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Monday, December 6, 2010

Q & A With Heather Vitale

Today we are fortunate to be interviewing Heather Vitale, one of the most recognized commentators and broadcasters in harness racing today.  At the present time, Heather is the producer and reporter for Post Time and shares co-hosting duties with Steve Ross at PA Harness Week, perhaps being the most recognizable person in harness racing in the DelMarva area.

VFTRG: Heather, for those who don’t know, you are a third generation horse person. Would you let everyone know how you got involved with racing? .

HV:  My grandparents – Elmer and Helen Looney – bought a free-legged pacer named Reggy Scott for $350 (their entire savings). My mom, Jo Ann Looney-King, also came to love the sport and was the first woman ever to win at The Meadowlands. She doesn’t drive anymore, but she’s still active in the barn and she still owns several horses today. My step-dad, Jim King Jr., trains a stable full of horses and drives, as well. My sister, Susan Looney, was the first woman to win a race at Garden State Park. Kudos to my Girl Power family, but if you’re wondering, no I have never driven and I have no plans to. I have a hard enough time controlling my 36 pound child. Therefore, going 30 mph behind a 1,000 pound animal is not something that I yearn to do!

VFTRG:  Did you spend much time around the barn when you were a child?

HV:  I had little to zero interest when I was younger. In fact, on Saturdays I would stay home and clean the house instead of going to the barn. Well, that is, until I turned about 12. That’s when I fell in love with a horse named Spots N Dots. And as they say - they rest was history. I loved that horse so much that when he was claimed at Liberty Bell, my grandfather went out and bought a horse that looked like him so I wouldn’t get upset.

VFTRG: You have two children (Wyatt and Trey). Does either of them show any interest in harness racing? Do you think your children will be fourth generation horse persons?

HV:  When people comment about Wyatt & Trey being a “leading driver/trainer” I always say, “Actually, I was planning on one of them finding a cure for cancer and the other one solving world hunger.” However, I will feed whatever dreams they have. Right now, it looks like Wyatt is going to be an actor and Trey is going to be in the music business. They can both be very dramatic. I just can’t imagine where they got it from?!

VFTRG:  You work for the Delaware Standardbred Owners Association (DSOA). What are you duties for the DSOA?

HV:  Mainly, I just do what I can to promote the sport. Firstly, I produce the TV show “Post Time”, but in addition if there is a booth to be set up or a classroom to visit – I’m there. I also am the Mistress of Ceremonies for the DSOA Awards Ceremony every year – putting together the Awards video for year end honors in Delaware.

VFTRG:  Did you always want to get involved in journalism and television? What made you want to get involved with television and writing? Was it always your goal to be involved in harness racing with regards to writing and television?

HV:  I graduated from Monmouth University with a degree in Communications. My major was Public Relations and my minor was Journalism. I never thought I would be on television but I’ll explain below how that all evolved….

VFTRG:  Did you have any broadcasting idol you looked up to or wanted to be like when you first started?

HV:  My mom happened to be one of the very first co-hosts of Racing from The Meadowlands. I remember riding up to the races with her and my step-dad and she would be going over her lines in the car and the different ways she would describe particular horses. Now, I do the exact same thing – memorizing my lines, bouncing ideas off of people who I travel with. And my step-dad has remained the perfect person to help me out – just like he did with my mom. I often call him to ask, “Hey, what do you think about this idea?” or “Is this a good person to interview?” or “Do you think that would be a race that would be worth showing?”

Heather Vitale getting ready for another Post Time segment.
VFTRG:  Have you received any racing-related awards for your shows or writing?

HV:  In 2001, I won First Place from the United States Harness Writers Association’s for Broadcasting Excellence Award for Television Program.  In 2004, I won the Clyde Hirt Memorial Media Award.

VFTRG:  You used to write for The Fair and Horseman. Do you still write for any racing publications? Do you write for any non-racing publications?

