Known as the “Voice of the Hambletonian” after working as TV host and analyst of the hour-long Hambo show for the past 21 years, Seibel originally hails from New York City, where he became enamored by horse racing. He got involved professionally with the sport as track announcer at Pompano Park Harness Track in South Florida, where he called the races for 18 years and also served as assistant general manager, publicist, handicapper and in-house TV host.
In 1999, he began to work mainly as a broadcaster. He was on racing network TVG for 12 years and hosted ESPN’s Breeders Crown coverage for more than a decade. He became known as the sport’s premier television racing authority.
|USTA/Mark Hall photo|
|Gary Seibel will start his new job at Cal Expo in October.|
Seibel moved to Los Angeles in 1999 before moving an hour outside of Las Vegas two years later. With television opportunities dwindling, he took the offer to work at Cal Expo, the lone harness racing track west of the Rockies. Chris Schick, general manager for Cal Expo meet operator Watch & Wager LLC, told the Sacramento Bee that “as our simulcast host, he’ll be our ambassador.”
Seibel, 61, spoke with ustrotting.com for nearly an hour to discuss his new position and several of his thoughts on what is happening in harness racing these days.
USTA: Well Gary, first off congratulations on your new gig at Cal Expo, and tell us why the decision to return to your roots as an announcer, so to speak.
GS: We’re enjoying life here in the desert. We’re relatively close to Las Vegas, about an hour’s ride, so it’s close enough if we need the adrenaline shot of Las Vegas and far enough away where we don’t have to put up with the BS in Las Vegas. They have all the big city problems. Congestion, traffic, crime, the whole nine yards.
So when Cal Expo came along, the way Chris Schick is, he’s smart, he’s really sharp, we agree with a lot of things. It was something I didn’t want to pass up, couldn’t pass up, and it gives me the opportunity to get back to the race track and be around horses.
One thing I missed working at TVG, sure you get down on the track sometimes but you’re mostly in the studio, looking at a TV that was showing horses. To be out there, it’s something I know will take me back to my Pompano days, being up in the booth and looking out there and seeing those wonderful horses. I am looking forward to getting back. And the fact it’s two days a week, it’s perfect.
USTA: How long is the commute from Nevada to Sacramento?
GS: Between the flight and shuttle from town, I have about a 3-1/2 hour commute each way. It’s only an hour flight. If somebody offered me a position two days a week and somewhere on the East Coast, that would not be feasible. But here, it’s a relatively short commute and I’m doing it once a week. I’m flying out Friday and get back early Sunday.
USTA: So it sounds like even though you loved what you were doing, you’re really getting back to your first love being around the horses.
GS: I’m excited about that. I love horse racing in general, I grew up in New York City. I had access to some of the great tracks in both sports between Belmont, Aqueduct, Saratoga, Roosevelt. It’s been a big point in my life, My dad liked to play the ponies.
I was more of a Thoroughbred guy. I grew up 10 to 15 minutes from Yonkers, been exposed to it my whole life. I always enjoyed it, always found it to be fun. I heard it years ago, a bad day at the track is always better than a good day at the office. Here I am outside, it’s beautiful and I’m having a great time.
It’s been that kind of thing for me, but as in many industries, in certain ways, it’s become more of a contracted type of industry. There’s not quite as many opportunities as there used to be. But it’s still working for me, and I’m always looking for new and exciting challenges and this is one of them.
I love coming back to visit and love going back to the Hambletonian and going back home. But my wife and I both decided we like it out West. We live out West, we’ve got a house out here, we’d like to stay out West.
The opportunity came up at Cal, it’s the perfect opportunity at this time. It allows us to stay out here, stay in the home we’re at right now without re-locating. Everything seems to be in alignment for this particular position.
On top of that, the folks at Golden Bear Racing, Watch and Wager LLC, they are just terrific folks. We’re on the same page with a lot of things. And the whole experience to me, up to this point, has been very comfortable and very welcoming.
