Friday, April 18, 2014

Katie Mancini-Wales, Veterinary Assistant

In a couple of weeks, 28-year-old Tampa Bay Downs jockey Gary Wales and his wife Katie will pack their belongings – including their cats, Bella and Fig – into his-and-hers Hyundais for the 1,350-mile drive to Boston for the Suffolk Downs meeting, which starts on Kentucky Derby day, May 3. While Gary seeks to improve on last summer’s sixth-place finish in the Suffolk standings, Katie will transition from working on the Tampa Bay Downs backstretch for private veterinarian Dr. Richard Gold to training a small string of Thoroughbreds. On their journey, both will have time to reflect on the afternoon of Aug. 3, when Gary’s bid to be leading jockey at Suffolk came to a screeching halt in a devastating spill that resulted in a fractured L2 vertebra – one of five lumbar vertebrae in the spinal column – and six weeks of inactivity. It was the first major injury for the native of Edinburgh, Scotland, since they got married in March of 2010. Katie was watching the race at home online when Gary’s mount broke down and crashed through the inside rail, pitching him to the ground. “The worst thing was walking into the emergency room and seeing him still on the backboard getting X-rays – I could see the pain on his face,” Katie recalls. “It’s an image that doesn’t totally go away, but if I dwelled on it, I’d go crazy every time I watch a race.” A 29-year-old graduate of the State University of New York Cobleskill equine management program, Katie accepts the risks because racing is what makes Gary whole. “I would feel guilty for the rest of my life if I ever told him he had to stop because of me,” she says. “I know how much he loves it. He lives to ride.” Gary has made a positive impression in his debut season at the Oldsmar oval; he is among the top-20 jockeys with 12 victories entering the April 18 card. In this installment of “Racing In The Sunshine,” Katie talks about the joys and personal challenges of being a jockey’s wife, as well as her own burgeoning training career.

AS A JOCKEY’S WIFE, YOU PANIC AT FIRST WHEN YOU SEE YOUR HUSBAND GO DOWN on a horse. I knew the one last summer wasn’t one of those where everybody gets up and laughs and is fine. As soon as Gary could feel his legs, he gave my telephone number to a member of the gate crew, and at that point I at least knew he was conscious and going to the hospital. One of the track executives, Sam Elliott, picked me up and drove me to the emergency room, which was nice because I didn’t need to be navigating traffic in downtown Boston in a state of high anxiety.

ONE OF THE FIRST THINGS GARY TOLD ME WHEN I GOT THERE was that he was going to quit riding. I told him that wasn’t the time to think about it, that lying in a hospital bed wasn’t the time or place to make that decision. I know how much Gary loves horses and loves racing. He has always said it is like an addiction. It’s in his blood. For the most part, I can enjoy watching his races and not really think about the danger. But it is always a comfort when he crosses the wire.

WE MET ABOUT SIX YEARS AGO WHEN I WAS WORKING for Kip Elser, a major pinhooker, in Camden, S.C., and Gary had started exercising horses there. Something definitely clicked, but it was hard for Gary to ask me out because I’m very shy and he picked up on that right away. I was running a shedrow by myself with about 50 horses and Kip wanted to reward me for doing a good job, so one day he lent me his credit card and suggested I show Gary around town. By the end of that day, though, I was totally exhausted, so I went to Gary’s apartment, gave him Kip’s card and said ‘Go out and have fun.’ I thought I might have blown it, but a couple of weeks later, Gary asked me to a movie, and the rest is history. We went to Colonial Downs that summer when he had his apprentice allowance, and we’ve been together ever since.

I DIDN’T GROW UP AROUND HORSES, BUT I REMEMBER WATCHING THE KENTUCKY DERBY when I was 7 or 8 and being fascinated. I started taking riding lessons when I was 12, and that’s when I decided I wanted to do something with horses. During the summer on weekends, my parents took me to Saratoga, which was about two hours from our home in North Adams, Mass. I kept getting drawn in and my parents encouraged me, even though they had no horse background. I went to equine college, got an internship working for Mr. Elser and stayed on as an employee.

