Stanley F. Bergstein, the only person twice inducted into the U.S. Harness Racing Hall of Fame, died of heart failure in the predawn hours of Wednesday, Nov. 2, at his home in Tucson, AZ.
Personality of the Month
for November 2011
At his side was his son Al, Al’s wife Megan and a hospice care specialist. Daughter Lisa and her husband Craig, along with grandson Michael Hentschel, were also in Tucson for the end of Stan’s amazing life.
His death comes just 17 months after his beloved wife, June, died four days after the couple celebrated its 60th wedding anniversary.
The loss to the harness racing world is immense. Bergstein was incomparable.
“He could have done anything,” said friend Tom Aldrich in 1999.
Instead, Bergstein chose to devote his boundless energies to harness racing — in just about every capacity imaginable.
Aldrich, the president and chief operating officer of Northfield Park near Cleveland, Ohio, was a former executive assistant at the Harness Tracks of America (HTA), the organization Bergstein joined in 1961.
“Imagine all the things he’s done,” Aldrich said of Bergstein. “He could have been an author. He could have been a humorist. He could have been a diplomat. He could have been a religious leader, a politician, a journalist, a fashion editor... He could have been a recruiter, a headhunter, a talent agent.”
As it was, Bergstein was a writer, innovator, broadcaster, race announcer, hall of famer, master of ceremonies, editor, race secretary, mentor, collector, spokesperson, horse owner, pedigree reader, consultant, auctioneer, ambassador, dean, humorist and sage.
He was best known as the Executive Vice-President of the HTA, a job he held for 50 years. In February of 2011, he was named Executive Emeritus.
Bergstein can take credit for starting the following industry staples: claiming races, the World Driving Championship, the harness racing hotline, the John Hervey media awards, the 3-year-old experimental rankings, the HTA art auction, the Red Smith caretaker of the year award, the Harness Racing Congress and a harness racing little league.
Among a host of other accomplishments, Bergstein has been the host of countless racing TV shows, written volumes about the sport, called 17 consecutive Hambletonians, turned Hoof Beats into a full-color, feature magazine and led the charge to promote and improve harness racing at every turn.
He also survived a number of serious health challenges, including major back surgery in the early 1980s and quintuple by-pass surgery in the mid-1990s.
Bergstein was an only child born raised in Pottsville, PA, northeast of Harrisburg. His father, Milton, owned grocery stores and kept some of the town’s poorer people alive during the Great Depression by providing free food.
During World War II, Bergstein stormed the beaches of Normandy during the D-Day Invasion, though he seldom spoke about it.
June once said she thought her husband’s energy may also be attributable to surviving the horrors of that experience.
What energy he had. The stories of Bergstein’s tireless work ethic are endless.
It was in 1930 that he first saw harness racing at the Schuylkill Country Fair in Pennsylvania. In 1946, after graduating from Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, Bergstein took his first harness racing job as the race caller at Maywood Park in Chicago. It was a love affair that lasted 65 years.
In 1948, he began writing a harness racing column for the Daily Racing Form. That same year, he was hired as the announcer for the famed Harlem Globetrotters basketball team. He kept that job for five years.
In 1957, Bergstein invented claiming races at Sportsman’s Park. Four years later, the same year he called the first of two Little Brown Jugs, Bergstein joined the HTA. When he started, the HTA had 17 member tracks. Bergstein raised the membership to as high as 50 tracks at the association’s peak.
In 1962, Bergstein called the first of 17 consecutive Hambletonians. In 1965, he invented the 3-year-old experimental rankings, a list he compiled every year until his death.
In 1968, Bergstein was named the Vice-President of Publicity and PR at the United States Trotting Association and soon after became editor of Hoof Beats, a magazine he converted into a full-color, feature publication.
In 1970, Bergstein started the World Driving Championship.
Four years later, he began a 12-and-a-half year run as co-host of twice weekly New York OTB television show Racing from Roosevelt and Yonkers on superstation WOR-TV.
“It was probably my happiest years. All my life’s been happy with harness racing, but they were years of accomplishment, they were years of ego satisfaction. The show was on a major station at a very good time,” Bergstein once said.
For the first seven-and-a-half years of the show, Bergstein commuted from his HTA base in Chicago to Manhattan to do the show.
In 1982, around the time he moved the HTA’s offices from Chicago to New Jersey, Bergstein started the HTA’s Caretaker of the Year Award based on an idea by Delvin Miller.
In 1994, he moved the HTA’s office from New Jersey to Arizona. A year later, he organized the first Harness Racing Congress. In 1999, he launched the Little League of Harness Racing at Hoosier Park.
But of all his accomplishment, he was most proud of the people he mentored at HTA. He called his assistants his alumni association and once said a fitting epitaph would simply be to include all the names of those who worked for him on his tombstone.
The Bergstein Alumni Association includes:
• Tom Aldrich (President and Chief Operating Officer of Northfield Park)
• Tom Aronson (Executive in Residence at the Univ. of Louisville Equine Industry Program and former Vice-President of Churchill Downs)
• Chris Castens (Executive Director of the New Jersey Sire Stakes Program)
• Tammy Gantt (Director of Promotion and Special Events Calder Casino and Race Course)
• Ray Gomez (former pari-mutuel Comptroller, Hawthorne Race Course)
• Charlie Leehrsen (author and former Executive Editor of Sports Illustrated)
• Chris McErlean (Vice-President of Racing at Penn National Gaming)
• Greg Magreta (former General Manager of Hazel Park)
• Jim Mango (Chief Operating Officer of Buffalo Raceway)
• Sylvia Scott (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration)
• Wade Turner (formerly with the Television Games Network)
• Maury Wolff (former racing economist)
• Steve May (VP and Business Manager, ARCI)
• Brody Johnson (deceased)
• Paul Estok (Executive Vice-President and General Counsel, Harness Tracks of America)
The awards and honors continued right to the end of Bergstein’s life. The HTA’s highest honor, the Messenger Award, was renamed the Stanley F. Bergstein-Messenger Award in 1998.
In 2006, Bergstein received the American Horse Publications Equine Industry Vision Award. In March of 2011, the United States Harness Writers Association announced it would honor Bergstein at the 2012 Dan Patch Awards banquet.
“He is the most fair and decent person that I have ever worked with in my entire career,” said his former broadcast partner Dave Johnson in 1999. “He is the most professional person that I’ve ever worked with. He’s a professional in more than one industry. He is a great writer. He is a great broadcaster. He is a superb producer. He is a superb administrator. What is amazing about him, a man for all seasons, is he does everything at the highest professional level.”
At the time of his death, Bergstein was on the board of the Racing Medication and Testing Consortium, was a trustee of the Harness Racing Museum and Hall of Fame and wrote regular columns for the Daily Racing Form, Hoof Beats, Gaming Today and The Canadian Sportsman.
Bergstein was inducted into the U.S. Harness Racing Communicators’ Hall of Fame in 1986 and its Living Hall of Fame in 1987.
“What is inspiring about him,” Aldrich said in 1999, “is he seems to never lose the zest for his job and its importance. I can’t imagine what harness racing in this continent would have been like without him.”