Snap-On CEO Pinchuk on His Passion for Horse Racing, the Triple Crown, Saratoga

The Life
Saratoga Race Course, left, and Saratoga Springs, N.Y., have been a key part of Snap-On CEO Nick Pinchuk’s life since childhood. (Eclipse Sportswire/Nick Pinchuk photo)

Nicholas Pinchuk is the chief executive officer of Snap-On Inc., the 98-year-old Wisconsin based high-end tool manufacturer. Pinchuk is a native of Troy, N.Y., and lived there until he graduated from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in 1968. From there Pinchuk went on to serve in Vietnam as a First Lieutenant in the U.S. Army. He subsequently earned a master's degree in business administration (MBA) from Harvard Business School. He has worked in the manufacturing sector his entire life, as an executive at companies such as Ford and Carrier, and has been at the helm of Snap-On since 2007.

Growing up in the capital region of New York when he did, Pinchuk became a fan of horse racing, a passion that has not diminished over the course of his life and career.

Today, he keeps a home in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., and has box seats at Saratoga Race Course. Pinchuk never misses a Preakness and America’s Best Racing caught up with him right before his yearly pilgrimage to Old Hilltop for the second jewel of the Triple Crown.

How did you first get interested in horse racing?

Horse racing, written large, is sort of part of my environment. I grew up in the south end of Troy. Generally, racing was a ubiquitous topic in my neighborhood. In those days you couldn’t go to what we called the “flat track” until you were 18. So my parents took me to the harness track three or four nights a week in the summers. I learned to read the racing form at 4 or 5 years old.

The harness track is across the street from Saratoga, so we were quite aware of Thoroughbred racing from a distance. I remember the [19]53 Derby, listening on the radio, when Dark Star beat Native Dancer. My mother took me to see Native Dancer workout up close. I've seen or heard every Kentucky Derby since then, including Cannonero over the radio from Vietnam [in 1971]. I was lucky enough to be at Secretariat’s race. I was at the 100th anniversary.

I got interested in racing through harness racing because they admitted 5 year olds. It was a bonding thing, looking at the Racing Forms together. We followed the sport, but television was just starting at that point, I regret to say I’m that old.

I remember Runaway Groom winning the Travers [in 1982] against the three Triple Crown race winners. Marshall Cassidy didn’t even mention him until he was in front 20 yards from the wire. Or when Holy Bull put away Tabasco Cat, and Tom Durkin, who is a friend of mine, announced during the call of the race “and Mike Smith lets the bull run, but there is cause for concern!” when Concern came rushing up at the end. And Concern went on to win the Breeders' Cup [Classic]. I’ve had some history. I go to the Preakness every year. I'm going this year with a friend of mine who served with me in Vietnam.

I think the common theme of all of this is that these horses were stars. Holy Bull, Native Dancer, Secretariat, American Pharoah, Concern, they were stars in the mind of the public. I was only six but I remember Native Dancer was on the cover of Time Magazine. Secretariat was on the cover of Time, Sports Illustrated, and Newsweek in the same week.

Do you still have any connection to Saratoga Springs? How often do you go back?

Over the years, I’ve owned several places there, of rising size as my career went on. I lived in Singapore for 11 years as part of my job. I’ve moved 16 times. But Saratoga has been my family’s anchor. When I lived in Singapore, we went to Saratoga every summer. Now I’ve migrated through several versions of that to a place on Circular Street. It’s nice, it’s near the city.

What I do in my job, I’m pretty occupied. From the perspective of being a great financial investment, the house in Saratoga Springs isn’t the best. I only get there once or twice a year. But my family will go there more. The races creates the reason to keep in touch with people, creates the social backbone. I have a box and we can entertain people from my company. It’s a great experience to get to know people.

Saratoga is a wonderful place even without the track. It’s meticulously kept, great restaurants. The racing creates the reason to be there and that’s a lubricant for keeping in touch with people. My friends come up, people from my company, and they stay at our house. I have friends in government, cabinet officials, that I’ve gotten to know over the years, and they’ll come up and stay. A pleasant bonus, the people I knew form my first couple of days working at Ford in the 1960s have come every year for almost 40 years. And some of my high school friends come up for a reunion because I went to school 30 miles away. And I sprinkle in some local folks I’ve gotten to know. It’s quite a social circle. But I only get to go a couple of weekends a year, because my job is so demanding.

How does Saratoga compare to other racetracks you’ve been to around the country, or around the world?

Everybody loves Saratoga. The racetrack is the greatest attraction in New York state. You might argue Niagara Falls, but I think Saratoga is nonpareil. It is a unique situation. I characterize it as Park Avenue meets the county fair. People from NYC, people from more rural areas, and everyone gets up close and personal with the horses. Where else for $5 can you have an afternoon of fun watching some of the best athletes in the country, getting up close and personal with them? You can’t go to the movies for that anymore.

I think Saratoga has done a great job of focusing on the customer. One of the great events they do is the breakfast on the rail. I think they have tried to pony out the good horses on the track so people can see them. They treat the horses as what they really are, advertising. They are heroes and you want the people to get up close and see them. I’ve been around the world. I've met Popes and Presidents. But I remember that I saw Native Dancer. Saratoga did that for me.  

