By T. D. Thornton
The sport not only lost two great people on Saturday, but also two thoroughly professional and highly entertaining media personalities whose genuine zeal for racetrack life shone through in ways that neither could have scripted.
Almost within minutes over the weekend, news began filtering out that both Bob Neumeier and Sam Spear had died Oct. 22.
Over the course of a broadcasting career that spanned parts of five decades, the Boston-based Neumeier, 70, parlayed stints as a hockey announcer and popular TV sports anchor into a mainstay role as an expert handicapper on big-event Thoroughbred racing broadcasts for NBC. The Boston Globe reported that he suffered from congestive heart failure and had been in hospice care for the past eight weeks.
Spear, 72, didn't have quite as high a national profile. But his outgoing, effusive charisma radiated like a beacon to anyone who encountered him in the press boxes of Northern California tracks or tuned in to watch him host one of the country's first regular nightly TV replay shows, which he founded in 1978. According to the San Francisco Chronicle, he died from complications of the rare inflammatory disease sarcoidosis.
Neumy Goes to Vegas
Neumeier—called “Neumy” by almost everybody who knew him—grew up not far from the Weymouth fairgrounds racetrack in Massachusetts and spent many an afternoon as a kid in the 1960s with his father, Ed, at Suffolk Downs. Upon graduating from Syracuse University with a degree in broadcasting, his first prominent gig involved calling play-by-play for the old New England Whalers of the World Hockey Association, and he later was the radio voice for the Boston Bruins of the National Hockey League.
In 1981, Neumeier landed a coveted gig as a sportscaster, and later an anchor, at Boston's WBZ-TV. For the next 20 years, he was the affable but highly knowledgeable host who delivered sports highlights in five-minute bursts to millions in an era when that market had three ultra-competitive TV stations covering a ravenously sports-centric city.
In the pre-simulcasting era, Neumy was often at Suffolk Downs playing the local ponies. In fact, if you called his answering machine circa 1989, the message said, “I'm probably at the track.”
Although he often hunkered down in the Turf Club to fine-tune his hand-crafted speed figures, Neumeier was approachable and receptive to fans who wanted his opinion on the daily double or just felt like shooting the breeze about the Red Sox.
You've probably heard the story about how Neumeier suffered a stroke prior to the 2014 Breeders' Cup, then, after 5-plus hours of surgery and only a few months after an astounding recovery, appeared at the 2015 National Handicapping Championship (NHC) to win the inaugural Charity Challenge in Las Vegas.
But another “Neumy goes to Vegas” story that goes back more than 30 years might be more emblematic of Neumeier's resiliency.
In the summer of 1990, long before there was any NHC and well before widespread access to race replays from national tracks, Neumy was confident enough in his figure-making for top-tier circuits to take a crack at the World Cup of Thoroughbred Handicapping at Caesars Palace. He had entered that tournament two previous times with no luck, but on this third occasion he travelled to Vegas with his father so they could enjoy some time together while chasing big prize money in the mythical bankroll contest.
But before father and son had even made it past the baggage carousel at the Las Vegas airport, a pickpocket had lifted his dad's wallet containing $1,800.
They had flown in early, two days before the tourney began, and luckily Neumy had prepaid his entry. According to Neumeier's retelling of this tale in a 1990 Boston Globe story, he spent the next two days paranoically patting his sport coat pocket every few minutes to make sure he still had his own fat envelope containing their remaining $3,800 of spending money.
All of a sudden, on one of those patdowns, the envelope was gone.
“Maybe a pickpocket got it or maybe it just fell out of my pocket,” Neumeier told the Globe. I went over to my father and said, 'Dad, you're not going to believe this.' We were down to our last $200. I said, 'I guess I've just got to press on.'”
The field for the three-day tourney had 350 entrants.
“The first day I lost four photos by a nose and didn't win a penny. Out of the 350 contestants, there I was in 350th place,' Neumeier reminisced. “I was a little bit numbed after what happened already, but you just have to suck it up and move on.”
Prior to day two of the contest, he stayed up until 3 a.m. studying the races, then got up at the crack of dawn to handicap some more.
Neumy's luck reversed: He clawed his way up the standings with two long-shot nose winners from Belmont Park. Then he took a stand against a 2-5 shot in an Arlington Park sprint to come up with a horse who won by four lengths “in a gallop” and paid $65.
