Vic Zast, the raspy-voiced, white-haired raconteur whose articles appeared in numerous horse racing publications including the Paulick Report, lost his battle to pancreatic cancer on Sunday in suburban Chicago.
Vic, 69, made a day at the races at any track a celebration, but he played favorites: Saratoga, where he had a summer home, was his preferred meet, and the Breeders' Cup championships, which he attended every year since the 1984 inaugural running at Hollywood Park, was a special event. He traveled with his wife Maureen to other major racing festivals around the world, from the white turf of snowy St. Moritz, Switzerland, to the sandy desert of the World Cup of Dubai, to the bustling city of Tokyo for the Japan Cup, to the glamour of Royal Ascot in England.
Last year, when his health began failing him, Vic wrote a series of articles about his Breeders' Cup experiences (published here, here, here and here), speaking candidly about his physical challenges and how the “streak” might come to an end. When I saw Vic, Maureen and their children loading into a van at the Pasadena, Calif., Courtyard Marriott on Friday morning of the Breeders' Cup weekend, it was a joyous moment – not just for him and his family, but for all who knew him. Vic had beaten the odds and made it to 30 straight Breeders' Cups.
That Breeders' Cup was the last time I saw Vic, who was so entertaining, genuine, creative and fun, whether it was at the races in Saratoga, taking in a Cubs game at Wrigley Field in Chicago, or having a meal at his favorite restaurant. He seemed to enjoy everything life brought him, even fighting the cruel disease that claimed him with uncommon humor.
I remember one home opener at Wrigley Field I spent with him when Vic spotted a fellow wandering through the box seats aimlessly. “Jerry the Gatecrasher,” he said. “He's everywhere.” He told me the story of the man, Jerry Berliant, whose prowess at getting into press boxes, private parties and special events was legendary. From that day forward, every time either one of us saw Jerry – at Breeders' Cup or Kentucky Derby parties, at college football bowl games, at any major event – we'd snap a photo and send it to each other or put it on our Facebook page. At this year's Belmont Stakes I saw Berliant in the Trustees Room, which was under tight security, and sent a picture to Vic. “How does he do it?” he responded. I could almost hear that weathered voice, coming through a broad grin on a face bearing an exaggerated look of astonishment.
Vic Zast grew up in Buffalo, N.Y., graduating from Siena College and the University of Buffalo Law School. An entrepreneur and executive who excelled in marketing three diverse industries – fragrances, distilled spirits and horse racing – he brought two of those industries together when he signed Jim Beam to be title sponsor of the Spiral Stakes at Turfway Park in Northern Kentucky.
Vic wrote about horses, the people in racing, and the business side of the game. He loved writing a daily diary for Bloodhorse.com from Saratoga each year. He was unconventional in his thinking, always looking for ways to make racing more popular and understandable to the general public.
On May 2, Kentucky Oaks day, he wrote something on his Facebook page that would make most hardened horseplayers cringe: “Johnny Weir and Tara Lipinski killing it from CD on NBC this morning. Feeling like horse racing hitting its stride in sports marketing circles. Game's not about betting for most people. Fans looking for fun and being at place where people gather.”
Vic was a salesman at heart. No one I've ever worked with pitched story ideas better than him, whether it was a book about the Travers (“The History and Art of 25 Travers,” published in 2008), a series of articles in Blood-Horse magazine about visits to international races, or a fond remembrance of baseball great Stan Musial's horse racing experiences.
One of his last projects was not related to horse racing but to another passion, golf. He and two friends lost the fourth member of their weekend golfing group, and they were determined to take his ashes to the Arctic and play golf at midnight on the summer solstice. Vic successfully pitched “Our Longest Drive,” a six part video series to the Golf Channel, which ran it in 2012.
Vic wrapped up his series, “Three Decades: A Breeders' Cup Journey,” with a hopeful and optimistic closing.
“With the future uncertain, the denouement of my persistence is nostalgia. Having seen Tiznow defeat the l'Arc de Triomphe winner Sakhee in 2001 to win consecutive Classics by a nose, having wagered on the French invader Arcangues at 131–1 in 1993 and having cheered for and against 'the incomparable, invincible, unbeatable Cigar' in triumph and defeat, I find that the storylines these days have a tough time topping some of the old tales. On the other hand, at this point of my life, with the clock ticking down, the current Breeders' Cup advertising slogan, 'The Best is to Yet to Come,' offers hope. And isn't hope what a horseplayer depends on?”
Vic Zast is survived by wife, Maureen; children, Jon, Annie and Biz; daughter and son-in-law, Theresa and Micah; and grandchildren, Charlie and Vivian. A reception to celebrate Victor's life will be held Thursday, Aug. 7, at Westmoreland Country Club, 2601 Old Glenview Road, Wilmette, Illinois 60091. It's from 4 to 8 p.m., with remarks to start at 6 p.m. A second celebration will take place in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., the morning of August 17, 2014. For more information call (847) 675-1990 or go to http://www.donnellanfuneral.com.
In lieu of flowers, the Zast family has asked donations be made to The Pancreatic Action Network, http://www.pancan.org.
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