HV:  I recently wrote a story about myself for Hoof Beats and they titled it – HEATHER’S WORLD! I absolutely loved that! But other than that, I really haven’t done a lot of writing lately. I did enjoy writing for Horseman and Fair World, however, I found myself with just too much on my plate and had to give something up. And, honestly, I am a better writer when it comes to television than when it comes to being an actual journalist. Ha Ha. That’s so funny since that was my minor in college!!!

VFTRG:  You’ve worked at numerous harness tracks (Chester Downs, Dover Downs, Freehold Raceway, Garden State Park, Harrington Raceway, Meadowlands, Ocean Downs, Pocono Downs, and Rosecroft Raceway). What were your duties at each of these tracks?

HV:  After my internship at The Meadowlands (working under Ellen Harvey), I was hired by Bill Fidati at Garden State Park. Bill is probably one of the most amazing and wonderful all-around people the world will ever see. I just helped out in the publicity office answering phones and Bill let me write press releases and helped so much with my writing skills.

From there, Steve Wolf and Dennis Dowd hired me at Freehold Raceway and I was the Assistant Publicity Director. Steve was soooooo much fun to work for. I loved being in that office!

Then, Dennis moved from Freehold to Rosecroft and he was looking for a girl to do the on-air handicapping for the races. So, I packed up and moved to Maryland and did that job along with working with Jerry Connors in the publicity office. I was only at Rosecroft for a year and it was one of the most fun and crazy time of my life! I could write a book about my year at Rosecroft. On a personal note, I met friends who forever changed my life – people I am still close to today.

While I was at Rosecroft, I heard about the American Championship Harness Racing Series that was being developed for ESPN2 and I really wanted to be a part of it. So I sent a tape in. I got a phone call one night and the person doing the hiring told me, “I watched your tape. I was waiting for something interesting to happen and it never did.” BUT he went on to say, “Put something else together and send it in.” I thought, “Yes! They liked me enough to give me another shot.” So, I put together a comedy skit where I pretended to go through the drivers’ lockers and find funny things in them. Before I knew it, I was on ESPN2 doing a segment called “Heathercapping”.

I moved to Los Angeles to work at Hollywood Park – that story is below.

After Hollywood Park, I moved home to Delaware and I had the chance to work at Colonial Downs, The Meadows or help develop a harness racing show right here in Delaware. I was happy to be with my Mommy (yes, I still call her Mommy) and it felt “right” to be here in Delaware – so I got hired by the Delaware Standardbred Owners Association and “Post Time” was born!

By the way, Roger Huston still teases me that the only reason I didn’t got to The Meadows to work was because I didn’t want to share the spotlight with him. Hee hee!

(I don’t really work at Harrington and Dover. I mean, I don’t have an office there or anything like that. It’s more that I cover the racing and feature those tracks on my Delmarva show and those tracks, along with Ocean Downs, sponsor Post Time.)

Getting ready with PA HarnessWeek co-host Steve Ross

With PA Harness Week, I am basically a co-host with Steve Ross. I do have some creative license and I help out my producer Bruce Casella with some of the story ideas but for the most part I am the on-air talent – which makes me perfectly happy! I love co-hosting the show with Steve we have an absolute ball together.

What’s next??? Stay tuned!

VFTRG:  How did a harness horseperson get a job at Hollywood Park working with the thoroughbreds (what was your job there)? Was it easier or harder to work with the thoroughbreds when compared to the standardbreds?

HV:  I got the job at Hollywood Park, because Sue Finley (Bill Finley’s wife) was my boss at the American Championship Harness Series. She had a friend, Tony Allevato, who was head of the TV Department there and somehow she talked him into hiring me! I loved my job there, but I think it’s the one job that looking back I feel like I could have done better. Tony, who I believe works now at TVG, was really smart and was a great teacher, but I should have been a better student. The problem was that I was a twenty-something living in Los Angeles so sleeping wasn’t exactly a priority for me. Being there was on of the best experiences of my life, I just wish I would have worked harder and absorbed more. As far as Standardbreds vs Thoroughbreds – I thought I adjusted pretty well. I didn’t analyze races – I looked for human interest. So the breed doesn’t really make a big difference - a good story is a good story.

