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A conversation with Heather Vitale
Monday, April 29, 2013 - by Rich Fisher, USTA Web Newsroom Senior Correspondent

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Rich Fisher
Trenton, NJ --- Harness racing should feel good it has Heather Vitale on its side.

When it comes to a positive spokesperson for the sport, Vitale is one of the best in the business. She is celebrating the 15th anniversary as producer, writer and host of her CBS and Fox affiliated “Post Time” in Delaware, a highly popular half-hour weekly television show that covers Dover, Harrington and Ocean Downs. She also co-hosts “PA Harness Week,” a cable show in eastern Pennsylvania, with Steve Ross.

Heather uses both shows as a forum to extol the virtues of harness racing, a sport she has been drawn to since age 12. A third generation horsewoman, Vitale’s mom, Jo Ann Looney-King, was the first female driver to ever win a race at the Meadowlands. Heather has her trainer’s license and trained 38 winners and earned $382,716 in purses from 1999-2009. But her busy schedule and family commitments made it difficult to continue training.

Third generation horsewoman Heather Vitale is never too busy to promote the sport of harness racing.

But she is never too busy to promote the sport. After growing up in Freehold, N.J. and graduating from Monmouth University, Vitale was an intern in the Meadowlands publicity department before doing PR at Freehold, Garden State Park and Rosecroft Raceway.

She moved on to ESPN2, then worked at Hollywood Park in Los Angeles -- the only time in her career she dealt with Thoroughbreds. A bout with home sickness brought her back to her parents’ home in Delaware in 1998, which led to the start of “Post Time.”

With her attractive, made-for-TV looks, Heather won the Mrs. Harrington title and took part in the Mrs. Delaware pageant. In the 2009 event, she won the People’s Choice Award and Best Interview.

When she is not appearing on camera or on the runway, Vitale is tireless when it comes to charity work; it is one of her greatest passions outside of harness racing and family. A mother of two -- 11-year-old Wyatt and 5-year-old Trey -- Heather rises at 5:30 a.m. each day and works into the night with tireless energy.

Heather can be followed on Facebook at www.facebook.com/PacinHeather, on twitter @ twitter.com/PacinHeather, and on her website www.HeatherVitale.com.

She also wants it known that she is a big fan of Hello Kitty, which she has been collecting since second grade; has seen Gone With The Wind “at least 100 times”; and her favorite expression is, “I was going to conquer the world but I got distracted by something sparkly.”

That’s ironic in a way. For when it comes to her career in publicizing harness racing, Heather Vitale has done nothing but sparkle.

USTA: You’re an interviewer by trade, so are you going to critique my interviewing style here today?
HV: No no, because when people critique me I just take it with a grain of salt. I get critiqued all the time. I try not to turn around and do that to other people. Everyone has their own style.

USTA: OK, since I want to put you in a good mood at the start of this interview, let’s talk about something near and dear to your heart. What kind of charity work are you doing these days?
HV: The main charity I work with is Horse Lovers United; they’re a nonprofit out of Salisbury, Maryland. They’re the local Standardbred retirement group, they’re near me.

I think about 10 years ago I contacted the lady who is in charge of Horse Lovers United, Lorraine (Truitt) and told her I want to help you out. That’s my main charity. Obviously being in harness racing I think it’s so important for us to take care of our stars who can’t compete anymore, whether they made $500 or $500,000, they should have some dignity.

USTA: For people unfamiliar with them, what are some of the things Horse Lovers United do for the horses?
HV: They’re a small group and it’s made up of all volunteers. There are no paid employees in the group. They care for horses that are either looking for homes or may never find a home and they also try to rehabilitate horses, teach them a new occupation of riding and find forever homes.

USTA: Are you working on anything else?
HV: That’s my main charity. I’m also thinking about doing something for Wells for Ghana. The head of that is Kenny Wood, he’s a horseman. All of the money that his horses earn go toward the effort to put freshwater wells in Africa. Kenny lives in Maryland, he’s just so loved and so respected. I believe he has put in over 800 wells in Africa.