When the new leaderboard was posted, Neumy was standing behind the player who had led the first day, and he overheard the horseplayer say, “Who's this guy that went from last to first? He's not going to last.” At that point, Neumeier admitted, he was just happy to have won the $4,800 second-day leader prize to make up for the vanished cash.
But his run of luck wasn't finished: Neumeier ended up running up the score on day three and took home the grand prize of $52,000.
Best of all, Neumy said, “was that my father was there to see it. He had to work weekends as a mutuel clerk at Suffolk to make ends meet. He'd throw the Form at me, and I learned the love of racing from him.”
Dancing on Tables, Revered in the Stables
According to a remembrance quote in his Chronicle obituary, Sam Spear was like the guardian angel Clarence in the movie It's a Wonderful Life—“a PR angel sent down to Northern California to bring people together.”
Spear was a true storyteller and sports nut who thrived on personal contact and old-school people skills. A native of Oakland who graduated from St. Joseph's-Alameda and San Francisco State with a major in speech, he was re-creating race calls on a Bay Area radio show in the late 1970s when he pitched the idea for a nightly TV horse race replay show to a new independent station, KTSF.
The show ended up having a run of nearly 40 years until Spear gave it up in 2017. He not only hosted the program (often seven days a week when the NorCal fairs were running) but also sold the show's advertising and managed all the broadcasting logistics.
Spear juggled all of that while producing and hosting a weekly racing radio show and working as the longtime public relations director for Golden Gate Fields. Spear also umpired and refereed high school and college baseball and basketball games. He even had a heart attack while on the TV job in 1991 but insisted on quickly returning to his 12-hour daily workload.
Larry Collmus, who now announces the Triple Crown and Breeders' Cup races for NBC, recalled in a phone interview Sunday morning how he first met Spear when Sam picked him up at the airport for the job interview that got Collmus the Golden Gate announcing gig in 1988.
“The one thing that stands out is just the kindness of the guy,” Collmus said. “He literally was taking me everywhere, showing me where everything was. I was 21 years old. He helped me open up a bank account. He cosigned for my apartment because I had no credit, and he didn't even hesitate.
“My first night in the Bay Area, Sam took me to a restaurant—I forget the name, but it was one of his favorite spots in San Francisco. We go in, and everybody knows him. We start drinking good red wine—which he loved—and all of sudden, Sam just starts dancing on the table. I quickly found out that that was like a normal thing when Sam was enjoying himself.”
Collmus continued, “But Sam had an on/off switch for that stuff. When he was in the mood to have fun, he would just let loose and do it. And then he would take things seriously when his work needed to be taken seriously.”
Collmus recalled how, for some unknown reason, Spear delighted in calling everybody in the press box “Harry.” He also was a never-ending fountain of one-liners and wisecracks.
As Collmus recalled, “He would always say, 'I've got a million of 'em!' And we would say, 'Well, Sam, then how come we keep hearing the same ones over and over and over?'”
Had the Bay Area racing industry not been so fortunate as to have Spear as its promoter, he almost certainly would have ended up doing front-office work for a major-league baseball club.
Spear knew many ballplayers, managers and executives of the San Francisco Giants (for whom he briefly worked in the mid-1970s) and Oakland A's. One of his close friends was the legendary Joe DiMaggio, for whom Sam made sure there was always a seat in the Golden Gate press box.
When a devastating earthquake rocked San Francisco in October 1989, Spear and DiMaggio were sitting together at Candlestick Park before the scheduled Game 3 of the World Series between the Giants and A's. They had to evacuate the ballpark, and they spent most of the night waiting together for the all-clear so DiMaggio could return to his neighborhood after a fire there had been put out.
In the early 1990s, Spear was friendly with an A's batboy named Stanley Burrell—long before the world would know him as the rap music star MC Hammer.
“In fact, Sam was the person Hammer first talked to about getting into horse racing,” Collmus said, alluding to Hammer's eventual ownership of a stable that included the MGSW filly Lite Light.
“Sam had Hammer and Jerry Hollendorfer meet at Golden Gate,” Collmus recalled. “As the story goes, Hollendorfer said to Hammer, 'How much money do you want to spend?' And Hammer says, 'Whatever it costs to win that Kentucky Derby race.'”
As Spear once told columnist Mike Brunker in an undated news clip that was making the rounds as a social media remembrance over the weekend, “I've never considered my work to be a 'job.' Racing and my show is me. That's my life.”