday morning quarterback, however, here's an idea for greater television coverage that was never considered. Could the racetracks have given away sponsorships to their best races in return for the sponsor's guarantee of advertising? I bet that, if a racetrack was able to go to a network with money for six spots in hand, the race would stand a better chance of getting on television than if the network had to sell the spots itself.

Bowling Green, KY:
What is your impression of Bernardini "in the flesh"?

Bernardini “in the flesh” exudes the aura of a champion, but I know enough about objects of beauty to realize also that they become more beautiful in our eyes when we expect them to be such.

On the afternoon that he won the Jim Dandy, Bernardini was saddled in the corner of the large paddock, with his head facing the clubhouse and his tail pointed to the Big Red Spring. There was the usual number of handlers surrounding him, but the crowd of photographers, writers, owners, and onlookers that gathered to watch trainer Tom Albertrani as he prepared the horse was enormous. The crowd followed Bernardini around the walking ring and dissembled when he exited through the path to the track. It was unusually quiet in the paddock, as if breaking the reverie by cheering might destroy the karma, and then there was a smattering of applause.

On the track, I noticed that Bernardini developed a sweat on his flanks, but it was owing to the humidity, not any nervousness on his part. After the race, he came back clean as a freshly bathed baby, not a drop of the pre-race body salt to be seen. The most telling indication that he was well within himself during the race was that he was barely breathing. You know how horses come back after a struggle, huffing and puffing? Well, there was none of that. The crowd in the grandstand knew it long before I noticed it, however, because Bernardini glided in the stretch without effort – only cruising as if set on idle and letting the momentum propel him.

Pinellas Park, FL:
Hi Vic, I'd like to know whom you would pick to win the Travers between Bernardini and Bluegrass Cat, or do you think one of the others has an outside chance of upsetting the applecart? If so, who do you think that horse is?

There’s a reason why Saratoga’s called the “Graveyard of Favorites,” so I don’t want to be so glib as to say Bernardini’s a cinch. But I fell “hook, line, and sinker” for him at the Jim Dandy, and I want badly for him to be a super horse.

Also, I’ve been around a lot of trainers, and, as you know, their job is to provide hope to owners, even if they know deep inside that there is a challenge. Nevertheless, Tom Albertrani talks about Bernardini with such respect and guarded optimism that you can read between his lines that he realizes this horse may be one for the ages. Albertrani says things like “if we win the Travers and the Breeders’ Cup…” Well, what he means is “when we win the Travers and the Breeders’ Cup.”

The other thing that I know about the truly great horses is that there is always a “great” excuse associated with their defeats. Secretariat lost when he had a fever, Spectacular Bid lost when he stepped on a safety pin – you know the drill. Bernardini lost because of lack of preparedness with him as a young horse, but Bluegrass Cat – why did he lose again? Very good horses beat great horses occasionally – that’s the game, but I don’t think that Bluegrass Cat will beat Bernardini this time. All other trainers with horses in the race are shooting for second place. Make certain that you see him before he retires, which I’m afraid, is this year.

Louisville, KY:
Vic, as a lifetime Louisvillian, I've always liked to see how the 3-year-olds have progressed from the Derby in May to the Travers in August. One of my favorites has to be the Forty Niner-Seeking the Gold Travers... two Hall of Fame trainers, whiskers apart. Thanks for your time and what a wonderful event the Jim Beam Stakes has become today. After a long winter, it is much welcomed in the state of Kentucky, and we all know Keeneland is not far behind.

This chat is a most enjoyable experience for me. I love talking horses and meeting people like you, who are knowledgeable and passionate about racing. I like going over to the Racing Museum for its Wednesday morning panel sessions, and I’m always impressed with the depth of experience that people bring to discussions on topics that are new to me. We all can learn from each other and this morning has been a wonderful learning experience for me.

By the way, I get to Keeneland occasionally, so I know how much you miss it and look forward to it. This year, I’ve received an invitation to go to Kentucky Downs, and it’ll be my first time there, so I’m looking forward to it. My favorite time of the racing calendar, however, is spring. I believe that the industry revolves around hope, and what better season than spring for hope to exhibit itself in horses?

Bowling Green, KY:
I've heard the dirt track at Saratoga is cuppy and tiring horses out this year. Is that typical? Moreover, do you look for the better Saratoga runners to get faster times when they move on to other tracks?

