Written by: Keith McCalmont

Following the path of three Canadian racing secretaries.

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Dave Landry Photo

“The secret to being a good racing secretary and offering a good program is balance. You have to offer a good mix of everything,” he said.

“I want a lot of horses on the grounds and a high number of wagering interests for our bettors,” said Lawson. “What this business comes down to is putting out an enticing product for customers wagering on our races. We want to put out a sustainable betting product that customers look forward to play and help to grow the product in Alberta.”

“You could always use more horses. It’s never a bad thing to have too many horses,” he said. “But, I think we put on a good product here and our attendance is really good. We’re only here for 25 days, which is 12 weekends, so we have really good crowds.”

A racing secretary is licensed by the government and is responsible for the custody and safekeeping of ownership documents, compiling lists of entries, keeping a complete record of all races, publishing and printing an accurate race program, and most importantly, writing the condition book.

While educational programs exist for animal sciences at any number of universities across North America, including the popular Racetrack Industry Program at the University of Arizona, many racing officials find a unique path to their chosen profession.

In this story, we follow the path of three racing secretaries across Canada: Stu Slagle of Woodbine Racetrack, Tim Lawson at Century Downs and Rick Fior at Marquis Downs.

Each one has found their own path to the sport and each has their own unique challenges in making the position work.

SLAGLE’S EXCELLENT RACING ADVENTURES

Stu Slagle, a 49-year-old Ohio native, was born on the cusp of greatness.

“I was supposedly born in the same hospital as Steph Curry and LeBron James,” said Slagle. “But, no one ever handed me a basketball.”

The affable American made a circuitous route into the sport. He studied first at the University of Texas acquiring a bachelor of science in Zoology before moving on to the University of Illinois to engage in the world of biophysics.

“After about four years I decided that wasn’t the career I wanted and I left for the corporate world. I had a friend who owned horses at Arlington Park, he worked at Motorola, and he put in a good word for me and I got an entry level in the UNIX department at Motorola at Arlington Heights,” said Slagle.

At the time, he was more of a casual racing fan. During university he made the odd trip down to Bandera Downs but it wasn’t at the forefront.

“Growing up, my family watched all the big sporting events. We’d watch the Triple Crown races, the World Series, Indy 500 all those events,” recalled Slagle. “I remember watching Secretariat winning the Belmont; just standing in front of the TV and watching the distance between Secretariat and the other horses.“

While in Illinois, the racing bug bit hard. After venturing into an off-track facility to watch Lil E. Tee win the 1992 running of the Kentucky Derby, Slagle found himself engrossed in the sport.

“The following year I went back and watched the Derby prep races and in the process I befriended David Block, the principal of Team Block, and he took a liking to me,” recalled Slagle.

Block invited Slagle out for a day at the races at Arlington Park including a barn tour at the stables of his son, trainer Chris Block, and the future racing secretary was hooked.

“That was it. From that point, I tried to read every book I could on racing from Andy Beyer to Steve Davidowitz to Tom Brohamer to learn as much as I could,” said Slagle.

Brief forays into horse ownership and a tour as a jockey agent proved to be unsuccessful, but he persevered and eventually found a gig at Retama Park in Texas as a racing official.

His career path at this point becomes a Hank Snow song – he’s been everywhere, man.

“I’ve been the racing secretary at Albuquerque, Arapahoe, Manor Downs, Hastings and Woodbine,” started Slagle. “But, I’ve worked at a lot more tracks on the way up. I worked at the racing office at Retama, Colonial Downs, Timonium, Laurel, Prairie Meadows, Pimlico, Sunland, Ruidoso and Zia Park.”

The experience has served Slagle well.

“I’ve learned there’s lots of different ways to do things and that has been beneficial for me. That I jumped from various roles allowed me to climb the racing ladder faster,” he says.

By Slagle’s definition, the position of racing secretary serves many masters.

“I work for many different people. Ultimately the racetrack signs the cheque but I’m tasked with trying to write the best product to increase revenue,” said Slagle. “But, I also help to facilitate taxes to the province and I’m also working for the horseman trying to create a racing program that works for everybody. In addition, I’m also working for the betting public trying to put on a betting product that is interesting. I’m trying to make everybody happy at once and that’s not always easy.”

At Woodbine, with a 133-day meet and blessed with nearly 2,000 horses on the grounds at peak season, Slagle has the fortuitous but difficult chore of making the races happen.

