Day At The Track

Steve Starr reflects on long career at Yonkers

08:25 PM 02 Aug 2019 NZST
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Harness racing
Steve Starr and friends at Yonkers Raceway winners circle presentation
Mike Lizzi photo

YONKERS, N.Y. – Monday evening at Yonkers Raceway, Steve Starr gathered in the winner’s circle with about 30 of the track’s drivers, horsepeople, officials, and even the outrider. The group came together in recognition of Starr’s 47-year career at the track, which ended Monday as Starr announced his retirement.

Growing up, Starr dreamed of becoming a Standardbred breeder and graduated from Delaware Valley College with a degree in animal husbandry. However, life guided him to Yonkers Raceway, where he took a job assisting Ed Parker and Richard O’Donnell in the race office in the mid-1970s. That job blossomed into a career and Starr soon became the track’s race secretary, a position he maintained through Monday. 

Starr reflected on his career, the challenges facing the industry, and looked ahead to retired life with the SOA of NY’s Brandon Valvo Wednesday evening.

BV: Congratulations on your career and on your retirement. How does it feel?
SS: I’ve been retired for 24 hours and it feels great. I spent most of the day with my wife and my youngest grandchild, and I couldn’t be happier. I’m off on the right foot. 

BV: They had a big ceremony in the winner’s circle for you. What was that like for you, how did you feel?
SS: It was great. Over the course of the years, there have been so many great people in that winner’s circle and it really was a thrill to be down there. To have all those drivers and trainers and grooms and officials with me, I enjoyed it.

BV: What made you decide now was the right time to call it a career?
SS: Truthfully, I’ve put 47 years in and I’m going to be 70. I worked for the Rooneys my whole life, and it was great working for them and their family. They couldn’t have treated me any better over the period of 47-years and I have no regrets ever working for the Rooneys and (Vice President and COO) Bob Galterio. When MGM bought the place in late January, I just thought I was too old and too set in my ways to go forward with MGM and adjust to their changes. I spoke to my wife and I wanted to work until we got through the International Trot, but that’s two-and-a-half months away and we’d miss the whole summer, so I decided to get out now while the getting is good.

BV: You mention the summer, do you have any plans coming up or anything you’re looking forward to?
SS: Just staying local, I have a son and daughter. I live in Pleasantville, they moved to Pleasantville, with my grandchildren. I’m very happy right now. What my wife and I want to do is sell our house, we want to downsize, stay in Pleasantville. So, we have some work to do to keep us busy and once we do that, my new life will begin. This is still business.

BV: How did you get involved in racing and how did you decide this was the career for you?
SS: When I got out of college, I got the opportunity to work at some stud farms and I took that opportunity. I wanted to stay in the breeding business, that’s what my desire was early in my life. When I got to the farms, I felt they weren’t using me to the best of my abilities, so when an opportunity opened up at Yonkers, their assistant had moved on and I went down to interview for the job and I was very fortunate to start working for Ed Barker and the Rooney family. That was in 1974 and from there, my tutelage was under Ed Barker and Richard O’Donnell. In early 1977, I was given the job of race secretary and I was there in that position ever since.

BV: What was it like when you first started working at Yonkers? What was the racetrack like back then?
SS: It was great. It was $2 million a night in handle, good attendance. The work was outrageous, I never worked so hard. Ed Barker, he wasn’t a slave driver, but he was meticulous about how he wanted everything done. It was a tie and a coat when you went in to draw in the morning and then when you came back in the evening, it was a tie and a coat. There wasn’t a relaxed atmosphere back then, it was more business than anything else. The ABC system requires a lot more time than conditioned racing and that’s how I started. I worked that system until ’91 or ’92. It was a lot of work then; I can’t even tell you how much work. They days were 10, 12 hours, and those were good days.

BV: You would spend a good portion of your day handicapping the horses and trying to classify them appropriately?
SS: Yes, I learned that under Ed Barker and Richard O’Donnell. As an assistant, you work a little harder than most, but the whole system was different. You had to really watch those races pretty carefully so you could be sure about what you wanted to do. Move them up, move them down. These guys livelihoods were in your hands. It was important to do things right if you could. I liked it until Roosevelt closed and everyone was doing conditions except me. It was very difficult at that time to do ABC. When Roosevelt, was open, they could go to Roosevelt for a few months, then come to Yonkers for a few months. We both worked the ABC system, so it was easy to keep them classified and know where they were going to race. When we were the only ones doing ABC, every horse that came in had to be reclassified unless they were claimers. 

BV: I imagine one of the biggest changes made during your career was the switch from ABC to conditions at that point?
SS: Absolutely. It was night and day, like two different jobs. You give the horsemen more latitude to decide where they wanted to go. Your condition racing was by age, sex, money earned. There was a lot of opportunity to decide where you wanted to race, plus the claiming races. It really turned over the racing program more in the hands of the trainers and owners than the race secretary. There were a lot less arguments then, too.

