by Murray Brown
When Jason Settlemoir first received an offer from Jeff Gural to come work at his racino at Vernon Downs and the one yet to be built at Tioga Downs, Settlemoir turned Gural down.
Settlemoir wouldn’t even accept Gural’s offer to come visit his two tracks and see what he had in mind.
He did this even though it had been his ambition for some time to run a racetrack, maybe one day the best harness racetrack in the world, The Meadowlands.
How did this come to pass? We need to go back quite some time.
For almost as long as he can remember Settlemoir had an interest in harness racing and harness horses. He started going to Scioto Downs with his parents when he was 6 or 7 years old. From the beginning he was enthralled. Initially it was his goal to become a race caller. He would practice calling races throughout his youth.
Settlemoir had a paper route in his hometown of Newark, OH. One day he discovered that one of his customers was moving out, but that someone named Terry Holton would be moving in. Terry Holton? Settlemoir knew Terry Holton, but only by name and through seeing him race horses at Scioto Downs.
Settlemoir quickly introduced himself to the man known to his friends as Big T.
Over a period of time, they became fast friends, a friendship that was to last until Holton’s death on May 4, 2007.
Settlemoir began accompanying Holton to all the Ohio racetracks and fairs at which Holton was racing. Settlemoir initially wanted to be a catch driver, but Holton told him in order to do that he would have to begin doing all the mundane dirty tasks beginning with cleaning stalls. As an alternative, Holton suggested that Settlemoir might want to consider becoming a race caller at which Settlemoir had much practice, since he had been practicing calling make believe races from the time he started going to the track with his parents. Settlemoir choose the latter, although there were steps in between and definitely after.
He started calling races at some of the Ohio Fairs. He met the man he calls his mentor, Roger Huston, who is a dear friend to this very day.
At the age of 15, Huston got Settlemoir a job calling races at the West Virginia State Fair.
In 1995, word of this boy wonder had got around and Settlemoir received a phone call from Bob Steele, the general manager of Scioto Downs.
Steele asked Settlemoir if he was interested in coming to work for him on a part time basis. Would he ever?
Settlemoir would have accepted just about anything in wages, but thought that his pay would have likely been somewhere around $10 an hour. He was rather surprised when Steele, a man with a richly deserved reputation of being tight fisted told him he would pay him $13 dollars an hour. “You probably aren’t worth it yet Junior, but 13 is my lucky number.” From the first time Steele made his acquaintance, Settlemoir was Junior to him.
Settlemoir began working part-time as jack of all trades in 1995 while he was attending The Ohio State University in Columbus. At Scioto, he did pretty much everything that was asked of him.
He eventually became involved in simulcasting and became the head of simulcasting in 2000. He remained in that position as well as calling races until 2005.
It was while at Scioto that he made the acquaintance of Dave Stolz who was destined to become a significant factor in his career.
Stolz is what the author would refer to as a real racetrack character. He is the kind of guy who all racetracks wish they had more of around. He loves the game.
He can help the handle. He knows lots of people who would come to the racetrack because Dave Stolz was going there.
Scioto Downs had a comp list for press and preferred patrons who would get their programs and the occasional perk free.
One night, Stolz came to get his program and the woman distributing them told him that his name wasn’t on the list. She couldn’t give him one. Stolz saw Settlemoir and asked him for his program. Settlemoir conveyed his regrets, saying since his name wasn’t on the list he couldn’t give him one. Stolz’s response was, “take your @%#4% programs and stuff them up your %$#!”
Phil Terry, of the Little Brown Jug happened to be around and overheard the conversation. Terry said, “Jason I think you just made a mistake. Give that man a program. He is good for your business. You don’t want him upset with you.” Settlemoir followed Terry’s advice, but Stolz wasn’t hearing any of it.
“You can still take your @&^$#@ program and shove it where the sun doesn’t shine. I don’t need it or your damned racetrack.” Eventually, Settlemoir calmed Stolz down and he took the program. Over a period of time they became friendly.
