When I first started working at Santa Anita Park, I discovered a whole new meaning to Christmas for Southern California horseplayers. Dec. 25 meant that the next day venerable Santa Anita was opening for its new racing season.
For those of us who work in the horse racing industry, holidays don’t mean the same thing as they do for the general population. Since horses need tender loving care 24/7 that means folks like grooms, hotwalkers, exercise riders and the trainers they work for also must work 24/7.
It is not easy to say the least. And that’s why the people who make a career of tending to racehorses have to love the animals first. If they didn’t they wouldn’t last long in the sport.
I have always worked on the frontside of a racetrack except for the last couple of decades where I worked for a daily newspaper. Holidays on the side I was on also meant more work. That’s because some racetrack in America is open every holiday of the year except for Christmas Day.
My favorite holiday of the year for horse racing has been Thanksgiving. I know for many years in New Orleans Thanksgiving Day meant the start of the racing season at the Fair Grounds, though it has varied some recently.
When I started working in publicity for the New York Racing Association in 1979, I volunteered to work Thanksgiving Day at Aqueduct.
At the time I was young, single, and it allowed the married employees to spend the day at home with their family. But I had more insidious reasons for working on Thanksgiving.
On Thanksgiving, the first post was usually 10:30 a.m. Soon after that the first of the NFL Turkey Day games would kick off. The early game was always the Detroit Lions playing at home.
So there I was in the press box at Aqueduct. A nine race card right in front of me where the last race would go off at 2:30 p.m. and an NFL game on some of the TV sets.
Back then we had a full press box too. Every New York City newspaper had two persons assigned to cover horse racing. One would be the reporter and the other the daily handicapper making picks.
As a kid fresh out of St. John’s it was pretty cool rubbing elbows with the likes of Russ Harris of the Daily News, John Piesen of the Post and John Pricci of Newsday.
Willie Shofner, who was affectionately called “The Black Prince” and ran our press box lounge, made sure we had a full Thanksgiving feast available. Back then I could eat like a horse.
I would devour a full turkey dinner around noon and then drive to Stamford, Conn., to have another full turkey dinner with the Eng family five hours later.
So let me know if you are going to the races at your local track on Thanksgiving. And don’t worry about overeating. That’s what Turkey Day is for.
Richard Eng is the author of “Betting on Horse Racing for Dummies”, an introductory book for newcomers to the sport of horse racing. For two decades, he was the turf editor and handicapper for the Las Vegas Review-Journal. He still handicaps the Southern California tracks and his picks are for sale at www.racedaylasvegas.com. You can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @richeng4propick and on Facebook.com.