I GOT MY TRAINER’S LICENSE TWO YEARS AGO, BUT I DIDN’T START TRAINING until last year at Suffolk. I had only one horse, a (then)-5-year-old mare named Thereisgoldahead. They have a rule that if you’re married to a jockey, you have to ride him on your horse, but Gary was injured until her fifth start so I used someone else. Gary finished fourth on her the first time he finally got a chance to ride her, and the next time, on Oct. 15, I led them into the winner’s circle after they won a two-turn allowance on the turf by six-and-a-half lengths. I had so many emotions swirling inside me -- proud, relieved, ecstatic, happy for my husband and the horse. I’m not sure how I held on to the halter. I sold Thereisgoldahead to a nice home at the end of the meeting, and she is being spoiled rotten.

WORKING AS ONE OF DR. GOLD’S ASSISTANTS HAS TAUGHT ME A LOT of things to take back into my training. We keep quite a pace – on race days, he might see 30 horses that are entered that day in the morning and another 20 that are entered the following day in the afternoon. I help with the record-keeping, jogging horses for lameness exams and holding horses when he scopes them. It has been a tremendous learning experience and I’ve met so many different people who are a credit to the sport. Horse racing receives a lot of negative publicity, but most of the people I’ve met are good-hearted horsemen trying to do the right things for their horses.

I CAN’T ALWAYS WATCH GARY’S RACES WHEN I’M WORKING WITH DR. GOLD, but in Boston I’ll get to see them all. I’d rather watch him on TVG or the computer, though, than be at the track. I enjoy going to the races, but you might run into someone who loses a bet and starts cursing the jockey. Then you’re thinking ‘Hey, buddy, watch it. That’s my husband.’ So sometimes it’s better just to watch from home.

WHEN IT COMES TO GARY’S CAREER, I TRY TO BE AS SUPPORTIVE AND UNDERSTANDING as I can. Being a jockey is a stressful job – not just riding 1,000-pound animals with minds of their own, but all that jockeys have to go through dealing with owners and trainers. A jockey can get all the praise one day, then he’s the first person everyone blames for a loss the next. So if he comes home and needs to vent about a situation that didn’t turn out for the best, I want to be there for him. Gary is not going to be intimidated by another rider, and he knows how to converse with trainers, but there are certain things he is only going to discuss with me.

IN DEALING WITH HORSES, I PROBABLY BECOME TOO ATTACHED. I get to know them inside and out, their personalities, and I fall in love with all of them. If you are willing to learn, every horse will teach you something. How to handle them; how to treat a leg; taking them to the paddock a different way so that they’re quieter and calmer.  Every horse is an individual, and you learn to respect that and admire it. Building that relationship is my favorite part of working with them. You know you’re not going to have that horse forever, but the time you have with them can be pretty special.

THIS IS OUR FIRST WINTER AT TAMPA BAY DOWNS, AND WE ARE LOOKING FORWARD to coming back. Everything is run very professionally, the gate crew and the track maintenance staff do a great job and you always see good-sized crowds here. We’ve enjoyed the area, too. We are both beachgoers, and Gary likes to play golf on off-days. We don’t spend a lot of time at the end of the day rehashing races. There are always little funny stories to tell, but we don’t want to make the racetrack our whole life. Tomorrow will get here soon enough.

WE MOVE AROUND A LOT AND WE’VE BEEN THROUGH SOME TOUGH TIMES, but Gary is always the person I can count on and the person I can talk to. Even if I don’t come out and say something, he understands what I’m thinking and how I feel about a situation. He is the one in the spotlight, but he respects the fact I want a career in this industry, too. I think we are each other’s most important support system. More than anything, I know he is my best friend.

I HAVE A DREAM – I SHOULD CALL IT A GOAL – of being able to buy a house and settle in one place and raise a family. You always take those kind of things for granted growing up, but this sport isn’t always like that. You have to go where the action is. We were fortunate that our landlord in Boston let us keep our furniture there this winter, so we don’t have as much to pack. Gary has done a good job saving money, and there really isn’t anything we need that we don’t have. I know that once we get more established, even more good things will come into our lives.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Patrick Murphy, Director of Poker Operations

