As the Paulick Report continues to grow, we will be bringing on more turf writers and industry insiders to share their opinions and perspective on the racing industry across the country and internationally. Longtime turf writer Martha Claussen, currently with SureBet Racing News, will be writing a piece for the Paulick Report once a month opening our readers to the South/Southwest region of the American racing industry.
By Martha Claussen
There are few names in the Thoroughbred industry as well known as Bob Bork.
I met up with Bob for lunch this week in Houston. My intent was to interview him for a Paulick Report story on the difficulty of smaller tracks getting a graded stake. We discussed his hard-fought battle to get a grade for Sam Houston Race Park's Connally Breeders' Cup Turf in 2005, but soon branched out into so many topics, that I felt compelled to revise my story angle.
Bob came to Texas in 1995 to serve as general manager of Sam Houston Race Park and was promoted to president in 2002. He brought a solid knowledge of racetrack management, having served as vice president, general manager and chief operating officer of Arlington International in Chicago; vice president and general manager of Philadelphia Park and general manager of Garden State Park in New Jersey. Bork made some major changes to save the Houston Class 1 track, which opened to much fanfare in 1994, and two years later filed for bankruptcy. Houstonians didn't quite “get” horseracing. They liked their football, basketball, baseball, rodeo and even supported the Houston Dynamo, a MLS team that made its Houston debut in 2008.
Bork, loved the challenge. He switched the post times from afternoons to evenings and increased the number of simulcast track offerings. He was the mastermind behind the 12% takeout on Pick 3 wagers, and even more daring, the ten-cent superfecta, which Sam Houston began offering in 2005. Many tracks across the country, including the most venerable in Kentucky and California, followed suit.
Sam Houston has two well-regarded track surfaces. The main dirt track has a Brazos sand base that has been popular with horsemen and boasts one of the lowest fatality records in the nation. It's turf oval is named after the late John B. Connally, the governor whose support of pari-mutuel racing lead to the opening of Sam Houston and other Texas tracks. The Connally Breeders' Cup Turf Stakes had been run at Sam Houston since 1996. Many noted trainers including Hal Wiggins, Bill Mott, Bobby Frankel, Steve Asmussen and Graham Motion, shipped horses in for the mile and one-eighth handicap. Beginning in 2000, Bork and Sam Houston racing secretary Eric Johnston annually approached the American Graded Stakes Committee of the Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association for consideration on the Connally Turf. Their best shot came after the 2004 edition of the stakes which attracted a nationally prominent field of turf specialists, most notably Better Talk Now. The heralded Graham Motion trainee did not win the Connally (heavy rain that evening rendered the course yielding and the front running Warleigh led gate to wire), but captured the Grade 1 Breeders' Cup Turf later than year.
Bork, who was also serving as president of the Thoroughbred Racing Associations (TRA), attended the graded stakes session in December, 2005, and was thrilled when the committee gave the Connally its Grade 3 status for the 2006 calendar year.
When asked if that was one of his proudest moments, Bork reflected for a moment, and said no. He went on to discuss the challenge of getting OTBs in Pennsylvania and the uphill battle with legislators. In 1989, it was finally passed in the house and senate, but vetoed by the Governor. Bork and other industry officials had a three-day window to get a reversal and worked 24-7 to get the word through media sources that tax-payers would benefit greatly from the revenue spawned by off track betting. Just hours before the deadline, OTBs passed in the state. Exhausted, but elated, Bob got in his car to return to his office. On the way, he decided to stop in a local watering hole and have a beer. The place was empty, except for the bartender and a regular, who was already three sheets to the wind at noon. No sooner than Bob had pulled up a barstool, the patron stared at him and yelled out “I know you; you're the guy on tv.” Wino aside, that was a highly memorable career moment for Bork.
Some industry veterans can be aptly described in a few words. Smart, dedicated, focused, passionate, driven. There are few words to sum up the total essence of Bob Bork. He is all those, but irreverent irascible, unconventional and sometimes, hilariously funny as well.
I worked for Bob for ten years at Sam Houston Race Park. He was a tough task master, but in retrospect, we had a lot more fun than many people in the workplace. Bob balanced his authority with a challenge to each one of his department heads to be innovative and creative. Of course, that did not mean that every idea or suggestion was taken into account. On more than one occasion, I researched, prepared and walked into his office with an elaborate plan. Minutes later, I was dismissed with words including “don't let the door hit you on your ass on your way out”. At first I was offended, but over time, I came to understand that Bob only kidded certain people. If he didn't respect you, you received the silent treatment. Despite the quirks, Bork had no trouble pitching in when someone was shorthanded, even taking on concession stand duties when the hot dog line for the “Quarter Night” promotion got too long.
The marketing department, under the savvy leadership of Bryan Pettigrew, produced a video spoof on Bob. Our goal was to incorporate as many “Bobisms” as possible. There were lots, including “everyone's a marketer”, “prove to me that if I let you spend $100,000, you will bring in over $100 K in revenue”, “mopes” and our personal favorite, if you tried to sneak out before the evening races were over, even if you had been there 14 hours since 8:00 am, he would ask you if you were working “half day”?
Bryan portrayed Bob and the rest of us took our turn at getting shot down. We unveiled the video to Bob and his wife, Judy on Derby Day and held our collective breath as he watched. First a smile, then a chuckle followed by an ear to ear grin. He knew we had captured his true spirit. Judy loved it more than Bob; she asked for extra copies for the Bork Christmas gathering.
Running a racetrack is a tough job. The general manager attempts to balance the needs of the horsemen, simulcast patrons, live racing fans and employees, all the while trying to make a profit in these challenging economic times. Bob was pretty good with the horsemen and empathized with their frustrations over lower purses than the surrounding states (Louisiana, Oklahoma and New Mexico) with VLTs. He did get into it with a Texas owner who preferred to run his mare against state-bred company instead of facing Take Charge Lady in the 2002 NTRA Great State Challenge. Bob asked nicely, implored and came marginally close to begging. The owner would not change his mind. A heated encounter took place in the winner's circle when the owner simply told Bob “you can't tell me where to run my horse” and Bob, without missing a beat replied “I can tell you not to run at my racetrack.”
Three years ago, Maxxam, the parent company of Sam Houston, selected a new management team focused on making the track more of an entertainment destination. Bork retained a position as chairman and worked on legislative affairs as well as his national role as president of the TRA. His contract with Maxxam expired eight months ago.
He refuses to use the word “retirement” and would gladly go back to work full time. But for now, he has plenty of hobbies and past times. He is a great cook, loves to create concoctions with his juicer and enjoys heading to Freeport on the weekends to enjoy his 35′ Viking fishing boat. He is also working out with a trainer several times a week, not just to stay in shape, but to compete in the 2011 Chevron Houston Marathon, a 26.1 mile run through the city of Houston held in January. The race attracts 22,000 participants each year, including some internationally elite runners. Bob's goal: to win his age group and best his time of 4.29 he ran in 2001.
Gotta love the guy!
Martha Claussen has been involved in the racing industry since 1997 as a publicity director and writer for the Houston Chronicle, Texas Thoroughbred Magazine and SureBet Racing News.
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