Brian Spencer just completed a season as a racing analyst at Fair Grounds’ winter meet. A graduate of Portland State University, Spencer has worked for Horse Player NOW, Arlington Park, Hoosier Park, and America’s Best Racing. Spencer’s focus in each endeavor has been on handicapping and new fan education.
How did you get involved in racing?
Right out of college I went to work for a cable company. I’d always been a horse racing fan, and I’d always been interested in doing what I’m doing now, because I’d always been on the handicapping and gambling side of things. Racing was a hobby. The people at Arlington Park were nice enough to throw some work my way, mostly through the fan education arena. That’s what helped me get into the game: helping people handicap races, learn what kind of bets they may or may not want to make, and maximize bankroll on a limited budget, all that kind of stuff.
One thing lead to another—I quit my job at the cable company, went full-time with HorsePlayerNow, and took a part-time job at Arlington Park just last season doing some press work and a little bit of tv analysis. I wound up at Fair Grounds when Katie Mikolay Gensler took the season off for maternity leave.
What got you hooked on racing as a hobby to begin with?
My mom used to take me to Arlington. I grew up in the Chicago suburbs, and my mom’s father used to own percentages in a couple of horses, so he would always take her and when I was young she used to take me. When I was younger, I was kind of a math nerd, and my mom would sit me down with the program, and it was all statistics and numbers. It just fascinated me. It seemed like a really fun puzzle, and to this day it feels that way.
There are so many different ways you can figure out these races and come up with your selections. It made a lot of sense to me when I was in grade school. When I was old enough to gamble on my own, I’d go to the racetrack by myself, trying to watch races and learn as much as I could. I’m still trying to learn as much as I can today.
What do you see as the problem you’re most concerned about in racing?
Probably just that there’s too much of it, which I know is sort of a vague answer. There are a whole lot of different situations you have take into account. There are horsemen and riders who need small tracks to make their living, so it’s not easy to say ‘Oh we’ll take away dates from this track’ or ‘This track doesn’t need to exist because they’re running $2,500 claimers’ or anything like that. But there are declining foal crops in every state nationally, and racetracks aren’t really carding fewer races than they were five years ago. I just feel like there’s too much racing every day, and it’s all going to come together in the sense that if there’s too much racing and not enough horses, you’re going to get those six- and seven-horse fields, and that’s not going to drive handle, because there’s not the same kind of interest.
I know it’s a delicate thing because you don’t want to take away someone’s livelihood. There’s got to be some way to maybe productively contract the industry, where we can maximize the horses we have and still find a place for the horses that are running at the lower level. It doesn’t have to be all allowance and stakes races; I think there are many hard-knocking claiming horses who have a place in the game, and they’re the life blood of a lot of these racetracks.
What do you see as a solution to this—does it need to be an active solution by the industry, or will it be something that kind of happens on its own?
Maybe a little of both. I’ve always been one of those ‘we’re all in it together’ sort of people. If certain tracks are thriving and others are not, I think the solution will happen naturally for the most part.
I do feel like racetracks could do a lot better job working together without necessarily putting aside their own business interests, because that’s obviously kind of a foolish notion. I think that the health of the industry overall benefits everybody. It’s no good if there are three tracks that are doing great and everybody else is doing terribly—what’s the point?
What is it like for you, as somebody who’s fairly young, to be starting out in the racing industry while there’s some change and uncertainty?
It’s very exciting on one hand, and also very uncertain. The kind of position I’m in, it’s seasonal work, so you bounce around and figure out what kind of work you can pick up, which is not the most secure or comfortable or reliable living. But I wouldn’t want to do anything else.
I’m at the point (and I know a lot of people older than me who are still at the point) where it’s still all very exciting, and I feel like there’s an opportunity to make a difference by bringing people into the game. I’m not saying we’re going to go into the Pimlico infield and convert 5,000 new fans, but when you see the light bulb go on in someone’s head who’s never handicapped before and they get something–an angle works or they cash a ticket and they know why they cashed a ticket, you realize there are so many ways that people can like this game. There’s still a lot of potential out there. That keeps me excited. It’s not just about me, it’s not just about the work I’m doing, but there are still a ton of opportunities to make the game less uncertain.
Are you generally optimistic about the industry, then?
I don’t want to say “generally optimistic” because I think that would be a little naïve. I’m aware of what’s happening, and that there are big changes happening and more big changes coming that will alter the face of horse racing nationally. I’m cautiously optimistic, let’s say.
The horses are obviously the centerpiece but I think one of the things that gets short-changed in racing is how many really good people work in this industry. I’ve been lucky enough to meet a lot of them, and I’m constantly surprised by how good people in racing can be. I think that’s one of our big selling points: there are a lot of people who love this game, and when push comes to shove those people are going to dig in and work together and fight for it, and that leaves me more optimistic.