VFTRG:  You currently host the Post Time show which focuses harness racing in the Delmarva area (Dover Downs, Harrington, and Ocean Downs) and are a co-host of PA HarnessWeek which features harness racing in Eastern Pennsylvania (Harrah’s Chester Downs and Mohegan Sun at Pocono Downs). The shows are quite different in style. Post Time seems to be more feature-oriented while PA HarnessWeek is more race-oriented. How would you describe the two shows?

HV:  The centerpieces of Post Time are the interviews. In the half-hour I only show three, maybe four, races. I like asking questions. I like being nosey. I like getting off the subject. I like telling personal stories and making the horsemen and women react to them. It’s a bit of a Heatherpalooza. I pretty much do what I want! (BIG THANKS TO MY BOSSES FOR LETTING ME BE ME!) The good thing about that is the fans see that I am being genuine and they see my enthusiasm and my love for racing. I like to think that Post Time is elementary enough for the novice fan to enjoy it, but has enough fun and behind the scenes and insight for the more experienced Standardbred fan to keep watching as well. Post Time has the highest rating for it’s time slot. I can honestly say that everyday – whether it’s at the grocery, the gas station, a restaurant – someone recognizes me from the show.

A Post Time segment with Heather interviewing driver/trainer Riina Rekila.

PA Harness Week shows many more races and stretch drives. We also feature a Blast from the Past, News of the Week, a handicapping segment and stakes races from around the county. There are features and quick interviews, but for the most part it covers the great races that happen at Harrah’s Chester and Mohegan Sun at Pocono Downs. Even with all the racing, I think a sports fan would enjoy it because it’s very fast-paced and there are a lot of different little segments in that one half-hour. In the first two seasons, the show received some of the highest regional Nielson ratings for its programming type and as the third season nears its end it doesn’t seem to have slowed down. Also, the Harness Week’s You Tube channel just passes 50,000 total video views.

A PA HarnessWeek segment with Heather reviewing some of races of the week.

VFTRG: How many years have you been hosting Post Time and co-hosting PA HarnessWeek?

HV:  Post Time started in July of 1998 – we’ve done over 640 shows. Wow! That’s crazy to see that number in black and white!   PA Harness Week – I just finished my second full season with them.

VFTRG:  Management at Tioga Downs and Vernon Downs recently introduced their own local television show featuring racing at their tracks. With all the various entertainment options available is it essential for racetracks to have their own racing show?

HV:  I think so. But if a track doesn’t have the funds to produce and air a television show, I think that it’s important to at least have a You Tube channel.

Both Post Time and PA Harness Week have their own You Tube channels. However, you don’t need a tv show to have a You Tube channel. Each track should be able to have someone shooting cool racing footage, behind-the-scenes stuff and personality profiles and load it up on the internet.

VFTRG:  The Delaware Standardbred Owners Association (DSOA) underwrites Post Time and the Pennsylvania Harness Horseman Association (PHHA) in conjunction with Harrah’s and Mohegan Sun produce PA HarnessWeek. Obviously horsemen in these two states are investing some of their slot revenue to produce a show to attract new customers. Conspicuously absent from the airwaves is a television show highlighting racing at Yonkers; are they making a mistake by not having a show?

HV:  Rumor has it that they are working on a show. I wonder if they are looking for a bubbly female to help co-host it? To whom it may concern – you can find me on Face Book!

VFTRG:  In addition to hosting Post Time, you produce the show. What is involved with producing the show? How much time a week do you spend working on Post Time?

