This is it. The Best Racing Fans EVER! have hit the big time. It took long enough, but after three years of racetrack revelry, it figures someone would notice them and write a story.
And that story is epic.
This, essentially, is what Chris Heeley said when I reached him via cell phone on a Sunday night: "Wow, you want to do an interview?! I'm blown away!"
Which, my friends, is saying a lot.
Meet a group of guys who go to all the races, don't really care about gambling, take thousands of pictures, talk to everyone and wish the dying industry they support would get its act together and give them all jobs as ambassadors to the sport. In the past three years, Heeley and his five friends (The Best Racing Fans EVER!) have taken in the action at Suffolk Downs, Saratoga Race Course, Belmont Park, Aqueduct Race Track, Gulfstream Park, Tampa Bay Downs, Oaklawn Park, Santa Anita Race Course, Los Alamitos, El Comandante (in Puerto Rico), Philadelphia Park, Fair Grounds Race Course, Pimlico Race Course, Arlington Park and Monmouth Park. Girlfriends and hangers-on in tow, beer coolers and cameras in hand, they turn up in general moods of frivolity wherever major racing events can be found.
"We've just taken the 'little-kid-looking-for-an-autograph' idea and stepped it up a notch," said Heeley, 40. "I've always enjoyed attending big-time sporting events like the World Series and college bowl games, but the track is the only place where your posse can move as a team and interact with the players."
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The Best Racing Fans EVER! are currently in the midst of a trip of international proportions. It is big. It is awesome. It is going to make you very jealous. They are attending the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe, the most prestigious horse race in Europe. And it gets better.
The group left on Sept. 29, French trainer Patrick Biancone having made arrangements to assure they'd have a good time. The Best Racing Fans EVER! weren't expecting anything of the sort, just casually mentioned they planned on going and sitting on the apron, or in general admission, or wherever casual racing fans hang out when they go to Longchamp on Arc day.
"No, no, no," said "Our Buddy Patrick." "You must have box seats, yes?"
Well, sure, Patrick, whatever you think is best.
Heeley hoped they'd be OK.
"We may be in way over our heads," he worried. "I'm not sure how we're going to fit our cooler and camping chairs into the box."
Frankie's the best, man, Frankie's the ultimate. I bet Frankie blind, man, I don't care if he's riding a pig, he's Frankie!
”-- Racing fan Mark Bombard
When I talked to group member Mark Bombard about the trip, he wanted to know why I wasn't going overseas with them -- "it's gonna be a blast!" Then he explained his wagering strategy, which, essentially, goes something like this: bet anything Frankie Dettori rides.
"Frankie's the best, man, Frankie's the ultimate," said Bombard, 36. "I bet Frankie blind, man, I don't care if he's riding a pig, he's Frankie!"
And so it goes. They've been compared to "those guys from 'The Hangover'" by trainer Dale Romans and lauded by top jockeys like Kent Desormeaux and Ramon Dominguez. At every track, they've mingled with insiders to the point of practically becoming insiders themselves, a model the sport should study in order to effectively promote the game.
"We've developed a rapport, not only with the superstars of the game, but with the little guys as well," Heeley remarked. "We get pictures with every jockey, trainer, owner and random person who crosses our path. People recognize us now not just the top figures in the sport, but the lady at Santa Anita who controls access to the winner's circle and the farrier at Suffolk Downs. They all realize we're true fans and welcome us."
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The Best Racing Fans EVER! are also historians of sorts, thanks to photographic documentation. The pictures they take are multitudinous, snapped at tracks across the nation, a record of personalities and moments in the sport. Most are posted on Facebook, where their friends leave hilarious captions and comments. No one else has this kind of photo gallery because no one else takes this kind of approach. It's more about the interaction and the experiences to be had at the racetrack than it is about the hard-core gambling aspects of the game.
"Our No. 1 thing is not gambling, it's not about gambling," Bombard said. "It's about going to see and support these people we've gotten to know -- trainers, owners, jockeys, the personalities. I go and enjoy hanging out and seeing everybody. Sure, I bet a little, I drink a little. It's all about the experience. I have a good time."