Saratoga has the best attendance, the highest purses, and the best horses on a daily basis of any track in the country. If I could go every day I would.

Have you ever owned any horses?

No, I’ve never owned any horses. I”m a hands-on guy, and I don’t have that much time. I couldn’t be a hands-off owner. For me, I’m too interested in the horses. I have my own opinions about how it should be done.

I’ve pretty well followed the horses - I could tell you every Derby winner from 1953 by memory. But I've been pretty close to buying in. I've been in with some guys who have dabbled in syndicates, but I've never owned horses directly. My friends who have done it are less busy than I am these days. I’ve come close to doing it a couple of times. My dad owned harness horses. He campaigned Standardbreds a couple of times. It was quite time consuming for him. I’m busy trying to run the company.

Where do you see the racing business headed? As a successful business leader, what advice would you have for the racing business to grow and succeed?

Look, I’ll give you my two cents. Native Dancer ran seven times as a 2-year-old. Justify has run [five] races. American Pharoah … disappeared quickly. I bet he couldn’t be indentified by general Americans for more than eight months.

If you watch reality TV today, “Survivor” let’s say, what they’ve learned I think is that it helps a lot if you create longevity. The downside of “Survivor” was that everyone had to get warmed up to the new players every season. So now they bring back the old players we already know. They flash back to incidents in past episodes, creating an affinity based on history with the audience. Imagine if in the NFL the star players only played for five months, what shape would that league be in? 

If you look at ESPN, the coverage and so on, the way they talk about horse racing, they are waiting for the star to emerge. Racing should pitch its stars earlier, have them be on the scene longer. Justify won’t be any good for racing if he wins the Triple Crown and retires. Keep horses in the public eye longer. Even in regard to the Derby, we don’t see those horses focused on earlier, get them more in the public eye.

If you’re thinking about the future of Thoroughbred racing, who is more important? Storm Cat and Tapit or Zenyatta and Arrogate? In other words, there’s a lot more money behind Storm Cat and Tapit because of breeding. In Thoroughbred racing a lot of money is spent on breeding. Storm Cat’s stud fee was $500,000. That’s a lot of money. Let’s go to Saratoga and ask how many people know Storm Cat. You see? They’re not contributing to the excitement of the game. If breeding is so important, should it be the focus of more of the coverage? Should we be talking more about the breeding? Or are we putting the cart before the horse by investing so much into breeding? The money is being poured in to a place which doesn’t attract the public. You could argue it produces the product.

Go to the Saratoga harness track now, the casino is mobbed. Upstairs, there’s like 10 people watching the races. They’re racing for more money than ever before, but its like a Potemkin event. But gambling will underwrite the breeding because it employs a lot of people. I think that’s a question for Thoroughbred racing. The bigger the breeding becomes, the shorter the stars stay.

The state of Thoroughbred racing can be written in the names Kelso, Forego, Cigar, Zenyatta. These are all post-3-year-old champions that captured the imagination of America. People went to see them. We’ve also lost that the horses aren’t breaking track records left and right. General Assembly’s [1 ¼-mile Saratoga track] record stood [for 27 years]. People will say that breaking records doesn’t matter, but Dan Patch was a harness horse and thousands of people watched him race against time. That’s another way to create excitement.

Focus on the customer. Try to attract families. It would upset the model but wouldn’t you want to give every family a Racing Form? Then they can read about the track. There are articles in the Racing Form about the sport. I don’t know if that’s what you do but you want to make the customer’s experience better. You want them to learn as much as they can about it when they visit. Saratoga does this well. They give tours, the breakfast on the rail, things like that.

When you bring a guest to Saratoga for the first time, how do you coach them through their day at the races? What tips do you give them? How do you help get them hooked on the sport?

First of all, I try to give them some understanding of the elements of the choices among the horses in various races. I give them a little “handicapping light” view of some of the major races. The Preakness … for example, I’d tell them that Justify won the Derby, maybe because he was the best or maybe because he got the lead in the slop. Those kinds of things. I try to give them familiarity, a little bit like ESPN does for football games, talking about the strengths and weakness of different teams. Then, we go to the breakfast to see the horses work out and look at the form. We go out to the paddock - I’m fortunate to get paddock passes - but before I got those I’d stand at the rail. And that gets people excited about the race, being up close to the horses like that. Then, after a race I will recap what happened, why did that horse win or not win, and we talk about it. I try to give people a rudimentary road map of what to expect and then when it's over why I think it happened that way.

I think people can pick up betting, but the menu is kind of overwhelming. If you have a 10-minute primer you can handle it OK. There are bettors and there are bettors. Some people come to my house and they are sophisticated bettors and they want to check the odds on quinellas against exactas. Some people want to just put some money down for fun, and they prefer the straight win, place, and show bets. People I go with aren’t looking for the big payoffs that exotics have. They just have fun cashing a ticket every race, not so much to win money.

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