HV:  It’s a full-time job – I just don’t really know what full-time means at this point. LOL I don’t have a set schedule each day. I am constantly planning and making phone calls and emails, etc. getting things together for up coming episodes. I pick out and order the races on the show – type up graphic pages for my editor – write scripts – do the on camera stuff – pick out shots – oversee the editing…..but I don’t work a 9-5. Who does in this business? I get up at 5:30 every morning, because I love the mornings and that’s my best time to think. Plus, I am only able to get any real productive work done when my boys are still sleeping or at school. So, again, I might be editing a show at 10:30 at night when the house is quiet. I’m so blessed that the DSOA is fine with me doing much of my work out of my house – writing, phone calls, faxes, etc. I have a home office that’s painted pink and has Hello Kitty décor all around. My office is a real happy place for me.

VFTRG:  This year, PA HarnessWeek had special Breeders Crown editions on MAV-TV?  What was it like to be broadcasting from Pocono Downs on harness racing's day to shine?

HV:  Doing the two-hour live MAV show was such a great opportunity for me. I have not done a lot of live television and you can only get better at a skill, if you’re given a chance to practice it. Since it aired on MAV, we were able to really have fun with the show. I have heard nothing but positive comments about the show. I love big events and being part of the biggest night in harness racing was so special. I thought I was going to be nervous, but I was so busy that night that I didn’t have a chance to be! In a word - the night was just AMAZING!

VFTRG:  Watching some of your television shows, it is obvious some people take to interviewing better than others. Do you think all horsemen should be exposed to some type of media training?

HV:  NO! That would take the fun out of it (and the challenge) for me!

VFTRG: Who has been your favorite interview of all time?

HV:  My all-time favorite interview was with George Foreman. During the interview I thought, “OMG! I am interviewing George Foreman. I’m like the coolest person in the world right at this moment!!!”

But my favorite person to interview in the business is Ron Pierce. He picks on me and knows that my show is very easy going. I’ve scolded him on camera for having a wad of chew in this mouth during an interview, he gave me an entire lesson on Albino Deer, he commented once about me losing weight by saying, “Heather, it looks like your buttocks are getting smaller.”

VFTRG: What has been your weirdest interview?

HV:  I am sure I have walked away from a few interviews thinking, “Wow, that was AWKWARD!” But nothing is hitting me at the moment.

VFTRG:  Any memorable bloopers?

HV:  I mess up every time I shoot. Sometimes we keep it in the show because it adds to the entertainment value by being funny or it just shows that I’m human and make mistakes. Recently, I was interviewing Tim Crissman and drew a complete blank and had to run away to look at my notes in my bag and came back again to finish the interview and my camera man kept rolling and we added it to the credits. Often we put fun stuff in the credits and people seem to enjoy it.

VFTRG:  It seems most of your local horsemen are willing to come on Post Time. Have any of the local horsemen been unwilling to come on your show?

HV:  The last time I tried to interview Brian Sears he ran away from me – literally. So all I have is a shot of me running after him screaming and I used it on the show too! I haven’t asked him to be on the show since. However, I am a little faster now and I am pretty sure I can outrun him so this time I’ll be ready. For the most part, though, everyone knows the show and even if they seem hesitant at first, I can usually talk them into it. A little begging goes a long way.

VFTRG:  Who is the one person you want to interview who you have not been able to get on the show?

HV:  Madonna

VFTRG:  What is your favorite feature Post Time segment?

HV:  I don’t have a favorite segment, but a lot of people like “Heather On The Spot” That’s when I shoot a feature myself – I’m the narrator and the camera operator. It gives you the feeling of a home movie. However, if I had to pick one particular feature of all time it would be when I put a microphone on Vic Kirby and he talked during the race. He explained the moves he was making, why he was making them, what he thought about before the race, behind the gate. Vic did an exceptional job! And people still mention that one feature to me today and it was done a couple years ago.

VFTRG:  With the exception of The Meadowlands Replay show, there is no other harness racing show on TVG (excluding live races). Do you think harness racing needs to get more harness racing programming on racing channels such as TVG? What kind of show should it be?

