Illinois-bred Abel Zander grew up outside Chicago, so it's fitting that his interest in racing sprang from a trip to Arlington Park. After cashing a ticket on Sarava in the 2002 Belmont, his interest in racing reached a crescendo when he enrolled in the Race Track Industry Program in 2016.
Since enrolling at the University of Arizona, Zander's tenacity and work ethic has set him apart. Abel is double majoring in Arabic and animal sciences, with a minor in finance. Even more impressively, he has maintained a 4.0 GPA with that immense workload and is set to graduate summa cum laude.
Outside of his class load, Abel has taken on several other responsibilities. He led a research project on national medication regulation uniformity that delved deep into the differences in rules between racing jurisdictions. He has also been hired by RTIP as webmaster, managing content and analyzing Internet traffic. Zander also works for the University of Arizona's College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, maintaining its website.
In his words:
Growing up, what was your involvement and interest in horse racing?
Growing up, I had no knowledge of horse racing. In fact, I was more aware of the Greyhounds. I remember reading results from Dairyland in the newspaper and wondering why it wasn't a cheese-themed amusement park. My first exposure to horses was in my early twenties at Arlington Park where I watched the 2002 Belmont Stakes. Much like Sarava in that race, longshots are what keep me coming back for more. It's like March Madness only it's every single race day. Actually, that's a pretty good marketing slogan.
What's the most important thing you've learned through your classes and job experiences?
For myself, the two most valuable resources at the University of Arizona are Wendy Davis and Liz Bracken. The sheer volume of knowledge they have regarding the equine industry is truly remarkable. When you come to a program like the RTIP, without any prior knowledge like I did, it's hard to say one thing is more valuable than another. While some aspects of the business are not as personally interesting as others, everything is important when you are building a foundation, and that has been my goal throughout my time in the RTIP. If I had to point to one thing that my classroom and work experience has taught me, it is to always look for alternate perspectives. I often overestimate how knowledgeable I really am about most things in life. There is a great benefit to seeking the input of others, especially when they don't share the same viewpoint.
What kind of work have you done at Rillito Race Track?
I initially signed on with PRISE to manage the backend of Rillito's website, which in turn morphed into taking on the role of social media content manager. The position was a challenge because I personally try to limit my social media usage. This past December at the Global Symposium on Racing, I remember Yenni Vance stating that “people don't trust brands, but they trust other people”. This simple statement influenced what I wanted to do with Rillito's social. Unfortunately, I had to leave the meet early because of school obligations, but I had two great guys working with me. We got a lot of great content over the first few weeks, and we were able to put out more fan-centric videos and photos, and I think that resonated with people because Rillito's Facebook following increased by 800 after the first weekend.
Did you have a favorite horse or horse racing moment growing up that has stuck with you?
I never really had a favorite horse or moment. Currently, both my favorite horses are 3-year-olds, No Mo Lady and Boolicious. My interest stems from a bloodstock project I did in class where we had to evaluate pedigrees and estimate a selling price. Both horses are currently running, so I monitor their progress much like an owner in spirit.
What do you consider the most important problem facing the racing industry? How would you go about solving it?
The greatest problem facing any industry generally comes from within. In my opinion, the racing industry tends to be far too reactionary when they should be proactive. There should never be a point where the status quo is good enough because if it is, then you have already lost. Animal welfare is an issue racing needs to get ahead of. I think the industry has done some really great things recently, but it cannot rest on its laurels. For the public outside of racing, perception is reality.
People tend to seek out sources that match their current beliefs. Therefore, we can talk until we are blue in the face about how well the athletes are taken care of but the public's view is already skewed by other sources that confirm their biases. The use of the crop is an example of a decision over which the industry seems to be holding itself back. Get rid of them. That would have been a proactive move five years ago, but now it is reactionary and necessary due to perceptions. I don't know if there is a solution for this problem. My thought would be to put together a group whose sole focus is to anticipate future issues and institute change. However, I think the Thoroughbred Idea Foundation fills that role.
What do you hope to do in the industry after graduation?
I like numbers and I like problem solving. Ideally, any position I take will offer a mix of these two. Something that piques my interest is the race track proposal by L&M Entertainment LLC in Clovis. I had heard there may be an aspect of e-gaming involved, and as someone who follows certain professional gaming scenes and streamers, I would love a chance to work with both horse racing and e-gaming. I also take a keen interest in international racing and would like an opportunity to spend time in a foreign racing operation.
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