By T. D. Thornton
Harvey Pack, the engagingly witty curmudgeon who entertained and informed decades of racetrack fans in New York and beyond as a popular radio, television and handicapping seminar host, has died at 94.
Pack's death was confirmed by the New York Racing Association (NYRA), which employed him from 1974 to 1998. Daily Racing Form reported the cause was complications from cancer.
Pack made a lasting impression as a self-deprecating “wiseguy's wiseguy” who passionately advocated for the underdog while never running out of strange-but-true racetrack tales and anecdotes, many of which involved the seemingly universal racetrack desire to gain an edge and cash big (although Pack himself rarely bet more than $100 a race, and often far less than that).
“May the horse be with you!” was Pack's signature signoff to the generations of horseplayers he taught while hosting the nation's first in-depth, analytical nightly race recap show (He came up with that classic tag line by altering the well-known phrase from the 1977 Star Wars film, substituting the word “horse” for the movie's more-famous “force.”).
And each evening's recital of that line after the last race was traditionally accompanied by Pack hurling his program directly at the camera to signify the end of the broadcast–similar to the way a frustrated bettor leaving the track after a losing day might throw down his own program in disgust.
Pack was born and raised on Manhattan's Upper West Side, and he got hooked on the game by his father during racing's golden era, when massive crowds would jam the New York tracks.
According to a 1998 profile of Pack written by Andrew Beyer of the Washington Post, the elder Pack would give his teenage son $10 to go to Aqueduct Saturday morning and save seats for his group of racing pals. Young Harvey instantly grew enamored with the allure of the track, where in the 1940s, Runyonesque characters and noir-laced intrigue lurked around every corner.
WATCH: NYRA's Andy Serling spends “An Afternoon With Harvey Pack”
Pack was quick to pick up on the nuances of both the Racing Form and the sociology of the betting public. When his mother told him that he had “surpassed his father” with his interest in horse betting, Pack recalled to Beyer, “I didn't know if she meant as a handicapper or as a bum.”
Decades later, Pack told the Los Angeles Times, “My father was a degenerate, and I say that affectionately. He went to the track five days a week until he was 87, then cut back to two days a week. I knew then he wouldn't live much longer. He died at 88.”
In 1953, Pack was in the Army and stationed at Fort Dix in New Jersey, convenient to Monmouth Park, Garden State Park and Atlantic City Race Course. According to that 1986 Times story, “word somehow spread that Pack had been a professional handicapper, which wasn't true. A handicapper, yes; a pro, no.”
A colonel heard this rumor and summoned Pack. As Harvey told it, the officer was an avid horseplayer too, but couldn't get away to the track as often as he liked. Pack was assigned to run his bets, and even to make some of the selections.
“I'd go to the track on weekdays and then get a weekend pass and meet my friends at Belmont,” Pack said. “When I told them I was going to the track every day, they couldn't believe it. They thought when I went into the Army I'd be fighting in Korea, or something like that, not going to the track.”
For 17 years after leaving the Army, Pack wrote about television for a newspaper syndication service–always arranging his workload so as not to interfere with daily trips to the New York tracks.
Off-track-betting was just coming into vogue in the early 1970s, but horseplayers had no way of hearing or seeing the results. Pack pitched an idea to WNBC radio–he would call race in the manner of a track announcer, but give the entire race and its results in a compact, 30-second burst.
That show, known as “Pack at the Track,” grew so popular that in 1974, NYRA hired him away to be its director of promotions while giving him additional on-air opportunities.
He began hosting the “Harvey Pack's Paddock Club” handicapping seminars, and later the “Thoroughbred Action” and “Inside Racing” nightly and weekly recap shows on SportsChannel in the early days of cable TV. With well-informed race-analyzing guests from the New York press box corps and colorful trainers and jockey agents from the backstretch, those insightful shows were required watching for aspiring racetrack degenerates during a run that lasted through 1998.
During that time, the bald, bespectacled and ever-wisecracking Pack was also hired to be part of the first few Breeders' Cup broadcasts on national TV, primarily to add levity and make bets with a mock bankroll (often making fun of himself when his horses finished up the track).
Beyond New York, Pack had an especially fervent following in New England. When Suffolk Downs in Boston hired him to come up and do a weekend's worth of on-air work on several occasions in the 1980s and early 1990s, it was one of the most popular promotions the track ran all year.
Pack would do his schtick, pose for every photograph, make time for every autograph, and shake every hand. Yet he was also kind enough to take aside the track's younger on-air talent and members of the press box crew to encourage them to forge their own ways in the sport.
In his Post profile, Beyer described Pack as being “ousted” by NYRA in 1998 at age 71 after “top executives informed him…that they wanted 'to go in a different direction.'”
The move wasn't popular. But Pack didn't speak bitterly in public about that decision, nor did he disappear entirely from the New York racing scene. Daily Racing Form hired him to continue to host daily Saratoga seminars for a number of years, moving the location off NYRA's property and to the adjacent Lincoln Avenue watering hole, Siro's.
Pack's NYRA business card once described him as “Doctor of Equine Prophecy,” and fans continued to seek him out to wish him well and pry for tips on hot horses.
Even though Pack knew he couldn't routinely deliver the winners those folks craved, he liked to have a little fun with them. He sometimes told naïve Saratoga racegoers that each day he got an advance script of how the races would turn out, and that it was sitting right on the desk back in his office near the backyard paddock.
More than a few of those wide-eyed casual fans asked if Harvey would let them have a peek at it.
Perhaps in a more practical sense, Pack's followers would have been better off adhering to the more general tidbits of wisdom that he reliably dispensed year after year. If you watched him on SportsChannel growing up, there's no way you can ever forget the mantra-like admonition to, “Never bet a favorite attempting something [i.e., a new distance] it's never done before.”
Often, Pack more bluntly advocated for not betting on the heavy chalk at all: “Hardly is now a man alive who paid the mortgage at 3-to-5,” was another oft-repeated rhyming quip.
“Harvey knew horse racing and made it a lot of fun to watch,” said NYRA broadcast handicapper Andy Serling, Pack's on-air partner for a time and a friend for more than 40 years. “Whether he was on the air or just talking with fans, he connected with everyone and never took himself too seriously. A lot of what we do on the air today goes right back to Harvey. He was the forerunner and a trailblazer in how we cover horse racing today.”
Pack's 2007 autobiography, May The Horse Be With You: Pack at the Track, written with Peter Thomas Fornatale, remains entertaining reading 14 years after its publication.
In a 2018 profile of Pack for Daily Racing Form, Fornatale described how “one afternoon over lunch, I asked him if he had any regrets about his career choices.”
Pack paused, considering only briefly if he'd rather have done something else with his life.
“I wouldn't have been able to get to the track every day,” Harvey mused wryly. “And anyway, I didn't want to work that hard.”
Pack is survived by his wife, Joy; two children, five grandchildren, and one great grandchild. Arrangements for services are pending.