Dave Stolz was a lifelong friend of Jeff Gural who owned Vernon Downs and was building Tioga Downs. The Meadowlands, at the time, was somewhere in Gural’s future.
Stolz wanted his friend Gural to meet this young man who had impressed him and who he felt could help him to run his racetracks. They met for lunch and Gural asked Settlemoir to come to see his tracks and work for him. Settlemoir had just been married and he and his bride had bought a home. He thanked Gural for the offer, but said that he wasn’t ready to consider making the move.
Settlemoir had gone to work for the United States Trotting Association. He was working forHoof Beatsselling ads for the magazine.
He called Gural’s office hoping to get an ad for Jeff’s Allerage Farms.
His secretary said that Jeff wasn’t in, but asked if she could take a message. When Jason identified himself she said, “You mean the Jason Settlemoir who turned Jeff’s job offer down? Hang on. I think he’d like to speak with you. I’ll try to hook you up with him in his car.”
Gural did take the ad. In the interim, he also persuaded Settlemoir to come visit his two tracks. Settlemoir first visited Tioga which at the time was nothing but a heap of rubbish. He went to Vernon. Gural made an offer to Settlemoir, who said he wanted to think it over.
“I want to try it,” thought Settlemoir. He called Gural and said he would come to work for him, but he wanted a contract.
“I don’t do contracts,” Gural said. “If you do a good job you will be treated well. My word is good and I am a very loyal person. You can ask anybody that knows me about that.”
Settlemoir took the job. At the age of 29 he was running two racetracks.
Early in his management of Vernon, Settlemoir made a business error that he believed had cost the racetrack $20,000. Very upset he told Gural and asked if he wanted his resignation. Gural said, “Did you learn from the mistake?” “Of course,” Settlemoir answered. “Then don’t do it again.”
“That’s all I ever heard from him,’ Settlemoir said. “That’s loyalty.”
When The Meadowlands came under the Gural umbrella, Settlemoir thought he was able to assume that load as well, but Gural didn’t believe that he was quite ready. But, after a few years, the lines at the world’s greatest harness track were handed to 35-year-old Settlemoir. He has been at the helm at The Meadowlands for nine years and is still somewhat involved in the management of Vernon and Tioga.
Jason, you’ve sure got a lot on your plate — three racetracks, several positions within the sport and numerous years as a USTA director. Let’s start with the USTA.
“I sort of have a love hate relationship with USTA. I’ve worked there. I like and respect most of the people working there and in management. I hate to have to say this. I believe that in most instances we have diametrically opposed views. I think that if I were keeping score of my batting average while being a director, I’d be batting close to zero. I think the association has too many irons in the fire and too many directors on their board. I think they do a very good job as a record keeping organization. The contraction of their membership through the years has been absolutely horrible, yet believe it or not, they actually increased the number of directors. I believe they do not do a good job relating to integrity and marketing, two of — if notthetwo — most important factors involving the industry. I think their position regarding HISA is injurious to our sport and I believe in the long run it will do us a great deal of harm.
“Many years ago when Phil Langley, a man for who I had great respect, and I had a conversation, I told him that unless horse racing got its house in order, that the Feds would come along and attempt to do it for us. We didn’t and now HISA is the law of the land. If HISA accomplishes nothing else, the one thing it will do most beneficial to all of horse racing will be to make all rules and all drug requirements the same. Is it perfect? Of course not. But I believe that the faults that exist can be ironed out.”
Whoops! It looks like I stepped on a hand grenade. That’s probably enough about USTA. Your main function today is in running the Meadowlands. Most people would believe you’ve done a very good job of it. What are your priorities in doing the job?
“Priorities one, two and three and probably beyond are the customer. Without him/her we have no racing and no racetrack. We need to do what’s best for him/her. In order to do that we have to work together with the horsemen to insure that we present the best product possible. I truly believe that we conduct the very best racing in North America, if not the world on a regular basis. I believe that our handle numbers reflect that.