HV:  I wish TVG did have more harness racing. I know they have a pretty big harness racing fan base. However, there’s not justification in spending more money putting a show together specifically for TVG when you’re just preaching to the choir. We need to hit the internet harder and local networks harder with harness racing programming to reach the fans who aren’t exposed to racing already.

Heather filming a commercial with driver Corey Callahan
for the local shelter.
VFTRG:  At Harrington Raceway, you are involved in an annual benefit with the local SPCA where the local shelter brings animals available for adoption and fans and horsemen are encouraged to bring pet food to the track. Do you find these types of events bringing new people to the track and building good will in the community?

HV:  Yes to both! And that’s not an educated guess. I know that community events like that bring new people and build good will in the community – I’ve seen it.

VFTRG:  Do you think most tracks and horsemen are doing enough to become a valuable member of the community? If not, why do you think tracks and horsemen neglect becoming a respected part of the community?

HV:  I’m sure that our local tracks want to do more in the community, but just don’t have the man power to do it. I find that the people who work in publicity and group sales, etc. already have a work load that is overflowing. I’m not quite sure that people realize how much responsibility is taken on by different departments at the racetracks.

The same with most horsemen and women…they are just plain busy. Putting together fundraisers for charities are time consuming. Many people don’t understand what’s involved in doing them.

With that being said, I have found that whenever I have approached a racetrack or the local horse racing community – everyone has been happy to donate or volunteer a few hours to help out with a charity.

Whether it’s a fund raiser I’ve put on for Horse Lovers United or Alex’s Lemonade Stand or like a fundraiser my BFF Janet Davis is overseeing for local families who are struggling during Christmas – both Harrington and Dover are more than happy to help out, as are all of our horsemen and women.

VFTRG:  Where do you see yourself in ten years from now? Do you have any goals?

HV:  Ten years from now…Wyatt will be 19 & Trey will be 13! That’s too weird for me to even think about! Let me figure out what I am wearing to the 2011 Hambletonian and then I’ll get back to you!

VFTRG:  In addition to your busy schedule, you have started competing in pageants, becoming Mrs. Harrington and competing in Mrs. Delaware. I understand one of the reasons you began competing was to raise the awareness of people with regards to Autism Awareness and Acceptance. Why this particular cause?

HV:  My son Wyatt was diagnosed as being on the Autism spectrum when he was just turning five. I wanted to be there for parents who had children with Autism (especially those who were newly diagnosed) - for them to be able to approach me with questions. And, to let those parents who did not understand Autism to just be more understanding of the epidemic. There have been a lot of tears and a lot of hours in therapies and a lot of late nights googling the word “Autism”. But thanks to my journey with Wyatt, I like to think that it has taught me to be a better mom and a better person.

VFTRG:  On the racing front, you work with Horse Lovers United. In what way are you involved with them?

HV:  I help out with fundraising. I put together a breeding auction, a couple basket raffles and an event called The Rickshaw Rumble, where we have horsemen and women pulling friends and family down the stretch of Harrington Raceway. It’s a big crowd pleaser. It’s both fun and funny. We are a small group, but like all horse retirement organizations it’s getting so difficult. More horses are coming into the program or BACK INTO the program who have already been adopted out, and less and less people are adopting. I think it’s my duty (and everyone who makes a buck in racing) to help find loving homes for these horses.

VFTRG: Do you own any retired standardbreds?

HV:  I don’t own any, but I have fostered a few here and there. Also, what I decided to do last year was enter a couple retired Standardbreds in the Delaware State Fair. I spent 10 days at the fair and showed two Standardbreds. I found a home for one of them , Wyatt And Me, who has become a trail horse and was in his first horse show a couple weeks ago. The other one, TSM Scarface, was being fostered by Dr. Michelle Egli. She taught him to canter and jump and she just found a forever home for him this week

VFTRG:  Thank you for your time.

HV: My pleasure

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