BV: What was it like when the casino came to Yonkers?
SS: That was something brilliant, that was the greatest thing that happened to harness racing at Yonkers and in the State of New York. We were all in the same boat and the Rooneys kept that place going. When we opened the casino in 2006, it really made all the difference in the world. When we first opened, we got somewhere between $40- and $45 million for purses and that worked its way up to $50 million dollars. That made the biggest difference in the world. It sure made my job a lot easier.

BV: Talk a little more about how the game has changed over the last 10 years or so. How has your job changed more recently? Everyone talks about the horse shortage; did you feel that at Yonkers?
SS: Before we closed for the casino to be built, we were really struggling because the purses were not good. They still had the shipping to do, they had bridges to cross, and probably a lot of people just didn’t want to come to Yonkers. When we reopened, our purses gradually got much better. At that point in time, we had more horses than we knew what to do with. Eventually, that started to wean itself. The horse population is really bad at Yonkers only because for someone to ship to Yonkers, it costs about $250 and that probably doesn’t include the groom and paddocking, just for tolls and gas just to pull one of those trailers across the bridge. The expense is just exorbitant to get to us. Sometimes when they have to opportunity to race at Chester or Pocono, they race there instead. Now it’s more difficult and the only thing that makes it more difficult is lack of horses, but I’m not alone. I think that’s going to be one of the biggest problem the industry faces in the future. I think the horse population will be more important to deal with than anything else and I don’t think it’s far away, either. I would say probably within 5 or 10 years.


BV: You look at entries for the top pacing races at a lot of the tracks, you have 20 or 30 New Zealand- and Australia-bred horses per night. 
SS: That’s right, they’re filling these races, really. Especially the better classes. You can’t fill and Open and a Winner’s Over, you can’t fill those two classes. There was a time when you had an Open and two Winner’s Overs and they were pretty good horses. Now, you can’t fill them the same day, with mares, trotters, and the aged pacers. There just aren’t that many horses who can race in those classes. Chester and Pocono, if they didn’t have their series back and forth with the final, if they didn’t have that, they wouldn’t have any high-class races at their tracks. They don’t even try to fill Opens over there anymore.

BV: How do you think that problem is going to be addressed?
SS: I don’t think they’re taking it seriously right now. They know there’s a problem, but I really don’t think they realize how big this problem is going to be. There’s only one way to address it and that’s to have more horses. I don’t know how you get people to breed. These farms are putting out as much as they can. There really aren’t that many individuals that breed anymore, there’s just a few big farms that do most of the breeding. I don’t see that changing other than them increasing their broodmare bands and producing more yearlings, but I don’t know if they can do that or not. To raise a mare and a yearling and sell it is really expensive.

BV: You mentioned the Yonkers International Trot at the beginning of our conversation. Talk about what it was like for you when that race was revived in 2015. What was it like to be a part of that?
SS: I was tickled to death. I was scared. I didn’t know how it was going to work, I couldn’t speak anything but English. I was lucky, I was introduced to a guy from Europe. He’s a racetrack operator, but he’s also a friend of the horsemen. His name is Klaus Koch. With his assistance, we were able to put these fields together. When we started in 2015, it was not easy. The purse is $1 million, and you would have thought you weren’t giving them anything but a slice of pizza. It was comical. You have to wait a long time to fill these races because the Europeans don’t make a commitment right away. You have to be within a month of the race before they make a real commitment. It’s getting better now, but in 2015, they just didn’t want to make an early commitment. From the horseman’s side, I can’t argue with them, but as the race secretary, I wish they made up their minds a lot sooner. This year could be the best year ever. It certainly would have been if that French horse (Aubrion Du Gers) didn’t get killed in that accident on the track. He had already made a commitment to come with Dijon, the horse that won the Elitlopp. This was shaping up to be a really good race. Every horse I wanted to come was a grade 1 winner. This was the best year I ever had, it was unbelievable the way this was turning out and it’s still shaping up to be one of the best fields ever. I’m sure Bob Miecuna working with Klaus, they’ll get this race together. If the people who are interested now make a commitment, it will be a great race in 2019.

BV: Listening to you talk about the International, it sounds like something you are really passionate about.
SS: Oh, I was. When they came back with the race in 2015, it was $1 million. That was the second time we had a million-dollar race, we had an Art Rooney Pace for $1 million once. MGM was gracious enough without knowing much about racing to keep this race going. The SOA of NY of course, they’re very much a part of the race. They contributed 100 percent to the affair.

BV: Talk more about the relationship with the horsepeople and the SOA of NY. That must have been a big part of your job as well.
SS: It was, and I’ll tell you something, it’s a lot easier to get along with the horsemen than it’s not. Back in the ‘80s when Joe Faraldo and the SOA took over, it was a war zone at Yonkers. I didn’t know if I was going to make it home every night. But as things turned around and things got better, our relationship with the horsepeople got better. My relationship with Joe Faraldo and the SOA is 100 percent sound. They’re great people to work with, they’re reasonable, and if you work together and think together, you can make anything happen. The best way to run your business is to get along. Joe and I, we eventually many years ago started to get along and it really made things a lot better and I think it made the races a lot better, too.

by Brandon Valvo, for the SOA of NY

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