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Dean Hoffman's Blog


HTA - harness racing's hidden gem

Published: April 7, 2009 4:23 pm ET

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In a recent blog entry, I mentioned that I had been in Tucson last week to speak to classes at the Race Track Industry Program at the University of Arizona. That’s always a treat for me because I’m so impressed by the program and the students. It’s a great asset for racing.

While in Tucson, however, I took also time one day to pay a visit to Harness Tracks of America. Alas, I was not fortunate enough to connect with the industry’s icon and idol Stan Bergstein as he was out of the office that day.

Stan Bergstein is synonymous with Harness Tracks of America because he’s been its executive vice-president for darn near a half-century. Of course, Bergstein is harness racing’s Mr. Everything and no one is more respected than he is. He is one of those truly rare individuals admired and respected by people in the Thoroughbred game, too.

Some people have wondered about the future of HTA as Bergstein comes about as close to being the Indispensable Man as anyone I’ve ever known. But those who worry such things don’t know Paul Estok and Brody Johnson.

They are Bergstein’s ace assistants at HTA and I can assure you that they have learned from the master and they are first-class professionals.

I referred to HTA as harness racing’s hidden gem in the headline because Tucson is hardly a hotbed of harness racing. But it really wouldn’t matter if HTA were located in Tibuktu. This era of computer and ubiquitous cell phones makes a bricks-and-mortar location of an association far less important.

For many years, HTA was headquartered in Chicago. Then the offices were relocated to central New Jersey, which certainly does qualify as a hotbed of harness racing. That made little difference in office traffic, however, as very few HTA directors ever found reason or time to stop by the office. I’ve known Bergstein for almost 40 years and never found reason to visit the HTA offices in Chicago or New Jersey, but I’ve been to the HTA office in Tucson several times.

Actually, there is a real benefit of having HTA located so close to the Race Track Industry Program as both Estok and Johnson are graduates of that program. Other RTIP alums have passed through HTA over the years.

Estok is a lawyer and serves as the HTA legal counsel and general secretary while Johnson is executive assistant. No one ever said that working for Stan Bergstein was a day at the beach, but the master always drove himself as hard as he drove those who worked for him.

HTA is also a hidden gem because its programs and services are aimed at its member tracks and not at trainers, drivers, breeders and owners. Those constituencies are served by organizations like Standardbred Canada and the USTA which have power in areas of registration and regulation.

HTA exists to serve its member tracks and I’ve always wondered why some tracks opt not to be members. Do they not see the benefit of joint action? Do they wish to stand aloof and alone from other tracks? Are they trying to save a few bucks in membership dues? Pennywise and pound-foolish to me.

I know a guy with a strong Thoroughbred background and inclination. He lives in Kentucky, but he also knows about HTA and Bergstein and he recently told me how infinitely superior HTA’s services and programs were to those provided by TRA to Thoroughbred tracks.

HTA provides valuable research to its members and sponsors a wide array of program too lengthy to detail here. One service that I value highly is the HTA World Racing Directory, a 140-page guide that I find to be remarkably useful on many occasions.

The organization is under the capable leadership now of Hugh Mitchell of Western Fair Raceway, who is serving a term as HTA president. He has board comprised of industry leaders to support him, including stars like Chris McErlean, formerly the GM at the Meadowlands and now with Penn Gaming.

Don’t look for Stan Bergstein to go riding off into the Arizona sunset any time soon, but if and when that day comes, HTA is in capable hands with Estok and Johnson and the others on the HTA staff. And I’m sure it will continue to be a hidden gem and provide invaluable service to harness racing.

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