Bombard lives in upstate New York in Latham, a little town between Albany and Saratoga Springs. He grew up in the Capital region. When he was a kid, his uncle's girlfriend worked at the track and brought the 8-year-old along to hang out all day with his friend Brian Buono for the entire meet, all summer.
"We'd go over to the Racing Museum and steal postcards and then sell them for 25 cents apiece," Bombard recalled. "We used the money to buy Chipwich ice cream sandwiches. Ever since then, all the way through high school, I'd go. I'd never miss an opening day."
Saratoga Race Course is the common denominator between Heeley and Bombard and the rest of the group, which took concrete form in the summer of 2007. Three members -- Buono, Stephen Gersztoff and James Hogan -- were in a punk rock band together through high school. All had some kind of childhood connection to the New York tracks; Gersztoff, 38, remembers growing up with Belmont Park in his backyard and accompanying his father on various afternoons. The group's sixth member, 37-year-old Rigaud "Jay" Doliscar, is a New York racing fan who met the other guys on a 2009 trip to New Orleans and fit right in.
"That was a whole marriage made in heaven," Doliscar said. "We love the game and we enjoy being around it. People really should experience it the way we do to see how much fun it is; it's a thrill to watch the horses when you know the people and see how hard these guys work to make this sport work."
The group talks often of ways to fix horse racing's many woes, just as fans and people who care.
"We sit around and have these informal roundtables of sorts," Gersztoff said. "We watch capital OTB and the simulcast races from various tracks and sometimes it seems like the production value of the races is more Eastern European circa 1970. We sit around and say, 'How can you even watch this?' It seems like everything is really designed for the hard-core, old-school gambler -- and the industry needs to learn to think past that."
"Here's what I explain to everybody I work with," Bombard remarked. "When you go to a horse race, you have a say in the bet you're placing. When you go to Vegas, you have no control over anything. You're not studying any past information, or looking at a horse in the paddock to see if you want to bet on it. Here, you play a role in your own success or failure."
"Who couldn't have a fun day at the races?" said Doliscar. "Compare it to a football game; you've got to spend a fortune at one of those to have a good time. Going to the races is different. Certain tracks, certain events, you can bring your cooler, your own food, just sit down with the family close to the action, it's a great time."
And The Best Racing Fans EVER! have an even better time than most. Somehow, they always manage to get that insider access -- to places like the backside of Oaklawn Park, watching Zenyatta gallop before the Apple Blossom, or to the jockeys' room at Belmont Park on Belmont Stakes day.
According to Heeley, "You just walk like you know what you're doing," but Bombard utilizes another technique.
"I always pretend I'm lost," he said. "Like, 'Oh, I'm sorry, I thought this was the bathroom! They told me the bathrooms are down here!' That always works."
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One wonders how The Best Racing Fans EVER! afford to turn up at practically every major racing event. Visions of independent wealth and private planes come immediately to mind, but the guys quickly eschew this form of thinking.
"I keep telling my company they need to start sponsoring me," Bombard laughed. He works in the printing business, doing graphic design and layouts. I asked how much of his vacation time goes to racing-related trips. "Everything," he said. "It always has."
It also helps that the majority of significant races are run on Saturday, giving the guys a chance to leave the office Friday evening and get back Monday morning. Gersztoff, a law librarian in the state capitol of New York, said he'll fly back to Albany with Bombard after one of their weekend trips and an overwhelming feeling of depression always hits them, like, "Don't make us go back to real life again!"
"We go on these trips and people ask, 'Are you guys independently wealthy?!' he said. "But I think it's just a matter of how we prioritize our time at work and our scheduling. We all have honest, decent, good jobs -- nothing very flashy. But if something is important enough to you, you figure out how to do it and make it work, right?"
Claire Novak is an award-winning journalist whose coverage of the Thoroughbred industry appears in a variety of outlets, including The Blood-Horse magazine, the Times Union (Albany, N.Y.) and NTRA.com. She lives in Lexington, Ky.