“Right now the quality of racing here is as good as it ever has been since we opened. We the have best horses, the best stables and the best drivers racing here on a consistent basis. Having said that, it isn’t perfect and there is always room for improvement.
“The chief challenge the business has is integrity. Jeff Gural and I have done the very best we can to get rid of the bad elements that we feel are injurious to our product.
“The racing is great, but not perfect. There are certain areas over which we have control and some over which we do not. The judges have control over the drivers and their methods. There are some factors such as courtesy tucks, opening lanes, half in and half out driving, stalled horses waiting to flush someone out that probably need to be addressed more often than we might believe they are. When we get feedback from our customers, we do our darndest to share it with both the horsemen and the judges. We try to emphasize over and over that our chief responsibility is to the patron.”
You have assembled as good a staff as there is to be found anywhere in racing. Let’s talk about some of them.
“Marianne is now the assistant general manager. The decision to elevate her to that post might have been the best decision I’ve ever made. She is dedicated beyond belief. If there is something that needs to get done, I hand it to Marianne and I know that whatever it is it will get done. She started as the director of program sales shortly after Hurricane Sandy and has risen through the ranks since.”
“A very important and trusted member of our team. Nick can do everything and anything. Not only is he great person to have on staff, but he is also my very best friend. I haven’t known any people who both work and play as hard as Nick does. He is a Bon Vivant. But when it comes to entrusting a responsibility to anybody, there is nobody better. When he comes north, he stays with us upholding his reputation of America’s Guest. But he more than pays his way as a great cook.”
The two Daves — Brower and Little
“When I came to The Meadowlands one of my wishes, which Jeff granted, was to have Dave Brower back on our team. He knows all the players. He is an apt student of the horses and the horsemen and is an excellent host on the TV show. Occasionally, I might quibble with his handicapping, but I’ve yet to know a handicapper who satisfies everybody all of the time.
“When Dave Little left the New York Daily News, it presented a unique opportunity to us. He loves the sport. He knows the sport. The interaction between him and Brower is just fantastic. An added bonus for us is that his wife Debbie has been writing a column based on The Meadowlands for Harness Racing Update.”
“Gabe is a gift to the sport. His overall knowledge and track record is just phenomenal. We are privileged to have him here on a part time basis, especially for our top events.”
“Sam is of course no longer with us, but his spirit will always be alive in this place. Anybody that knew Sam was enhanced by the experience. I and everybody here knew how important he was to the operation. He did so many things and all of them well. It wasn’t until he was gone, that we realized how much he did and how irreplaceable he was.”
Last, but far from least, the boss, Jeff Gural
“There is only one Jeff Gural. There are some, hopefully, not too many, who do not realize how indebted harness racing is to Jeffrey Gural. Yes, he can be quick on the trigger. But, he is also among the deepest thinkers that I’ve ever known. Nick and I have often discussed him. We may have sometimes disagreed with him, but much more often than not his opinion has turned out to be correct.
“There is nobody in the entire sport who could have or would have rescued The Meadowlands from a certain demise. Jeff Gural did it. Sure, he called upon the industry to help and some did. But he was the only person who could and did get the job done.
“Not only The Meadowlands, but also two failed or failing racetracks Vernon and Tioga Downs. Neither is what one might call thriving, but both are functioning fairly well, giving racing opportunities and much needed purse money to horsemen who desperately need them.
“There are some who appreciate the magnitude of what Jeff has accomplished for the industry, but in my opinion, not near many enough.
“His work and investment is mostly a labor of love. He genuinely loves the sport, its horses and its people. On the other hand, he has a deep hatred for those who he believes do or intend to do it harm. He did not rescue three dying racetracks to make money, although down the road it sure would be nice if it happened. When he invested millions upon millions in these tracks, he was fairly certain that he was going to lose money. The big question was how much.
“Do we disagree? Occasionally we do. But we try to keep it between the two of us.
“I consider my and my son’s Travis’ life to be far better because of the presence of this man in it.
“Jeff Gural is my boss, my mentor and my good friend. He loves the sport of harness racing like few others.”
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