Last year I jumped into a freezing pond. I was just speaking with some people recently and said I want to do something else but I want to do something kind of crazy. I’m not shaving my head, however I’d like to do something so I’m working on some kind of stunt to help Kenny out.

USTA: This is obviously something that gives you great joy. Would you have ever thought back in the day, that you would be able to use harness racing as a platform to help you help others?
HV: No, and it’s really funny, because when I was growing up and I was a little girl I wasn’t really interested in horses the way my family was interested in them until I hit about 12 years old and I fell in love with a horse and that was it.

I went to college and when I got out, I had my trainer’s license. But I knew I wasn’t going to be a trainer or driver, it wasn’t really something that interested me. That’s why I went the publicity route. And no, I never thought I’d be able to use my being on camera and my being out there in the public eye to raise money.

It’s not like some kind of thing I had in mind where I said ‘You know, I’m doing this so I want to make awareness for the different charities I like.’ It just sort of happened. I started doing some charity work and the next thing you know I’m doing basket raffles, I’m doing jumping into freezing cold horse ponds. I’m doing Alex’s Lemonade stand. It just seems the more charity work I do, the more I love it. It’s just very addictive. It’s an incredible feeling to know that you’re trying to help other people or horses.

I really think all horsemen have to take some sort of action in helping retired Standardbreds; whether it's donating time, money, items for an auction, networking to help find homes. We make a living from our racehorses going out there and working for us and we have a responsibility to help them when their careers are over.

Heather Vitale is celebrating the 15th anniversary as producer, writer and host of her CBS and Fox affiliated “Post Time” in Delaware.

USTA: I read a blog interview with you recently that was about 8 million words long and yet I never lost interest because so much of what you revealed about yourself was so interesting. It sounds to me that at this point of your career, you are pretty proud of what you’ve done but not to the point of resting on your laurels. You seem to be excited about what you can still do for the sport. Is that fair to say?
HV: It is very accurate. I keep thinking of different ideas that I want to try to expose the sport outside of the fans we already have. I guess that’s one of the reasons that I work so hard on it. There’s so much out there and there’s all these people out there who aren’t exposed to harness racing and you can do so much with social media. One person tells another person and they find my page or they find my website and they might be interested in harness racing.

USTA: I have seen comments from you that you feel it’s important for you to keep harness racing moving in the right direction and that you feel fortunate your TV shows can help you do that. In what ways, specifically, do you try to do that? How do you try and transfer your lifelong love of the sport to people who aren’t exposed or who could go either way?
HV: Well, I can tell you specifically with my Post Time show, because that’s the show I do everything. I pick out the interviews, I do the interviews, I figure out what races we’re going to use.

The one thing about my show is, everyone comes up to me, I could be at a gas station or at the mall or somewhere outside the racetrack and people will approach me and say “Oh you’re the horse girl.” Even if they don’t remember what my name is, they would have watched the show. Almost the first comment they say is “You look like you’re having so much fun.” That’s one of the things I want to get across, how much fun this sport is.

My forte is not really the gambling aspect because I’m trying to get people to the track to show them it’s a lot of fun to come to the races. So I do human interest type stories with the horsemen, and something cool about the horses to talk about, to try to get them to the track that way.

USTA: Who do you find more interesting to interview -- owners, trainers or drivers? Do any stand out above the rest?
HV: I don’t know if there’s a group that’s more interesting. I seem to have more fun with the trainers and I don’t really know why that is. Maybe it’s because when we talk about the horses they know the horses on a more personal basis than a driver does. And when I’m talking with a driver we’re usually talking about the race specifically, but I just seem to have a little more fun with the trainers. I’m not sure if there’s a specific reason for that.

