NYRA remembers Harvey Pack
by Jim Reisler
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.
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.