Friday was the opening of the thoroughbred season in Chicago. I'm
that more than a few fans in the northwest and western suburbs were
surprised when they opened their morning Daily Herald and discover that for
the first time in 21 years Ray Hallett was not picking the horses. For the
sake of any Chicago fans that have followed my selections over the past two
decades and are subscribers to the Derby List, I would like to relate the
circumstances related to my departure from the Herald. I know that may not
be of much interest to others from around the country (if so move on to the
next listing) but I think the story says much about the state of
horseracing in Chicago and the business of horseracing in general.
After 21 years as a handicapper and columnist for the Daily Herald
paper terminated me at my annual review on December 15. The review was
excellent. I might have understood the decision better if the paper was
unhappy with my performance. Instead the decision was made because, "you
make too much money". (In the form of a paycheck and not at the windows,
unfortunately) The Herald is not a guild paper and editorial employees are
not represented by a union of any kind.
The feeling was that horseracing is dead in Chicago and that there
interest in racing. The tracks do not advertise in the paper and thus
there is no direct revenue stream to offset the cost to the paper in
providing a full time handicapper and columnist. With Arlington in hiatus
it was thought that home subscriptions were not related to racing coverage
(The Daily Herald is located in Arlington Heights, about a mile from the
track). Thus, the decision was made that in order to balance the
department budget I had to go. In fact the decision was that the paper
would drop all racing coverage entirely. I was offered a generous
The dismissal did not come as a surprise. I suspected that the
been toying with the idea of dropping racing since Arlington closed in
1997. The surprise was that my editor then offered to hire me back to do
the same job. "Of course, we can't pay you anywhere near what we are
paying you now." And, if Arlington were to come back in the future
everything would be "reevaluated".
In short I was being fired for being an "expensive luxury".
trying to figure out what that means. After 21 years the paper wasn't
paying me enough for me to support my family. In fact the job with the
Herald was a second job for me. I'm also a schoolteacher. The Herald
salary was approximately a third of what I make as a teacher.
While the loss of revenue to my family will hurt it is not critical.
the time I was more concerned that the Herald dropping horseracing was just
another nail in the coffin of Chicago racing. It could in fact be the
first domino that might also eventually lead to the same action by the
Tribune and the Sun-Times. Thus, I informed the local tracks of the
decision that the Herald had taken. They in turn applied a bit of pressure
and the Herald suddenly decided that running results charts and entries
might not be a bad idea after all, especially if they were provided by the
tracks for free.
By this week the paper had decided that providing a graded handicap
customers might not be such a bad idea either. Unfortunately, I'm not
eligible to work for the Herald again in any capacity until my severance
had been paid in full at the end of May. As late as Wednesday I was
assured by my former editor that he would like me to return to my old
position next year, "if I can find a way to do that job for considerably
less money", even though volunteers to do the job are "coming out of the
woodwork." Though I'm keeping my options open, my guess is that I've
picked my last horse for the Daily Herald.
In the meantime the Herald has turned to Joe Kristufek to fill the
handicapper. I consider Joe a friend. In the past he has filled in for me
very capably when I was forced to take a day off. Like many associated
with racing, he is trying to earn a living while staying close to a sport
that he loves and I wish him well. He is receiving only a fraction of what
he deserves for the job but every tiny bit helps. If he had not taken the
job, the Herald would have found someone else. As much as we hate to admit
it, we are all replaceable.
If there are any Chicago fans that have stuck with my story this
not asking for sympathy. I had a good run. I was paid for 21 years to do
what I love and that is one of the secrets of life. I consider myself to
be very lucky. I still love racing with all my heart but now I can enjoy
it without the daily grind of deadlines. I'm looking forward to that. My
only regret is that I can no longer be an advocate for racing in print.
Chicago racing needs an advocate to throw both roses and brickbats when
they are needed. I've thrown plenty of both over the years.
For anyone that has made it this far, I thought you
might be interested in my story and what it says about the state of the
sport in Chicago. Maybe I've also opened the door a crack for you to peak
behind and see what life on the inside is like at a metropolitan newspaper.
It isn't paradise. It is Dilbertville. Anyone that thinks that the paper
cares about the product that they are presenting the public is foolish.
Everything is about circulation and the bottom line.
For all of you that dream that one day you might be "the guy"
picks in print, it isn't always what you think it will be. After the ego
is gratified, you still must deal with the daily grind of cranking out
those selections. It beats working on a production line but the bottom
line is that sooner or later it is still just a job.
Thanks for listening. I never got the chance to say goodbye in
all the loyal fans that supported and encouraged me over the years. I know
that few will see this piece but it still makes me feel better to say them.
If I still had a job this might have been my last column.