USTA: What do you think could be the best thing to improve harness racing’s image? Is there any one aspect you really think could be improved?
HV: Again, I’m personally not a gambler. My interests are always promoting the sport in a way to show it’s fun, it’s exciting, we have all these superstars. I try to take not only the horsemen and women in the sport but also the horses. There’s a big debate there. Who’s the star? Is it the horse, is it the driver, is it the trainer? I don’t know why it can’t be both. That’s one of the things I would say -- really push your superstars whether they have four legs or two legs.

One thing about the humans is they’re around a little bit longer. The horses, even if they’re an older pacer they usually only have a couple good years. But you could take a horse like Foiled Again and really push him and make him a huge superstar which he is. But it’s also important to make superstars out of our drivers and our trainers.

That’s one of the great things about Linda Toscano. Here she is, the Trainer of the Year. If one little girl out there says “I want to be Linda Toscano when I grow up” she’s been a huge blessing for us.

USTA: What about the little girl that says “I want to be Heather Vitale when I grow up?”
HV: (Laughing) That would be nice. I joke around a lot. Because I’ll see little girls out at the store or some place, and they have come up to me to talk. I always joke and I say “My biggest fans are under 7 and over 70.”

USTA: That kind of leads into my next question. You have two sons who aren’t quite into harness racing yet. But is that one of the keys to promoting the sport? Get the kids interested at a young age, and if so how do you do that?
HV: I think that’s one of the keys, absolutely. Harness Horse Youth Foundation is doing a really great job at that with their summer camps and everything that they do. I promote them on my Facebook page and on the show. Having an organization like that is great.

Also, I know at our farm I’ve had the Boy Scouts come out there, I know some trainers that have done field trips to their farm. I even know a couple trainers who have taken a Standardbred horse to their school. It’s not a one-person job. People that have kids should be involved in getting their children’s classmates knowing about what we do for a living.

USTA: Have you done that with your boys’ classmates?
HV: The Boy Scouts was Wyatt. Trey is just in kindergarten now, but actually I did go to his school recently and I talked about harness racing. They have career day, so I take part in it. It’s not just up to the people who do publicity at the track. If you want to see the sport thrive and get the next generation involved, be pro-active.

Again, I think all horsemen should take action in exposing the sport to new people -- invite friends to the track who don't own horses, go to a school career day, invite a local club to your farm. I've even done something as simple as drop Youth Beats (magazine) off at the local library.

USTA: I recently talked to Marcus Miller, Erv’s son, and he is fired up to showcase the exciting aspects of harness racing and promote it as a sport. If the hallowed names of Miller and Vitale joined forces in this endeavor, how potent could you two be?
HV: (Laughing) That’s right. We’d be unstoppable right? The only thing is I’d probably be covering Delaware and he’d be covering New Jersey. But when I run into him I will talk to him about that.

USTA: So it’s the 15th anniversary of your Post Time show. Congratulations on that. Does this surprise you that you’ve lasted this long or did you know this was going to hit when it first started?
HV: I did! I totally did! People would come up to me and they would be like “Um, I don’t know how you’re going to fill more than five shows.” I’m not talking about people in harness racing but the people outside of harness racing. I’m like “Are you kidding me? How do they fill shows about baseball? How do they fill shows about football?” There’s always something new happening. Whether it’s a new horse, a new driver, a new promotion at the track. I’m absolutely not surprised we’ve lasted. I love love love my show. I just love it. I am so extremely proud of my show.

USTA: What do you think makes Post Time so successful?
HV: I’m so proud of it, and I think one of the reasons I think it’s a popular show is because it’s different from any other harness racing show. I’m not saying it’s better. I’m just saying it’s different. I can ask people questions, luckily, because of the atmosphere of the show and the fact that the horsemen now know I’m not always going to ask “How’d your horse train this week?” I asked Tony (Alagna) “If you’re being chased by zombies, what would you do?” Things like that. That’s one of the reasons I just love my show because it’s just different and fun. I’m very very proud of my show.