Sometimes a writer will publish something and every other writer picks up on it. Earlier this meet, the jockeys were telling the writers that the inner rail was the place to be, and the writers, especially the handicappers, were touting the bias as if it were dogma. No doubt, the track was hard and fast on the inside, but I kept getting beat by horses that were one-horse off the rail, so I had a different take on it.

Writers now are saying that the track is tiring, and I’m buying it. In the past, Saratoga was a racetrack on which any horse that was on the lead at the top of the stretch would win, but that’s not the case this year. In fact, I have a friend who’s a handicapper in Australia who comes over here and routinely picked winners from selected races simply by playing this angle; he called the races boring, in fact.

Tom Amello, the OTB TV show host and author of the Trackfacts tip sheet, advises that bettors should look for horses that run well at Aqueduct, and times there are more consistent with times here than at Belmont. “Horses for Courses” is a very strong betting angle at the Spa.

Westfield, NJ:
Hey Vic: Enjoy the column and your stuff on the MSNBC website. What is your most memorable Travers...and why?

Thank you for the compliment. I wish and the other websites with horse racing pages would feature original pieces from writers more often. I don’t understand how they expect to gain an edge by leaving readers like you with the option of finding the same content on competing websites. has been very kind to me, and Mike Brunker, the editor of the horse racing page there, is one of racing’s best writers. With totally dependent on horse racing content, you’ll find original writing more often, but please continue to look for me on, too.

Most memorable Travers? Hmm. I’ve been to a lot of them. The 1966 Travers won by Buckpasser is one that I remember with fondness because I liked the winner’s name. I was a college student at the time, sneaking into Saratoga Race cCourse each day in the back of the track ambulance, which was driven by a friend of mine – it was his summer job, and he took care of me. Forty years ago, I knew far less about the sport than I do now. But I knew Buckpasser was a good one. Dressed in a seersucker suit and tie, I’d sit in the clubhouse boxes with the young daughters of the rich owners. In the evening, the same girls with whom I spent the afternoon at the racetrack would snub me in public when they saw me at places like the Wishing Well or Siro’s or the Spuyten Duyvil. Those things you never forget.

Put the 1994 Travers won by Holy Bull on my list of personal favorites, too. Holy Bull came to prominence at the same time my son Jon began a strong interest in racing. The horse was dynamic and gritty, and just so much more daring than his competition, and I loved how he went to the front and threatened all to run with him. There was no catching Holy Bull in the Travers, but the finish made the hair stand on end.

In 1978, Alydar vs. Affirmed was ruined by a disqualification, but it’s noteworthy because it represents the kind of rivalry that should have occurred this year between Barbaro and Bernardini. The 1962 Travers between Ridan and Jaipur is classic, but I loved Ridan, and he lost.

Brooklyn, NY:
Vic, I can't believe you would compare the purses of Del Mar on Sunday to Saratoga on Sunday. What you fail to mention is that Sunday was Del Mar's biggest day of the year. Maybe we should compare this Saturday's Saratoga purses to Del Mar's on the same day. That would be equally ludicrous. Day in and day out, Saratoga offers better purses and better racing than Del Mar. For you to insinuate anything other than this - using a one-day comparison - shows a lack of reasoning on your part. Take care. Richie.

Believe it, I did. An apple is red and tastes tart; an orange is orange and sweet. By the way, editors agree with you that I shouldn’t have done it. If you re-read the Dairy for that day more closely, perhaps you’ll forgive me by recognizing that the point I was making is that my beloved Saratoga isn’t the be-all of racing – just the thing that you accuse me of failing to do. Good for you to call me out on this indiscretion. Your criticism will help me in the future.

Princeton, NJ:
Hi, Vic. I hear that you are doing the Talkin’ Horses and that is the way to go because everyone would like to know more about you. I like and that you are doing the Saratoga Diary. It was good to hear that Barbaro is doing so well, and I am very happy to hear that he is getting better. Dr. Richardson did a very good job, and getting him outside will really help him continue to recover. I hope to hear from you soon. Sheila

Sheila, I know that you are a faithful reader of Keep coming back here every day. Barbaro will make it with God’s blessings. The sport needs fans like you. Make certain you watch Bernardini in The Travers on TV.

