By Steve Sherack
SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. – Polarizing New York sports talk radio host Mike Francesa can always be spotted enjoying a day at the races from the owner’s boxes at Saratoga every summer. The longtime owner and racing fan recently sat down with TDN’s Senior Editor Steve Sherack to talk about his love for horse racing, summers at the Spa and much more. Mike’s On with Francesa airs on WFAN 101.9 FM/660 AM weekdays at 3 p.m. ET.
Q: How did you first get interested in racing? Did you make it out to Belmont and Aqueduct during your college days at St. John’s?
MF: It really was because of St. John’s. I used to take classes early in the morning and I had time to kill before my job began late in the afternoon. I used to go over to Belmont for the fall meet and I actually gave up my job because I was better at making money at the track. That’s really how I got into it.
I eventually got into ownership. It’s been a long time now. I probably owned my first horse in the 90s. I owned horses with Bill Parcells for a while. When he came to coach the Jets, we didn’t think that it was a good idea that we had horses together, so we split the stable up. He still uses that stable name-August Dawn Farm-and I changed mine a couple of times. I’ve had horses ever since.
I’ve never been part of a syndicate and I’ve never owned portions of horses. Ten would’ve been the max that I ever had. Right now, I have five, and three of them I have with a friend of mine–Lee Einsidler, the Casamigos Tequila guy. We own [Kitten’s Joy S. winner & GII Penn Mile S. runner-up] Casa Creed (Jimmy Creed), who’s a nice 3-year-old. We have a couple of nice 2-year-olds with [Bill] Mott, too. I also have two or three on my own. I always dabble and keep a couple. I don’t need more than that now. I like to keep a handful.
Q: The stable that you currently race under-JEH Racing Stable–is a play off your kids’ names (Jack, Emily & Harrison). Do you share the racing experience with your family?
MF: My boys aren’t that into it. They think the track’s boring. My daughter really likes it. She always comes to Saratoga. My boys are busy playing ball and they aren’t old enough yet to really have gotten into it. But my daughter has gotten into it a lot.
Q: Speaking of Saratoga, the new-look meet-earlier start/five-day race weeks–is off and running. You’ve been very vocal about how much you enjoy heading up there every summer. How long have you been going now?
MF: I’ve been to Saratoga 39 out of the last 40 summers. There was only one summer I didn’t make it out of the last 40. I go every single year and wouldn’t miss it. I would think it would be a terrible summer if I didn’t go. It’s a different meet now. It used to be just an August meet and now it’s almost a two-month meet. I think of Saratoga being about August. To me, that’s Saratoga. You can sense the intensity of the meet pick up around Aug. 1. The sale’s week, to me, is even bigger than Travers week. That is prime time in Saratoga and that is usually when I’m there during the first couple of weeks in August.
I think this year not having [racing on] Mondays is going to really hurt them. People are going to find that very unpopular. Monday has always been a great day at the track. Two [dark] days is hard. You’re going to see a lot of people jump back to the city and go back and forth. I think they should re-think that. I understand they can’t run six days a week-they just don’t have the horses-but I don’t know if them being dark on Mondays is going to be a positive thing. I don’t like it–that’s the thing that jumped out at me right away.
Q: What stands out to you the most about Saratoga? It really is such a special place to all of us that love racing.
MF: Saratoga is like visiting any great, historic sporting venue–whether it be Wimbledon, Churchill Downs for the Derby, Yankee Stadium in October, etc. It’s one of the great venues in all of sports. The great thing about it is–and I’m not going to say that it doesn’t change–because, you know what, now with Shake Shack by the paddock and 1863 [Club] along the clubhouse turn, Saratoga has changed plenty.
But sitting in your box–I’ve had the same box for 20 something years–that, to me, never changes. That’s Saratoga. I’ve had the same people around me all those years. Owners come and go and a lot of the older ones that are gone now, I miss. Some really wonderful horsemen. I’ve had Mr. Broman to my left for as long as I can remember. You see the same faces. It’s just very special.
The first time you walk in there, there’s nothing like it. I can’t even tell you how excited I get the first time I walk in there every summer. It’s a very big deal for me. It really is. It’s just a very special place.
Q: You always give racing such a nice platform on your show. You have Brad Thomas on previewing big races, Bob Baffert talking about his big 3-year-olds during Triple Crown season, and you’ve also even done your show from the aprons at Saratoga and Belmont. Can you talk about your audience a little bit? They have to expect this from you by now, but what’s the response like when you’re so vocal about racing?
MF: It’s a niche sport. Not a lot of people are involved. They’re involved a couple of days a year. That’s what you’ve got to understand. They’re involved for the Triple Crown, they’re especially involved on Derby Day, and they might be involved on Breeders’ Cup day.