With both a one-mile Tapeta main track and a 1 ½-mile turf track, there’s no shortage of menu items for Slagle to choose from when preparing a condition book.

“There’s 17 different distances to race at and then divide that between two-year-olds, three-year-olds, three and up, boys and girls, turf and main track and then permutations across the various races there’s so many options,” noted Slagle.

Another issue becomes how often to write a particular race. Some trainers prepare to bring their horses back on two weeks rest, others at three weeks. There’s also injuries, illnesses and opportunities at other tracks to consider when figuring out when to bring a race back.

“You can do what’s best for the collective whole but it may not be best for a particular trainer at any given moment,” said Slagle. “At the high end, you try to write races that help to get horses ready for stakes races. You try to give people the allowance race that will get them ready for a stakes race.

“Beyond the high end, you’re looking at what has worked recently and what worked last year,” he continued. “You listen to people. Some horses on the way down may move one rung down the claiming level but others will try to do a double or triple drop.”

As the poet John Lydgate wrote, “You can please some of the people all of the time, you can please all of the people some of the time, but you can’t please all of the people all of the time”.

Slagle tries to take the process in stride.

“The secret to being a good racing secretary and offering a good program is balance. You have to offer a good mix of everything,” he said.

LAWSON COMES BY HIS LOVE FOR RACING NATURALLY

Tim Lawson, son of Woodbine CEO Jim Lawson, grew up in the Sport of Kings and at the age of 24 is set to become the youngest racing secretary in the thoroughbred game when Century Downs launches their meet in the fall.

“My grandfather was a horse owner and breeder for 50-plus years and from a young age I’d say I got dragged out to the track. But, eventually I fell in love with the game,” said Lawson. “The ongoing joke in the family is there’s always one child that keeps the racing connection going. My dad was the one of his three siblings and I’m the only one of my three siblings. The passion for racing has been high in the family for many years.”

Lawson studied political science at the University of Brock but the temptation of a career in sports loomed large.

“I was a varsity baseball player and for a few years my main focus was athletics,” said Lawson. “Midway through university I realized racing is what I wanted to do and there was nothing I would enjoy better than going to the track every day for a job.”

He picked up the ins and outs of breeding and handicapping from his father and grandfather and has spent countless hours reading up on the history of the sport. However, a turning point arrived for Lawson with an opportunity to work in the race office at Woodbine and later at Keeneland.

“Learning from guys like Steve Lym (VP of Racing) and Stu Slagle at Woodbine and Ben Huffman at Keeneland, who is also the Churchill Downs racing secretary, was very helpful,” noted Lawson.

While working at two of the biggest tracks in North America, Lawson learned the ins and outs of the race office taking entries, proofing race conditions and checking weights.

But what does all that mean?

“Checking proofs is ensuring horses are in the right races,” explained Lawson. “Essentially, you’re making sure if a horse is entered in a non-winners of two races that it hasn’t won more than two races or making sure if a horse is eligible for certain allowance conditions.

“Different races ask for different weights and you check to make sure each horse is carrying the right weight,” continues Lawson. “It gives you a good sense of how the operation works and if you enjoy doing it, it doesn’t get old.”

After completing his internship at Keeneland, Lawson moved out west to Century Downs and has thrived.

“Since Century Downs opened, the plan was always to bring thoroughbred racing back to the Calgary marketplace,” says Lawson. “It was a matter of getting the dates approved by Horse Racing Alberta and having the infrastructure in place to successfully run a meet.”

In addition to his role as racing secretary, he has also assumed the position of project coordinator overseeing the build of the brand new Century Mile track near Edmonton.

In September, thoroughbred racing will return to Calgary at Century Downs and Lawson is charged with writing a condition book to serve an unknown population of horses.

“A concern, and not just at our meet but across North America, is horse population and ensuring we have enough horses to run eight races a day twice a week,” noted Lawson. “Another challenge is enticing horsemen to come down from Edmonton to race here.

“Stampede Park closed 10 years ago and a lot of guys have permanently set up shop in Edmonton,” said Lawson. “We’ll try to bring horses from Winnipeg and Saskatchewan as well.”

While his counterpart and mentor Slagle is busy writing prep races for graded stakes events, Lawson’s challenge is substantially different as he attempts to attract the attention of trainers making the trek south of the border to Turf Paradise and beyond.

“We’ll start from $2,500 claimers up to non-winners of three other than allowance optional claiming,” he said. “We’ll write a wide variety of races to entice horsemen from multiple circuits. I’d love to have stakes quality horses for the allowance races we run throughout the meet.”

