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Thursday Thoughts: A Chat with Mr. Hambletonian, Gary Seibel

by Al Cimaglia

August 2, 2018

Over the last 25 years no other TV personality is more synonymous with harness racing than Gary Seibel. This Saturday will mark his 26th consecutive broadcast of the Hambletonian. Many may recall Seibel's past coverage of the Breeders Crown on ESPN and as the voice of Drive Time on TVG. Now it's almost Hambletonian Day, and Seibel is connected at the hip with the crown jewel of harness racing. Fortunately, he was kind of enough to answer a few questions and share some of his knowledgeable harness racing insights. 

Gary, you will be broadcasting once again on Hambletonian Day with your old buddy Dave Brower. What is your favorite Hambletonian memory? 

Wow, tough one! This will be my 26th consecutive year on the Hambletonian network broadcast, something for which I'm very grateful and proud. There have been so many memorable moments over the years, but if I had to pick one, it could very well be Continental Victory's brilliant performance over the boys in the 1996 Hambo. She's the only filly to win the sport's biggest race during the years I've been on the broadcast and particularly fitting for this year. The highly-regarded and very fast filly, Atlanta, has been given the green light by her connections to take on the boys this Saturday. She will attempt to become the first filly to win the Hambo since the great Continental Victory. 

You have been around harness racing for many years. What are you most optimistic about today? 

Well, there are several things that allow me to entertain a feeling of cautious optimism about the sport. Legalization of alternative forms of gaming, most recently sports betting, are contributing factors. I don't see sports betting as a get-rich-quick kind of deal, but certainly a useful addition to a healthier bottom line if done properly. Who knows? Maybe it will be a 
windfall in certain areas. Only time will tell. Slots, well we have seen the good and the bad on that front, but basically, it all comes down to the haves and the have-nots and the legislatures that rule those roosts. Places like Ohio and Indiana have always been great ambassadors for grassroots harness racing and now they're getting a chance to participate on a grander scale, and they're doing it right. Also, the sports increasing presence on social media is crucial. Now we've got a number of young, talented and passionate participants who are getting the word out to other young people by way of every social media means possible. An important tool now and certainly for the future. 

I enjoyed the Cal Expo meet and thought you and Jenn Bongiorno did an excellent job with your handicapping show which helped to grow the Pick 4 pool. Cal Expo's handle in the Pick 4 seemed to explode in the beginning of this year. What are you expecting for the upcoming meet and will Jenn be back? 

Thanks for the kind words, and I agree! I thought Jenn did a terrific job in her first season on Cal Expo's Pick 4 handicapping segment. She was always completely prepared for the night's program and picked up the nuances of the local circuit very quickly. Plus, her knowledge from a lifetime of being around harness racing and her solid training record on one of the sport's toughest circuits all contributed to the success of Cal Expo's Pick 4 last season. I expect more of the same, including Jenn's return next season, which begins a bit later this year, on Nov. 10th. 

I'm of the opinion more race dates and fewer races per card is the way to go. Having 13-14 races a night can take as much time or more than an 18-hole round of golf. What are your thoughts on this topic? 

More race dates and fewer races per card might well be the choice of a per diem track employee but maybe not management. There's a lot of expense involved in conducting a live race night, and I think track operators feel they get more bang for their buck when they squeeze more races into a single night. When you consider that the majority of wagering is off-track, I would think management doesn't have to worry as much about their local customers tapping out or going home early because they're tired. There's always someone somewhere looking to place a bet on a horse race, especially from the comfort of their own home. For Cal Expo, that can often mean east coast insomniacs. But, I'm with you, I've never met a 10-race card I didn't like. 

Do you think harness racing will ever try to coordinate post times and the time of year certain tracks can operate a meet? 

I hope so, but there is no central organization in the sport requiring tracks to do so. I know there are few things as frustrating to bettors and potentially as costly to track operators, especially the little guys, when trying to coordinate post times. Chris Schick at Cal Expo does as good a job as anyone I've seen when trying to coordinate post times with other tracks. He has to deal with a three-hour time difference when taking major races from back east and has to juggle off times while going up against a popular Los Alamitos signal and occasional late posts at other local thoroughbred venues. In all fairness, I think there is a good degree of cooperation amongst the tracks to do the best they can with this without giving up too much. But I don't see any industry mandates happening anytime soon. 

There is a shortage of horses at many tracks, Hawthorne has experienced the same during their current meet. Do you think that will be an issue at Cal Expo and how long do you think it will take before the shortage subsides? 

Since Cal Expo is a long way from its nearest U.S. track neighbor and a bit of a hike from its closest northern neighbors as well, they always face the possibility of a horse shortage. In the five years I have worked there, some years have been better than others when it comes to the track's race-ready horse population. Management has done a great job with the resources available, including offering horse and race incentives for participating in the racing program each season. Obviously, bigger purses would help, but there are other factors, including favorable legislation, that plays an important role. When horse shortages end for a number of locations throughout the industry is anybody's guess. 

If you could wave a magic wand to improve harness racing what would be your first wish? 

I would wish for uniformity and transparency in all aspects of the sport. That might seem like two wishes, but it's actually an entry, 1 and 1A! 

Looking into your crystal ball...What will be the state of harness racing over the next three years? 

Being an optimist to begin with, I think harness racing will be on relatively solid ground and moving ahead on a steady course over the next few years. Sports betting will play a varying role in different locations, and slot machines, table games, et al, continuing to help churn out attractive purses in several states. More and more people will be exposed to the excitement the sport offers and they will be smitten by the beauty of the equine athletes that perform. Social media's role is the reason more and more people will be exposed to the beauty of the equine athlete, in addition to replacing us old dudes. But, at the end of the day, harness racing will still need to adapt to a changing world and keep an open mind to new ideas to secure a lasting legacy. 

Thanks Gary! 

Gary Seibel is a veteran horse racing broadcaster, who has been widely recognized as one of network television's premier harness racing authorities for nearly three decades. The 2018 edition of the Hambletonian will mark his 26th consecutive year as either host or co-host of harness racing's most prestigious event, including a 13-year run on CBS and a 5-year stint with NBC. 

This coming November, Seibel will begin his sixth season as track announcer and TV simulcast host at Cal Expo racetrack in Sacramento, California. 

For more than a decade, he hosted ESPN's coverage of the Breeders Crown, harness racing's divisional championship series, and filled a similar role for the network on the American Championship Harness Series back in the late 1990's. For nearly a dozen years, from 1999 through 2011, he brought the sport of harness racing into the living rooms of fans across America on a daily basis as host and racing analyst for the popular nightly program, "Drive Time," on TVG. 

In 1998, in one of his most memorable and fun forays outside the world of horse racing, the Bronx, New York, native took over for the late Hall of Fame broadcaster, Chris Schenkel, as play-by-play announcer for CBS Sports' network coverage of the Pro Bowlers Tour. 

Seibel has been honored with harness racing's Dan Patch media award and the Allen J. Finkelson award. Due to his extensive body of work in the industry, he earned induction into the Communicator's Corner of the harness racing Hall of Fame in 2011. 

A graduate of the Newhouse School of Communications at Syracuse University, Seibel spent several of his early years as a radio disc jockey and sportscaster in upstate New York. He then headed to Pompano Park where he served as track 
announcer for 18 years. In addition to other roles as publicity director, in-house simulcast TV host and public handicapper, Seibel was Pompano's assistant general manager for two years. 

Check me out on Twitter, @AlCimaglia.