I’ve probably sent more people to Saratoga than anybody that the Chamber of Commerce could find over the last 30 years. I can’t tell you how many people that have written or stopped me through the years and said, ‘You told us to come to Saratoga.’ I have not had one ever say that they we were disappointed by going. Not one has ever said that they had a bad time. Anyone that knows that little town knows how great it is. I understand that they try to kill you with the prices and jack everything up in August. I understand they have to make a living and everything, but they can’t kill the charm of that place. It’s just special.
Q: Of all the racing people that you’ve encountered through the years, or even had on your show, is there somebody that you’ve enjoyed chatting with the most?
MF: I like Baffert a lot. He’s an interesting character. He really is. He’s different and looks at things a little differently. When Allen Jerkens was around, he used to like to talk to me. I liked having ‘The Chief’ on, who used to come on and only want to talk about football. He didn’t want to talk about horses.
Wayne Lukas, who I’ve know for a very long time and is just ageless, is another. It’s amazing. I’ll always stop and see Wayne. I’ll see him in the morning, and I’ll see him at the track. It’s remarkable how ageless he is. To see him in his 80s doing what he’s doing, it’s remarkable the schedule he keeps and seeing him get on his horse every day.
There are a lot of characters in the sport. Whether you’re talking about owners, jockeys, trainers, whomever, there’s just a lot of interesting people and there’s a lot of interesting stories around the racetrack. It’s quite a group. It really is. Red Smith said that the great stories were in horse racing and boxing. That’s why he liked those two sports. I think he was right. Boxing is kind of dead now and horse racing might be going that way. It’s never gonna die, but it’s sure hurting itself, that’s for sure.
Q: That was going to be one of my next questions. What are your thoughts on the current state of horse racing? We’ve now had two Triple Crown winners since the long drought, but after a controversial Derby disqualification this year, all the recent Santa Anita breakdowns, the Jerry Hollendorfer situation, etc., is the sport at a cross roads right now?
MF: It’s a very tricky thing because I understand why states want to run their horse racing business their own way. But horse racing needed a commission–a national organization to run racing–and I think that’s what the Breeders’ Cup was hoping to be the beginning of and it never happened. Boxing died because every state ran things differently. There’s no uniformity of rules and that’s the same thing in racing. Everybody does things differently. And to me, that really hurts the sport.
In this day and age where the world is a very different place in terms of national television and streaming your product, you really need a national identity and racing doesn’t have one. And that really does hurt it as a sport. For someone who deals with sports that have national identities all the time, racing’s lack of a national identity hurts it dramatically. No question.
Q: You talked earlier about being a longtime horse owner and it’s obviously not for everybody with the extreme highs and lows. Things can certainly turn around very quickly for the good or bad. What’s your experience owning horses been like?
MF: No, it’s not for everyone. It’s a business I like, but it’s a business that I keep under realistic terms. If you try to chase racing in any big way, it will break your heart because there’s always somebody richer and always somebody who has more money than you that’s chasing it. If you think you can compete with Arab Sheikhs and guys who are billionaires, then you’re silly. So, you’ve got to run racing on your own terms. Once you realize that, you can have some fun with it.
But it is the absolute most heartbreaking business. Nine out of every 10 phone calls are negative or bad news. It’s just the way the sport is. John Nerud once told me that if you stay in it and know what you’re doing, you’re going to make enough money to pay the bills. And every 10 years, you’re gonna get a good horse. That’s what I think everyone hopes for. You hope you get that one horse. I’ve had a couple of good horses, I’ve never had a great horse. But I know a lot of people who have invested a lot more money and time than me, and they’ve never had a great horse, either.
So, it’s kind of luck of the draw. When you get in and you get lucky with an early horse, you don’t realize how lucky you are. It’s a needle in the haystack. There’s no planning in this. Perfect example. You’re talking about guys who do unbelievable things with analyzing horses and you have all these experts that spend hours and days… They let a Triple Crown winner [American Pharoah] walk right through that sale [$300,000 RNA 2013 Fasig-Tipton Saratoga] and not even be sold. A Triple Crown winner went through the ring at Saratoga and was not bought by anybody! That tells you all you need to know.
I’ve been an underbidder on [GI Kentucky Derby winner] Go For Gin and [GI Breeders’ Cup Classic winner] Bayern. There were my great horses. But you know what? If you gave them to a different trainer, you don’t even know if they would become a great horse.
[Millionaire] Upstart was another one I was an underbidder on. I actually tried to buy him as a weanling when I was at the farm and Mrs. Nielsen wouldn’t sell him. I bid on him that night when he went through the ring [$130,000 Fasig-Tipton New York-Bred Sale]. So, I’ve been unlucky a couple of times as an underbidder. You remember the ones that get away, but that’s the way this business goes.
Hey, the best horse I ever bought was [stakes winner] Personal Girl. She was a terrific little filly. They even have a race named after her. I bought her for $32,000, so you never know.