Columbia, MD:
Hello Vic, I was on vacation last week in Saratoga, the race when the money was refunded and read the comment you made about it being the Starters fault. I used to work on the gate in Md. for thirty years. It looked like to me that the horse was a handful in the gate and made a move for the doors at the same time the starter took the start. I know every day in Saratoga is like Preakness day in Maryland. And I always noticed a difference in the way the horses acted in front of larger crowds than the relaxed atmosphere that the horses are used too. It seems to me every gate crew in America has a run of bad luck! I know everything looks easy on television, but when it comes to doing it, It an entirely different ball game. These horses aren't push button, but 1200 pounds and unpredictable. What would you have done in that situation? And how was it the Starter fault? Thanks.....Don

Don, I have to defer to you and your knowledge and experience on this one. You seem to know a lot more than I about loading horses into the gate and sending them off properly. But I can tell you, as someone who ran thirteen racetracks for a period of three years in my life, employees of the racetrack have to be accountable when things go wrong. And things are going wrong in the Saratoga starting gate. Sometimes, writers contribute to problems by overstating them or getting a few key facts wrong, and I am guilty of that from time to time. But writers also provide a service to racetracks by making public the problems which are affecting the public's enjoyment of the sport. That's what I tried to do with my Saratoga Diary.

Salem, MA:
Regarding your article about trouble at the gate. I was at Saratoga a few weeks ago, and was surprised by the continuous whipping and heavy handed loading activity behind the gate (and recent charts continue to list gate and start problems.) I'm a horseman who believes that a horse can be walked into the gate with proper handling from the jockey and the gate attendant. Perhaps the large number of 2-year-old races is part of the answer, but Saratoga seems to have a more heavy-handed gate crew than those I see at most other tracks, and the bad starts are not limited to the babies. Yet, I have not read many comments from trainers or jockeys about problems loading at the gate. This situation seems a bit dangerous to the horse and jockey, and ends up another betting concern for the average Joe. It just does not seem as bad at other tracks, but maybe that is just my imagination. Any further comments?

You are very observant, and correct in your observations. The starting gate has been a chronic problem here in Saratoga all meet long, and it seems that every racing day we have a scratch or a bad start owing to the problem. The horsemen, bettors and NYRA officials, who lose money every time a horse gets scratched or is ruled a non-starter by the stewards as a result of the problem, should be angrier than they are, but because it is the same starter and many of the same gate attendants who are working here that work at Belmont and Aqueduct, I guess everyone believes the problem is temporary and unusual. Let me ask you, a horseman, if you believe the problem has anything to do with the detention barns? The horses are taken there hours before their races and perhaps all the shifts in environment is spooking them. By the way, your email question is a perfect example of what I believe about the intelligence of racing fans - the racing public knows much more than the racing establishment gives it credit for. Good observation, thanks for bringing it up.

Alpharetta, GA:
I am originally from the Chicago area, too; I don't have your background in the sport, but I share your passion for the sport and the horse. Do you have any suggestions on how I could contribute articles as a freelancer?

If there is a good course being offered near you called "Introduction to Freelance Writing," I'd take it. You must first teach yourself how to write articles that publishers want and that fit their publications. Most courses that help you get to this point, also teach you how to write letters of inquiry and place pieces in the right publications.

Freelance writing on a full-time basis is a very difficult job. The pay is paltry and rejection comes with many inquiries. But, if you write in a style that others don't have, and you have something relevant to say, you can make it.

My advice is to develop a tough skin. Write only what you think you should. Write it without compromise to your beliefs. And be different. The reporters who give you the picks and the results are a dime a dozen.

Chico, CA:
You say you won $90.00 on your very first horse racing bet. Was that pure luck or was some early handicapping skill responsible for your pick? Do you think your interest in the sport would have been the same had you lost as a child?

It was pure luck then, and it would pure luck now. $90 horses don't jump off the page of the racing form. Had I lost that first day, I would have become a fan anyhow. That first winner was only a sign from the Gods that this life was destined. Hey, by the way, let me share with you something that I believe and will most likely be a topic in an upcoming Saratoga Diary on (Keep reading, please). The experts don't know any m ore than you do, so bet with your brain and with your heart. I often think that the marketing of racing doesn't emphasize enough that you can have fun betting horses by sticking a hat pin in the program. If I ever found my was back into racetrack management, I'd do away with all those "teaching devices" that you find in the literature and on the clubhouse floor. Don't remind people that it takes 20 years to learn this game. Emphasize that it's fun even if you don't know anything. That's how to make new friends.

