A Day in the Life of the Racing Office

Sam Houston Race Park racing office team / Photo credit: Jack Coady /Coady Photography

A Day in the Life of the Racing Office – by Martha Claussen

This article courtesy of Sure Bet Racing News.

March, 2013 – Racing fans pick up a program every time they visit their favorite track. It is an essential tool for finding useful information on horses entered in the day’s races, their past performances, statistics on jockeys and trainers, even the colors and patterns of the silks chosen by the owner. Looks organized and simple, but whoa, Nelly!  Spend a day in the racing office to see how much work goes into getting just one program ready for print.

I did just that with full support of the wonderful members of the Sam Houston Race Park racing office and witnessed a well-oiled machine with a lot of moving parts. 

Eric Johnston, Sam Houston’s vice president of racing, has served as racing secretary since 1996. He shared the rundown of the personnel on his payroll. He has a racing office staff of 10, consisting of a stakes coordinator, program director, three placing judges, a clerk of scales, horse identifier and stall supervisor. Each of them is very involved in the morning entry work. In addition, Johnston oversees a starter and his 13 gate-crew assistants, 10 jockey valets, two jocks room employees, two clockers, a gap attendant for morning works, two outriders, eight test barn technicians and a blacksmith.

Racing office employees come from different walks of life, but the majority of them have strong ties to the industry. Some are former jockeys and trainers, and others grew up in racing families. All have solid knowledge of equine terminology and racing lingo and like working in a fast-paced and sometimes frenetic atmosphere.

Advance Planning and Early Preparation

Johnston explains that the entry process starts well in advance of Sam Houston’s 72-hour time frame (some tracks use a 48- or even 24-hour entry process). He constructs a racing program and stakes schedule based on approved purses and stakes events for the meet.

Condition books are created and mailed out listing 12 to 20 races per live day. Trying to meet the needs of all horsemen is a daunting task. On any given day, requests come over the phone or in person, requesting “fillies going short, non-winners of 5-year-olds and up, turf maiden sprint, turf allowance routing” and many more.

Johnston will pay visits to tracks in surrounding states months before the meet begins. With Sam Houston’s enviable winter climate, he has attracted horsemen from the northeast, northwest and even Canada.

“We are able to run on both surfaces all meet,” explains Johnston. “Racing on our turf course throughout the winter months is a big plus.”

As the meet approaches, the racing office will review between 1,600 and 1,700 stall applications, which must be narrowed down to the 1,334 stalls available on the backside.

Balancing Act

It is hard to fully describe the balancing act a racing office faces in creating each race card. Horsemen want completive purses, wagering fans like full fields, racetrack management wants cards that will drive handle and maybe debut the next Zenyatta or Curlin.

“You might say that my job involves serving two masters,” states Johnston. “I have an obligation to management to balance purse accounts and drive handle, but it is equally important to please the horsemen. Some days are more difficult than others.”

Never a Dull Moment on Entry Day

As entry day approaches, horsemen have done their homework and know which horses are ready to run. Some enter their horses in person, some by phone and others entrust jockey agents to take care of that responsibility.

The racing office staff enters each horse into the InCompass computerized program, which offers a comprehensive menu for securing necessary information for each entry.

Horse, jockey and trainer are the easy parts, but listing owners can involve more detail due to corporations, shared partnerships and leased arrangements. Every owner must be licensed through the state licensing department. In Texas, that falls under the auspices of the Texas Racing Commission, which is based in Austin, but operates an on-site office at each racetrack.

Things begin quietly on the morning of entry day. The racing office staff is in place by 8 a.m. with condition books open and computers turned on. Several agents make entries in person, and trainers stop by to check “the board,” which lists the races in the condition book for the applicable race day as well as up to 10 “extra” races, should the originally scheduled events not fill. The entry clerks process each request individually and look for any “flagged” notations on the InCompass screen. Each horse must have an updated Coggins and Equine Piroplasmosis certificate. The horse identifier receives papers on each racehorse with updated registration information and upper lip tattoo, which will be checked in the paddock prior to each race.

Several of the races begin to fill, but others have attracted little interest. An announcement is made to the backside informing horsemen of which races are going and which “extras” are looking probable. The goal is to ensure that each race will run with a minimum of seven starters, so the agents and entry clerks begin making calls to see if they can fill the lagging races.

It’s business as usual, but not without the occasional “what-in-the-world?” moment. One of the entry clerks recalls getting a call from a Quarter Horse trainer wanting to enter one of his horses.

 I want to run “the one on the far left,” said the trainer. The clerk dutifully looked up that name in the InCompass system and could not find a match. The trainer, possibly multi-tasking when placing the call, was referring to his horse on the left of his shed row.

Sometimes as early as 11:30 a.m., the entries are closed and the post position draw commences. A state steward and a horseman must be present as the entry slips are drawn, numbers are placed in a shaker and a random draw takes place to determine post position placement. After each race is drawn, the horse name, number and jockey are read out loud, and if a jockey has been named by more than one horseman, a quick final decision will be made. 

After all the races are drawn, the entry clerks complete a final review and, within 30 minutes, an overnight of the racing card is produced.

Meticulous Detail for Program Pages

The next step is the production of program pages, an extremely important process involving detail-oriented scrutiny. The racing office staff will review each race for any discrepancy, which might involve change in blinkers, new owner, updated works or whether the horse was entered for a tag in his or her last race. The entered horses are checked through the test barn and vet lists. In Texas, if a horse bleeds for the first time in a race, it is not eligible to run for 12 days; second bleeder is sidelined for 30 days.

The Texas Racing Commission also has a list of any individual (trainer, jockey or owner) who has does not have a current TXRC license. Of course, every now and then, a horse will get entered in the wrong condition, so again, if a 3-year-old ends up on a program page proof for older horses, that horse will not make the final program.

Shryl Hopkins serves as Sam Houston Race Park’s program director, and can rattle off an exhaustive list of details that have to be verified and confirmed.

“We have to check each entry in every race,” said Hopkins. “The days that we don’t catch something are few and far between.”

Long Shifts Involved Due to Night Racing

Sam Houston Race Park runs Friday and Saturday evenings as well as Sunday and Monday afternoon cards. That can produce some exhausting days for the racing office staff, who report for duty at 8 a.m. on Friday to take entries, take a short break in the afternoon and return for their other roles as placing judges, clerk of scales and paddock judge. They do not leave until the 10th race of the evening card goes official after 11 p.m.

So next time you are at your favorite racetrack and buy a program, take a minute to give thanks to the hard-working members of the racing office. They work quietly behind the scenes, with little credit, to ensure that you are getting the most comprehensive information available.

And, as I can attest, far from an easy job.

Martha Claussen has been prominent in the Texas racing industry since 1997 as a publicist, writer and handicapper.