USTA: Cal Expo used five announcers during last year’s winter-spring harness meet. I’m guessing you are there to provide some stability. In an environment as unpredictable as a racetrack, is it important for the fans to have a recognizable voice throughout the year, whether it’s you or anyone else?
GS: I’d like to think it is. They had a couple rough spots at Cal Expo as far as the announcer situation is concerned. I’ve known Chris Schick a long time and I saw him in Florida at the Dan Patch awards in February. We rekindled a conversation we had begun back in the fall, where we had talked about fact that the Cal State Fair Board decided they didn’t want to be in the harness racing meet management business anymore, they weren’t going to be the operator of the meet at Cal Expo and needed somebody to take over the license.
Watch and Wager, the British company, stepped in. They contracted with Chris and his business partner, Ben Kenney, and when I realized that racing will continue, that’s when I kind of made an entree through Chris and my late dear friend (TV comedy writer/breeder/owner/trainer) Alan Kirschenbaum, and everything seemed positive.
But Alan passed away, I let it sit on the backburner, I felt awkward pursuing it in respect to Alan. Then we rekindled that discussion and that’s basically what happened. He offered me a position which seemed very attractive and here we are a few months later and pretty much ready to go.
USTA: How do you feel about announcing after not doing it for so long?
GS: There’s a little apprehension. People say it’s like riding a bicycle, I hope that’s the case, I’m sure there will be some rust and I’ll have to shake some rust off. If they bear with me for a while, it will come back. It will be like riding a bike.
But to be honest I’m a little nervous. There will be some butterflies, I would imagine, the closer we get. We want to do a good job for race fans. We’ll solider through the beginning of it, hopefully I’ll remember all the stuff I used to do when I was in Pompano.
USTA: The timing of this seems to be really good for you considering how things are going with TV broadcasts.
GS: This past (Hambletonian) show a couple weeks ago was my 21st consecutive year as an analyst or as the host of the show. I’ve been associated with the Hambo people, Tom Charters and Moira Fanning, for years, and they’ve been great supporters. Because of their support I’ve had the great pleasure of hosting the Hambletonian broadcast for a long time.
It’s s important because I know it’s the sport's one shining moment in the sun. There used to be a bunch of shining moments in the past and there was a lot more television to do. Unfortunately that area in the sport has really dried up. It’s not cheap doing live national television and there’s been issues over the years in making sure the funding was there. But somehow the Hambletonian Society manages to get the job done every year, but there are a lot of other shows over the years that went by the wayside.
For years we did many shows for the American Championship Harness Series, lots of stuff on ESPN. Those days are gone and it really comes down to this one show per year where this sport is showcased on the national stage. It’s important to have it on TV, it’s important to have racing on TV. Although with the cost and the expense, it’s been a hard sell to those that may have the wherewithal to make it happen. There are folks in the industry that don’t necessarily see return on the investment or bang for the buck or anything like that. But having a presence on TV is extremely important. It’s one thing we lack. So having the opportunity to do the Hambletonian each year still gives me the opportunity to represent the sport on a national basis on their biggest day and I’m very proud and honored to have that opportunity.
USTA: Will you still be doing the Hambo now that you’re back announcing?
GS: If they have me back (laughing). I’m going for Brett Hanover’s string of consecutive years. But I hope so, I think the broadcast went well enough, last year we had two guys do the Hambletonian broadcast that really brought a lot of both youth and experience and enthusiasm to the show in Dave Brower and Justin Horowitz. In my mind we have a really solid nucleus going forward if there is a forward after this year. I know the Hambletonian Society signed a five year deal to keep the Hambletonian at the Meadowlands, which is great with the new building (this fall).
I hope the three of us can get Donna Brothers back next year. I know she had a commitment this year so she couldn’t be our person on horseback on the track. But if we get Donna back next year and add that fourth dimension that will be just great. We’ll have a really solid group to represent the sport for the Hambletonian. All you can do is hope there are people with the financial wherewithal that support your idea and agree with your beliefs that being on television is important.
