Bob “Hollywood” Heyden on his long tenure at the “greatest racetrack and greatest racing operation in the world”
by Murray Brown
From its inception The Meadowlands has likely had the greatest public relations / publicity department than that of all other racetracks combined. Just think of all the fantastic people who have occupied its press box through the years — names such as Allen Gutterman, Ellen Harvey, Sam McKee, Steve Katz, Bob Heyden, Charlie Singer, Sam Anzalone, Dave Little, Dave Brower, Carol Hodes, Nick Salvi, Ken Warkentin and Dave Little to just mention some. The only other racetrack which could possibly be mentioned in the same breath would have been Roosevelt Raceway which had the greatest of all publicists, harness or otherwise, Joseph Herbert Goldstein and Lou Barash.
Harness publicists are a diverse group, but the one thing that all the above have in common was and is a great love of the sport and the people in it.
When speaking of diversity among publicity folk, this scribe has never encountered one more different in so many areas than Bob “Hollywood” Heyden.
In keeping with the areas in which I have heretofore not covered in these weekly interviews relating to harness racing, we turn to public relations and publicity. One of the best of the genre, Hollywood Heyden was in the New York/New Jersey area this past week to pay tribute to another of those who he knew well Dave Brower.
Let’s start at the beginning or close to it, how did you get involved with harness racing?
“I liked all sports. I also liked to play the races and was fascinated with the sport’s history. Horse racing was the combination of the two. While I was in college at Rutgers, I would go to the races at Freehold. I also would go to both Roosevelt and Yonkers. I distinctly remember driving by The Meadowlands then being built by the Sports Authority and saying to myself, ‘When that racetrack gets built, I’m going to work there.’ There were a few years between the prediction and the reality. But that eventually came to pass. After I got out of school, I went to work in the restaurant industry, mostly tending bar. I then went to work for Sports Eye initially working with the thoroughbreds and then transferring to harness. I started working at The Meadowlands in 1983. I had landed where I said I was going to. I always had a deep interest in baseball and had interned as a beat writer at the Bergen Record in 1979. In February of 1986 while at The Big M I got a phone call from the Record offering me the job of covering the New York Mets for them. It was a tough decision, but I turned them down and stayed at the racetrack. As fate would have it, that was the year the Mets won the World Series. I have often wondered what would have been if I had gone. I was always a huge Yankees fan. One of my dearest friends was Gene “Stick” Michael who was kind enough to introduce me at my Communicators Corner Hall of Fame introduction at Goshen.
Working at The Meadowlands back in those glory days must have been fantastic.
“Indeed, it was. Everything was possible. All we had to do was dream it and it became true. Everything about the operation was first class. In a very short period of time, it became the greatest racetrack and greatest racing operation in the world. In my opinion, its success was based upon the exceptional talent of four great people, who with their staffs, built it that way — Bob Quigley, who made the whole enterprise click; Joe DeFrank, the director of racing who established the greatest racing program in the sport’s history; Charlie Singer, an astute student of racing and handicapping and Allen Gutterman who put together a stellar staff who let the world know that we were there. Those days were like no others. Sadly, there will never again will be another track remotely like it. That said, I am especially excited to see Ken Warkentin going into the Communicator’s Corner — the absolute best guy to work with as well the most prepared – always.”
My three kids would often speak of me as a “garbagehead” referring to the amount of, to them, useless information that I was able to furnish. I’d think to myself, they have no idea what a garbagehead is. They don’t know Hollywood Heyden. That’s not to say that all or even a decent amount of the statistics you are able to gather are useless. They are far from that. The majority of them are quite interesting.
“The truth is that I’ve been gathering up interesting and maybe sometimes not so interesting factoids and tidbits for as long as I can remember. One might call it a talent or maybe an idiosyncrasy that is part of what I call my brain. I find these facts interesting. I hope others do as well.”
You’ve been involved in the game for what seems like forever. Let’s talk about its stars.
BEST HORSE – TROTTER?
“By far — Muscle Hill. We never even got close to seeing how great he was or could have become.”
BEST HORSE – PACER?
“I’m going to take the coward’s way out. Triple dead heat — Niatross at 2, Somebeachsomewhere at 3, Bulldog Hanover at 4. All three have varying qualities that the others don’t.”
“Dexter Dunn. Some might disagree and say John Campbell or Bill O’Donnell at their best. I wouldn’t be inclined to argue with them. The young New Zealander is beyond special. He can do things with horses that I’ve seen no one else do. Mike Lachance told me a year ago about Dexter that the guy never makes a bad move. It seems as if he is never where he shouldn’t be. I find him to be absolutely amazing but in the totality of the last 15 years, I would certainly mention Tim Tetrick.”
“Stanley Franklin Dancer and not just by a little bit either. I consider Stanley not to have only been the greatest harness trainer ever, but the greatest horse trainer of any breed. Just look at some of the statistics. He had three Triple Crown winners in five years. No other trainer ever had more than one. More Horses of the Year than any other trainer. Something that is sometimes overlooked is that Stanley never had a huge stable. He had a decent sized one in his formative years and a relatively small one as he grew older, yet champion upon champion emanated from there. Some might say that he had the power of the checkbook behind him and they would probably be correct. But he earned that power. He grew from being a poor boy who in my perhaps less than humble opinion grew to become the greatest horse trainer ever.”
I’m not about to disagree with what you say about Stanley but there might be some who say that you might be a bit prejudiced in your thoughts because Mr. Dancer was one of your best friends.
“They might be a little correct, but not entirely. The facts and records speak for themselves. They don’t need my opinion to speak for them. It’s true Stanley was one of my dearest friends. Right until he passed, I would speak to him at least two or three times a week for the last 15 years of his life. Just as we will never see anything like the original Meadowlands again, we will never see those such as Stanley Dancer, Bill Haughton, Joe O’Brien, Delvin Miller and their like again.
“I would be remiss if I didn’t mention another of my bigtime passions — the Harness Horse Youth Foundation. I love HHYF, especially since my girlfriend of almost 10 years Ellen Taylor runs it. The kids are great and from time to time I get to work with them or hang out at camp. It’s been around since 1976 and Ellen’s mother Margot was the person most responsible for its success and presence. Who doesn’t want kids to progress and learn all they can about standardbred racing?”
You were back in the area to visit your mom and to be present at the Celebration of Life held at The Meadowlands for our dear friend Dave Brower on Saturday. What can you say about Dave that hasn’t been said before and by many others.
“Whatever the accolades were and they were many, our friend Dave was most worthy of them. I look back and see that we travelled similar and somewhat parallel routes at The Meadowlands. One thing about Dave and I, nobody loved and cared about the place and the sport more than either of us. As is often the case, when new management arrives at a venue, they decide to make changes. Both Dave and I were on the chopping block so to speak, during the first bloodletting. I managed to survive and sadly Dave did not. He was gone for several years and I continued at work at the place which was both my home and my workplace. In the midst of the second changeover, they had the good sense to bring Dave back. Whether they realize it or not it was one of the wisest moves they ever made. In the interim, I guess they found me expendable and my services were no longer required. After 36 years when then decided to not bring me back in October 2019. Mr. Gural did not insult me, he insulted the 1,179 individuals who wrote, texted, called or told me in person how sorry they were that I was leaving.”
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