Darin Zoccali, the jack of all trades at Meadowlands Racetrack, sat in on a November meeting with President Jeff Gural and General Manager/CEO Jason Settlemoir and some other staffers in which they discussed numerous topics. Once the meeting ended, Zoccali was told to stick around.
Gural said to him, “I’d like to offer you the position...” when suddenly his cell phone rang. Forced to take an important call, Gural proceeded to talk on the phone for five minutes.
“I’m literally sitting there hanging on the words ‘the position,’” Zoccali recalled with a laugh. “After about two-and-a-half minutes Jason looks over at me and says ‘How fast is your heart beating?’
“I said ‘If this goes any longer I’m going to take this as a joke.’ I’ll be honest, I really had no idea what they were going to offer me. At that moment, my head was spinning. At one point in the middle of it, I thought he would say, ‘We want you to be the janitor for the third floor.’”
|Meadowlands Director of Racing Operations Darin Zoccali has been a lifelong fan of harness racing.|
After what seemed like a decade of waiting, the call ended and the offer was made -- director of racing operations. It took Zoccali less time to say “yes” than it took for Gural to finish his phone call, as yet another highlight was achieved in an increasingly impressive career.
“It’s almost beyond a dream come true,” said the 29-year-old law school dropout. “I never could have imagined this happening at the track that I grew up at, where my dad (Santo) would take me every Friday and Saturday hanging in the teletheater.”
Santo Zoccali started watching harness racing as a regular bettor, and when he returned to his Staten Island home from the Thursday night races -- which Darin could not attend because it was a school night -- the son would hope his dad won so he would want to go back on Friday.
“I’d wait for him to get home, and he would just say ‘Do you want to go on Friday?’ and that would be it. “He wouldn’t say where, I just knew what he was talking about. And I would always say ‘Yeah I do.’
“Because I love the sport and spending that time with my dad was a lot of fun, you put all that together, it’s more than your profession. For me it’s a personal stake and personal interest.”
Santo eventually got into ownership, and while it was nothing major, it kept Darin’s interest alive through college, where he graduated from St. John’s University in 2005 with a bachelor’s degree in legal studies. Ironically one of his classmates, Mitch Cohen, is now the player rewards/development manager at the Meadowlands.
Then it was on to Pace Law School, where Zoccali had a revelation one Wednesday evening in January.
“I was supposed to be working on an appellate brief and instead I was watching the Super Bowl trotting series from the Meadowlands on my computer,” Zoccali said. “I just got back from holiday break and I thought ‘I really should be doing something else’ but I couldn’t take my eyes off Meadowlands racing in January. For me that was the real signal. I remember sitting there saying ‘This is a problem.’”
The problem was quickly solved. Zoccali left law school the spring of 2006 and that fall, Sam McKee was short of people to help host the Meadowlands in-house and nightly recap television show.
“I had done something during the winter where they’d bring a guest up to do a little handicapping segment,” Zoccali said. “Sam said, ‘I’m going to be stuck tonight, can you co-host the show?’ It went well and from that point on at the Meadowlands it kept snowballing.”
Did it ever. In 2006, Zoccali began regularly filling in as a co-host and worked as a news correspondent for the U.S. Trotting Association.
A year later, McKee called Settlemoir to see if he could use someone to call races at Tioga Downs. Zoccali got the opportunity and soon began calling races at Tioga and Ocean Downs.
At that point, his wife Amanda exhibited a lot of patience as Zoccali took to the road.
“I’ll be honest there were times where I’m in the car, driving from one track to the other and I’m like, ‘What the hell am I doing now? I gave up law school, what am I doing? Am I out of my mind? Who does this?’”
But he had struck up a friendship with Settlemoir that proved to be key in his climb up the ranks.
“We’re the same people except he’s 1,000 miles west of me from Ohio,” Zoccali said. “We hit it off right away. We had a lot of the same thoughts and beliefs. Jason told me over the last five years ‘Hang in there, keep doing what you’re doing. If someone asks you if you can do it, you can do it.’
“He was the guy kind of pushing me the last few years, telling me to keep it up, things are going to happen. I never thought he and I would come full circle at the Meadowlands.”
Soon after his gigs calling races, Zoccali became a regular contributor to SiriusXM radio’s “Down the Stretch,” while also working in guest services, marketing and television at the Meadowlands. He soon became the associate announcer at Parx Racing (formerly Philadelphia Park) and a feature writer for Harness Racing Update.
A year ago, Zoccali was given the added responsibility of morning line odds maker and track handicapper at the Meadowlands.
And just because he’s now director of racing operations, he will still have some of the old jobs he loves so much. Zoccali remains the morning line odds maker and track handicapper and will keep appearing on Meadowlands TV broadcasts. He will also appear each race night on TVG’s “Drive Time.”
“From my point of view it’s a lot of work but also a lot of fun,” he said. “Being able to go to the track every day and make decisions that will hopefully have a positive impact on our racing product is a good feeling. It’s something I always wanted to do.
“To be honest, that other stuff is the fun stuff to do. My work throughout the day is focusing on the racing parts of things, a lot of important thing to do. By the time I get to that other stuff it’s just fun.”
Since Zoccali has taken over his new role, the Meadowlands fortunes have continued an impressive upward climb. The Meadowlands’ handle last Saturday was $3.50 million, an increase of 28 percent compared to last year. Last Friday’s handle was $2.83 million, up by 31 percent.
“The results have been through the roof so far,” he said. “Whatever we’ve been doing for whatever reason has been working. Everything we tried seems to be working well at the same time. We’re excited; we’re building up momentum to get into the new building (possibly in November).”
Zoccali is rightfully proud since it wasn’t too long ago he was on his honeymoon in Hawaii reading the 2010 Hanson report about the Meadowlands possibly being closed.
“My wife saw me reading the e-mail and asked what was wrong,” Zoccali said. “I said ‘Oh nothing, I just don’t know if the track I’m working at will still be there when I get home.’
“Those months were so tough on me. I had established myself with television, I felt I had a future and the place was getting pulled out from under me. Not only that, but it was the place I bonded with my dad. It was like a Dodger fan that went to Ebbets Field with their dad when it closed down. You’re losing something so important.”
Amanda, a special education teacher in New York City, provided tremendous support during that time, for which Zoccali will always be thankful.
“She knows I wouldn’t be happy not doing this,” he said.
And in the end, the Meadowlands not only survived, but is now able to thrive under Zoccali.
All he had to do was figure out what “the position” was.