USTA: Let’s go back to Chris Schick for a minute. He has said you will be the ambassador of Cal Expo. What are your thoughts on that unofficial title and how do you plan on living up to it?
GS: If that's the way he feels I’m going to ask him for some ambassador license plates that could get me a good parking spot. It’s always about the parking spot, especially in California.
But, I mean, not to sound conceited in any way, shape or form, but I think in certain ways, in a television type of way, that I have been an ambassador for the sport. I’m honored to be in that role. Racing is such a regionalized business. There are great people out there. The entire crew at the Meadowlands does a great job. The product they put out on simulcast is just terrific, it doesn’t get any better than the Meadowlands.
I guess I could say there are regional ambassadors. There are guys that have represented the sport in their areas in a very admirable way but I think on a national basis I’d like to think I’ve kind of been in that role in representing the sport. I'm not a harness racing czar or commissioner, but I do think when it comes to exposure to the public in a traditional sense I’ve been a large part of that for the last couple decades.
In addition to that we both know how incredibly important social media has become, it has grown exponentially. It’s been a little skewed to the older side of things. That’s not my area of expertise. Other guys are tremendous. Justin Horowitz is a young up and coming executive and has a tremendous feel for utilizing social media. That’s why he’s an integral part of the team at the Meadowlands.
That’s not my expertise. Mine really has been television and in many of the traditional ways we’ve all gone about getting publicity and PR for the sport. Just acting as a representative.
So whether Chris Schick sees me as an ambassador, if he does I’m grateful for that and would love to be the ambassador for California harness racing and Cal Expo.
USTA: What’s the potential for California harness racing?
GS: The reason Chris and I are on the same page in a number of things, is we both realize that California harness racing has a lot of obstacles and a lot of hurdles. They’re pretty much up against it. We’re not idealists in that respect. We’re realists as to what has to happen, what is happening. It’s going to be an uphill battle. I know he’s not going to give up, and there’s no reason I would give up either.
It’s going to be a tough road in California, but that’s no reason not to give it a shot. He’s just a nice, straight shooting guy who’s sharp.
I was out there in May just to visit. I’d never been to Sacramento before and never to Cal Expo, so I went out just to get a feel for the place and lay of the land. I saw him kind of work at night. I was watching him work the races and how they unfolded in relation to other tracks and their post times, and he was absolutely trying to maximize the wagering opportunities for those who wanted to wager at Cal Expo by not going off at the same time other races were going off.
It’s such a major issue in my mind in the sport, you’ve got all these races, and a lot of times tracks are going off at the same time.
Chris is very aware of that, he’s a very sharp guy, he’s been around this industry a long time. In addition to his business acumen there’s one thing that he has that is absolutely a necessity if he’s going to continue doing this, and that’s a passion for the game.
Unquestionably he has passion for harness racing. That’s what it takes first, because you have to have that when you’re up against politicians and fire marshals and all these people that want to make your life difficult. You have to have that desire. That burning desire to do what you’re doing. He and Ben Kenney certainly do. That’s the kind of environment I’m going into, knowing full well the kind of hand that California harness racing has been dealt. I’m taking a realistic but optimistic approach.
USTA: As the only harness track west of the Rockies, how much potential does Cal Expo have?
GS: That’s part of the issue. California harness racing is like an island, it makes it that much more difficult because it doesn’t have the horse population to draw from like the tracks in the Northeast. All you have to do is load them onto a van, take them to the Poconos, Harrah’s Philadelphia, all those places. It’s a basic van ride. That’s not the case here and that makes it that much more difficult, being isolated out there. But it’s not a reason to give it up.
USTA: Does being the only track give it more potential because it’s the only game in town, or does that work against it too?
GS: I would put Cal Expo in the same category as tracks that would love to have, but may or may not get, alternative gaming. If tracks in California were allowed to have racinos, I don’t think there would be any question that these tracks would be able to offer sizeable purses and therefore be attracting a sizable group of horsemen and horse community. But they don’t have that.