Ultimately, Lawson acknowledges that in addition to enticing the horsemen he also has to attract the attention of the elusive horseplayer.

“I want a lot of horses on the grounds and a high number of wagering interests for our bettors,” said Lawson. “What this business comes down to is putting out an enticing product for customers wagering on our races. We want to put out a sustainable betting product that customers look forward to play and help to grow the product in Alberta.”

EVERY DAY PRESENTS FIOR WITH SOMETHING DIFFERENT

Rick Fior, a veteran horseman and currently the racing secretary and racing manager at Marquis Downs, has worked in some capacity in racing in Saskatchewan since 1977 and he’s seen it all.

Or maybe he hasn’t.

“It’s interesting every day here. Things happen and I know I’ve never seen that before and I’ll probably never see it again,” Fior said, laughing. “I’ll never say I’ve seen everything because that’s when something comes up that I’ve never seen or heard before. Maybe that’s why this sport is fun to be in. Every day is different.”

The 60-year-old sports fanatic, an avid supporter of everything from baseball to hockey to football, has developed a well-established product at the Saskatoon track.

“We run 25 days here, so I only have to write two books – one for 13 days and one for 12,” said Fior.

The veteran official has found that a less complicated approach has worked in his favour with local horsemen.

“We found a number of years ago that since we only run twice a week that we had too many conditions for the number of horses we have,” explained Fior. “So, I pared back the conditions and now we run non-winners of two through four, non-winners on the year, maiden, allowance and that’s what we go by. Our horsemen know from year to year what type of horses they need to run here because we write the same races every year.”

The results speak for themselves.

“Last year, we averaged 7.65 starters per race which is a really good number. By paring back conditions we found our field size went up dramatically,” he said. “We just don’t have enough horses to run 50 different conditions and we’d end up splitting up horses and causing factions so we pared back to something simple. Now, when a horseman leaves here in September he knows exactly what horses he needs to go out and buy for next year.”

With some 500 horses stabled on track and 14 races to fill over two racing cards per week, Fior has plenty of stock to slot in each condition. And he has a track that’s versatile enough to suit a variety of racing styles.

“We’re fortunate that we have a chute so we can run six furlongs, six and a half, seven furlongs and then a mile, mile and a sixteenth and a mile and an eighth,” said Fior. “We try to vary races. For non-winners of two lifetime you run six furlongs one week and then seven furlongs the next week and then you come back to six and a half and then run them long again. I try to set up the book so every category has a race to run in every two weeks.”

Of course, even though things are good, there’s always a horseman who thinks it could be better.

“It’s hard keep everybody happy,” said Fior, singing a familiar tune for racing secretaries nationwide. “Everyone has their own ideas about how things should be run. I learned a long time ago you’re not going to please everybody and to not take it personally.”

For Fior, a life in racing seemed inevitable.

“My parents had horses back in the mid- ‘50s and raced in the old Calgary-Edmonton-Saskatoon-Regina circuit and maybe some time in Winnipeg. I was in it right from when I was born. When I was a kid my dad had up to 20 horses here and I was the chief stall mucker,” he said, laughing.

Fior eventually went off to university and what might have been a brilliant career in commerce was cut short when a friend called and offered him a job as a clocker.

“I went back and forth between Saskatoon and Regina clocking horses and I’ve been here ever since.”

And his career offers almost as many titles as his colleague, Slagle.

“In time, I became the paddock judge, horse identifier and then the clerk of scales. I ran the gamut of jobs before becoming racing secretary. I even charted for the Daily Racing Form for a couple of years before coming back to be racing manager and racing secretary since 2004,” he said.

Fior does have some advice to offer his younger colleague.

“You have to be patient. I always try to explain why we do what we do and I will tell the horsemen that I do what is best for the industry and not what is good for me or a particular horse. I always try to make a decision that’s in the best interests of the industry.”

To that end, perhaps there is a secondary, more academic side, to being a racing secretary.

“I found a long time ago I’m not only a race secretary, I’m a psychologist too. There’s something different about every trainer and you can’t treat them all the same,” said Fior.

And even now, some 40 years into a career in and around the race office, Fior finds there’s not much reason to complain.

“You could always use more horses. It’s never a bad thing to have too many horses,” he said. “But, I think we put on a good product here and our attendance is really good. We’re only here for 25 days, which is 12 weekends, so we have really good crowds.”