Redwood City, CA:
Are you always as happy as you look in your photos?

I smile when someone with a camera orders me to "Say Cheese.” There are three public photos of me that I know of - the one used by The Blood-Horse, the one used by, and the one in the newspapers of me in my mother's arms on the day I was born - I was the first baby born after the war on V-E Day, thus "Victor Edward" Zast. In the Blood-Horse and MSNBC shots, I am smiling; in the other shot, I am not - probably gas.

But to give your question the respect that it deserves, let me say that I enjoy meeting people and care about how they feel about things, and I am open with my feelings in return. I'm told by people who are close to me that I can be negative and worrisome, so perhaps that, too, is my nature. I do know that, if not for publisher's concerns about advertisers and underwriters, I'd be more biting in my writing, so maybe that's my soul speaking out.

Scottsdale, AZ:
Your biography reads that you are in the perfume business. Besides the smell of money, what scent goes best with racing?

Damon Runyan wrote that horseracing had "a scent of larceny.” I know from experience that it used to have "an exotic scent," too - the racetracks used to be places unlike any other, before the geniuses who homogenized them with kiddie rides and rock concerts tried to be competitive with theme parks.

Right now, Saratoga Racecourse has the "scent of politics.” The heavy musk of government control descended when Getnick & Getnick signs went up on the walls several years ago to remind patrons that their rights were being protected by a Federal Court-appointed monitor. I took a screwdriver to the track that day and swiped one of the signs right from under their noses in protest. I'm looking at the sign, hanging now on the wall in my study, as we communicate.

The newspaper stink of politics, as some portion of the 16 groups who are fighting for NYRA's franchise prepare to reveal themselves with replies to an Advisory Board on why they should be in charge after 2007. When gaming wasn't in play, nobody wanted to run the racetracks, but the new economic stream has brought out the vultures. The racetrack has always been a society in which rivalries existed at the edges, but the "scent of death" has turned friendly competitors into enemies.

I once wrote in a piece for The Blood-Horse that the racetrack was "dense with reminiscence." That's the lingering scent that won't ever go away for me. It may also be the scent that prevents those in charge from bringing our sport into the 21st century.

West Hartford, CT:
Can you take us through, start to finish, how you think Saturday's Travers will play out? I'd like to know who you think will jump out to the front, who will make the biggest move down the backstretch, and who will be crossing that finish line 1st.

My best advice is for you to keep reading and pay particular attention to articles written by Steve Haskin. I'm a writer who will be reporting on how it felt to be there when Bernardini wins the Travers. I'm the writer whose work is intended to go beyond the results and into the emotions of the experience.

There is a lot of speed in the race, represented by High Cotton, Minister's Bid, and Hesanoldsalt, so I expect them to try for the lead. Bernardini will be breaking from the five spot and, although he is faster than all of these from the gate, I'd imagine that he will be just off the pace in the early part. Watch Bluegrass Cat in the paddock - if he's on his toes, the way Storm Cats get when they're eager, he might try to outgun Bernardini from the outset, believing that this is a match race. But my guess is that Todd Pletcher will play the old "rabbit" card -- send High Cotton to the lead and let Bluegrass Cat shadow Bernardini for as long as he can.

Obviously, I believe that Bernardini is one of the best horses of this year and the best horse in this race. I'm picking him to win by five lengths. Now forget about all that I've said.

Cincinnati, OH:
Hi Vic, Thanks for joining us. I enjoy your writing. In your opinion, and I know it's just speculation at this point, but if you needed to pick a favorite for the Breeder's Cup, would it be Lava Man or Bernardini?

What a great showdown that would be, wouldn't it? When Bernardini wins the Travers, and whatever next race that Albertrani selects for him, he'll become the favorite. But aren't we lucky to have two horses like this in competition on both coasts? I saw the Pacific Classic on television and Lava Man impressed me. But I saw Bernardini in the flesh at the Jim Dandy, and I'm still oooh-ing and ahhh-ing. Please, oh please, God, don't let him burst my bubble come Saturday.

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