You’ve got to go where the money is. You’ve got owners and they’ve got to approach that from a business standpoint. That to me is probably the primary thing that makes the continuation of flourishing in harness racing in California a very difficult task They don’t have the financial power, that kind of purse structure. You’ve got to ship horses out, it’s tough.
But they do have loyal horsemen, they have horsemen who have raced at Cal Expo for a long time, this is their home, where they want to be. Racing in California, it’s beautiful in Sacramento, the weather is nice, you can understand why people would want to be there. But you’ve got to make a living, you have to put food on the table but it’s hard, they don’t have the funding they could get with having added gaming. In my mind that would change everything.
But the governor (Arnold Schwarzenegger) in his ultimate wisdom years ago, decided he would make a very strong multi-year pact with the Native American tribes in California and their casinos are absolutely through the roof. It’s a whole different ball game. California is one of the great racing states historically but their hands are tied from that prohibitive legislation that doesn’t allow them, and I don’t think will for a long time, maybe in our lifetime, to get that added gaming.
USTA: You think one almost has to go with the other anymore?
GS: Well, until those that are given the responsibility of marketing the sport can find a way that will sell it to the new generations, that is a fact. Everybody complains about it all the time. When they have all the industry conclaves and congresses and meetings -- I’ve been going to these things over 30 years -- and I hate to say it, some of the stuff, a fair percentage of it, is just rehashing and a lot of ‘Oh woe is me’ going on because they’re addressing the same problems they’ve had for years instead of re-inventing and re-marketing themselves. It’s creating problems.
I do think that there’s a lot of casinos that are basically band-aid measures, but it’s good band-aid now. A lot of them are still sticking, still clean. But I think a lot of other people think you should take that money you’re making from the slots and put it toward marketing for the future. I’ve always thought television was a big part of that. Our generation, and past generations and the current generations and future generations have always grown up watching TV. Even if you have computers or I phones they’re still watching TV on their phones.
So California harness racing is what it is. It’s an uphill battle, I know there are people willing to fight that battle and fight it to the end.
As far as possibly being an ambassador, whatever anybody wants to call it, I just want to enjoy working there and hope to be a part of a re-birth or rejuvenation of the sport in California. There was a time the sport was really doing well there. That’s what it is for me. This is a good fit for me right now.
Would I like to be doing what I was doing 10 to 15 years ago? Flying around to different tracks and covering the major events? Of course I would. But those opportunities have dried up other than the Hambletonian. There was a time I was doing 15 shows a year and it became whittled away. I find that for me, it’s disappointing, a little frustrating and it’s really what I concentrated on doing. Those avenues and opportunities don’t exist anymore.
USTA: Talk about this year’s Hambo. How do you feel things went with the same-day format with the eliminations and final? Is that the better way to go?
GS: Having covered it for 23 years I’ve seen it before. Some of the television technical folks say it has the potential to create a bit of a nightmare, it gets to be a little dicey. But I completely agree with Jeff Gural; it’s just terrific for the public whether you are watching on TV or particularly if you’re there and you can see them all live. For the show, because of time constraints and when elims were held, we had to tape them and show segments when we were on the air live. But for racing fans in attendance, I couldn’t agree more. It does create more excitement, it makes for a better day. Most of the horses can handle it.
USTA: That’s about it Gary unless you have anything else to add.
GS: Mom please send money (laughing). The only thing I’d add is I have a long standing passion for the sport. It’s been about a 95 percent great, fun ride. I’ve had some frustrations and disappointments but everybody has those. I really do hope harness racing can make a go of it in California for a number of different reasons -- for Chris and Ben and the fans out there. It would be a shame to lose it out there. Once you lose it, there’s no harness racing from mid-country on out to the West Coast. That would be a real shame. So I’d like to see it make it out here and be a part of its continuing on.
USTA: Gary, this was fascinating, I really enjoyed it and I wish you the best of luck out there. I hope it works out for you.
GS: Well Rich I appreciate that and I’ll keep checking out the website.