USTA: What about PA Harness Week?
HV: When you’re talking about two people that get together to host a show, I think Steve Ross and I have a really great chemistry.

USTA: We all know harness racing is a big part of your life. What other interests do you have?
HV: Well I did compete in a few pageants. I do like that, so I try to keep up with what’s happening in the pageant world because I find it fun. If you know the behind the scenes of pageantry it can be quite interesting.

Other than that, it’s pretty much dive into the two shows I have. And my kids. I’m looking at my living room right now and there’s no doubt when you walk into my house I have an 11-year-old and a 5-year-old. I drop them off, get them on the bus in the morning; work as much as I can until about 3:15, pick one up, get another one off the bus.

And then a lot of times I’ll put them to bed and then I’m working again after they go to bed. Harness racing, I’m a third-generation horse person and I really love the sport.

USTA: So then you must not love some of the sport’s critics?
HV: It makes me mad when I hear people say that this sport is dying. I love this sport and I didn't invite those Debbie Downers to spoil my party. So I ignore them and I continue to think positive and promote the heck out of racing because I have faith and I know that there are still plenty of people out there who agree with me, when I say that things happen in cycles and harness racing can make a big comeback.

Joe Thomson of Winbak Farm once told me “The best business I could be in is to bottle your attitude and sell it.” That's an amazing compliment!

USTA/Mark Hall photos
Heather Vitale interviews trainer Bruce Saunders after his win in the 2010 Breeders Crown with Rock N Roll Heaven.

USTA: Probably a pretty accurate one too, I would say. So as a third generation horsewoman, I’m going to guess this love of the business is inherited from your family members?
HV: My mom has been a huge influence. When she was driving and I would go to the track and stand at the fence, people would yell stuff like “Go back to the kitchen.” There was even a track that wouldn't let her drive because she was a woman and she was already down in the program! But she didn't get sidetracked from her dream because she loved driving.

I have my share of people who have been less than impressed with what I do on camera. I don't have thick skin so it used to bother me a lot but I'm finally starting to get my mom's attitude and realize that if you are happy with what you're doing then that's what matters. Besides, you know you are successful when you have people taking the time to ponder on what they think you're doing wrong AND when you have your own bobblehead doll (pause); I'm still waiting on the latter.

USTA: It will be a collector’s item to be sure. Reserving my autographed bobble now. So I saw where the one person you’ve wanted to interview but haven’t gotten to is Madonna. Why Madonna? And what kind of response do you get when asked?
HV: (Laughing) I haven’t asked for her yet. But you know; I’m going to change my mind on that. I’ve become recently a Maria Shriver fan because of the community service work that she does and I just think she’s a really great mother and a really great role model, especially for people who want to get into charity work. It’s amazing how she’s able to take her celebrity and push the causes she believes in.

USTA: So are you going to ask her on the show or will that be on your wish list?
HV: (Laughing). That’s probably just going to be on my wish list. I mean, I have to say she’s definitely one of my role models. But I don’t know how much harness racing she is into.

USTA: Just to get back to Madonna for a moment, if she were a harness racing driver what do you think her colors would be? Would we even have enough to satisfy her?
HV: I would say she would probably change her colors a lot. She would be like Gary Lewis. Remember when Gary Lewis used to constantly change his colors and get in trouble for that? I would say she’s a bit of a rebel. She would probably just change her colors possibly with her mood.

USTA: Speaking of female drivers, I don’t know if I’m being set up here or not, but the one question I was instructed to definitely ask you is why you never got into driving?
HV: (Laughing) Who told you to ask me that?

USTA: Ken Weingartner
HV: Ohhh, OK. Well I always like to say then, that I never like to be seen in the same outfit twice, so that’s why I never really had an interest in driving.

USTA: OK Heather, I appreciate the time, congratulations on the 15-year anniversary and keep it going.
HV: Thanks!


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