Bob Heyden demoted to “fill-in” status on Meadowlands broadcast team

The Hall of Famer — who for 35 years has been synonymous with the New Jersey track — deserves much, much better.

by Dave Briggs

On a tremendous card of racing at the Meadowlands last Saturday, one big thing nagged at me all night: where was Bob Heyden on the simulcast?

It was obvious Heyden was missing from the start when they went around the horn to get pre-race thoughts from a jam-packed broadcast crew — some of whom were flown in the for the special TVG / freshman stakes card. At the time I thought perhaps Heyden was working another broadcasting stream — TVG? — that I wasn’t able to watch in Canada.

It was only days later that the truth started to filter out — Heyden has been placed on a list as a fill-in broadcaster only, a decision confirmed Friday by Meadowlands chief operating officer Jason Settlemoir.

After 35 years of employment at the Meadowlands, where he carved out a Hall of Fame career in which he is as synonymous with the Big M as John Campbell, I would think Heyden would be a prime candidate to “fill-in” on one of the track’s biggest cards of the year, especially since it seems little expense was spared on the broadcast and he’s a New Jersey guy through and through. That only makes the decision to demote Heyden seem all the more permanent. If he’s wasn’t on the show for TVG night, then when can we expect to see him on the Big M simulcast again?

Settlemoir was clear. “I still plan on using Bob when needed if he is available,” he said in an email.

It is important to note a couple of things here before we go any further: 1. Heyden did not notify me — or, anyone else, as far as I know — about the Meadowlands’ decision to drop him to fill-in status. I called him for the facts when the rumors started. He did not ask me to write about it. He has much too class to complain or draw attention to himself, which is another reason why, if this sticks, it stinks. He’s a good man. 2. Full disclosure, I am biased on this one. I have been friends with Heyden for over 20 years and have worked with him even longer (and, obviously, he writes a column for HRU). But, trust me, that’s not why I find this decision short-sighted.

The decision riles me because of what I wrote a few paragraphs ago — Bob Heyden carved out a Hall of Fame career in which he is as synonymous with the Big M as John Campbell. I can’t think of the Meadowlands without thinking of him. Just as I can’t think of the Jug without thinking of Roger Huston.

The Meadowlands broadcast team, which has long been the top harness racing unit in the United States, got that way, in part, because of Bob Heyden. Apart from having a tremendous following from horsepeople and fans — which is nothing to sneeze at in a game that needs followers and fans — for close to four decades Heyden has displayed unparalleled loyalty to, and a deep love of, the Meadowlands.

And this is how they reward him?

Settlemoir said the decision was made to simply “go in a different direction at this time.”

The Meadowlands is entitled to do that. We are all replaceable.

But, surely there’s room, somewhere, for a man with Heyden’s talent, following and impressive knowledge.

For goodness sakes, he’s only 62 in an old person’s game and it’s not like he’s lost much off his fastball. He still has as deep a command of racing facts and history as anyone.

I won’t argue that the Meadowlands is right, in some ways, to try to orchestrate a youth movement, if that’s what they’re trying to do here.

And, no, there was nothing wrong with the people on the broadcast crew Saturday night. It was a great show — though, I submit that it could have been even better with Heyden’s involvement.

Hopefully, the powers that be that made this decision aren’t equating a harness racing simulcast — where the average age of the viewer is, what, 55? — with a network broadcast show where young and attractive seemingly trumps knowledge, talent and perspective and drives ratings. After all, aren’t most viewers tuning in to a racing simulcast show for information, not eye candy? Aren’t you risking losing Heyden’s fans — some of which I’m guessing bet sizeable dollars?

I guess we’ll find out.

If nothing else, Bob Heyden deserved better.

If you agree, let the Meadowlands know.