 When Patrick Murphy arrived in Florida 20 years ago to work in a new card room at the Seminole Indians Casino in Tampa, few observers could have predicted the explosion of the interest in poker, especially among college-age men and young professionals. Within the next few years, however – as ESPN expanded its coverage of events such as the World Series of Poker, showing the players’ hole cards and focusing on the personalities and strategies – ratings skyrocketed. Murphy, a 39-year-old Massachusetts native who also worked on the popular “cruise ships to nowhere” and training new dealers, had returned to the New England area for a couple of years to work in corporate restaurant management, but in 2005 he knew the time was ripe to return to Florida. After working as a manager in the room, less than two years later, he was promoted by Tampa Bay Downs as its Director of Poker Operations; since then, he has overseen the development and growth of The Silks Poker Room into arguably the area’s most opulent, competitive and player-friendly destination. With 23 tables located on the third floor of the racetrack, Silks – open daily from 10 a.m.-4 a.m. – provides such games as Seven-Card Stud, Hi-Lo and Texas Hold’em, along with a diverse dining menu that makes it easier to lose with three of a kind to an inside straight. In addition to tableside dining and cocktails, Silks offers more than 50 plasma televisions, a 120-inch big-screen TV, a private high-limit room and relaxing tableside massages by specialists from Amenity Pro. Players throughout the area have responded to the room’s daily and tournament offerings, and a recent promotion culminated with the giveaway of a 2014 Toyota Corolla S Plus CVT to a lucky patron. “It’s all about customer service,” Murphy says of The Silks Poker Room’s runaway success. “All the poker rooms in the state have the exact same product, so what do you do to keep people coming back?” Certainly, horsemen at Tampa Bay Downs have faith in what Murphy is doing; about $1.2 million in purse money this season was funded through poker-room activity, helping them sustain a foothold in an ever-evolving economic climate. The Silks Poker Room’s burgeoning success is a source of professional and personal fulfillment for Murphy, who lives in nearby Land O’ Lakes with his wife Cheri, their sons Kolin, 8, and John, 6, and daughter Erin, 3. In this latest installment of Tampa Bay Downs’ “Racing In The Sunshine” profile series, Murphy took time to reflect on the integration of top-level poker into a Thoroughbred racetrack that opened in 1926.

WHEN I STARTED DEALING AT SEMINOLE IN THE MID-1990S, there was a running joke that high-stakes poker would arrive in Florida in two weeks. It was a long two weeks, but the potential was always there. If you wanted to play poker then, your choices basically were Las Vegas and a few card rooms in California and Mississippi. It started off in Florida as penny-ante games with 25 and 50-cent betting where the pots could not exceed $10, but over time the industry found loopholes to run tournaments, and gradually the restrictions were taken away to allow larger buy-ins and no-limit games. Most poker lovers could see the writing on the wall, even if it took longer than two weeks. Florida has always been a great vacation destination, and now poker players can get sun, fun and gambling while they’re here.

WE DO EVERYTHING WE CAN TO MAKE IT AS ATTRACTIVE AS WE CAN to get people to keep coming back. From building a poker room with a finish-line view of the racetrack, to the feel of the room, to our dining menu, everything is geared toward our customers. We’ve always prided ourselves on having the best dealers in the area. The No. 1 quality they must have is friendliness. It can be intimidating to sit down at a table to gamble for the first time, so our dealers walk them through the steps as they go to make them feel comfortable. No one wants to come back if they feel they’re out of their element or can’t adapt to that kind of game.

ONE OF THE THINGS I ENJOY MOST ABOUT MY JOB IS THE RELATIONSHIPS I’ve made with our customers. When we have a promotion like last weekend – with the car giveaway and cash giveaways every half-hour – and the room is packed and there are huge waiting lists to get a table, you know it’s succeeding. Seeing the hustle and bustle of the players, and knowing that the staff and company are making money – it is very rewarding.

I CAN DEFINITELY SEE THE POTENTIAL FOR TAMPA BAY DOWNS TO BECOME A RESORT DESTINATION equal to anything in the state of Florida. Obviously, there are horse racing fans who have never stepped foot in Silks, and there are poker players not too interested in racing. And there are customers who only come here to drive and practice at The Downs Golf Practice Facility. But, come on – being able to watch a few races, play poker, grab something to eat and channel your inner Phil Mickelson? There are not many places where you can do all that in one day. I think there has been a misconception that this is a different business, but we are all part of the whole Tampa Bay Downs.

IN SILKS, YOU CAN FIND A GAME FOR A $40 BUY-IN AND ONE FOR $1,000 or higher. So the novice tables, so to speak, are those on the smaller side, which people can use as a stepping stone to the next level. They don’t have to be a stepping stone; some of our recreational players are happy to play at those levels on a regular basis. We expanded last July by adding Players Poker Championship (PPC) Tour events, which enable players to qualify for the PPC World Championship in Aruba. We’ll be holding the PPC North American Championship here in July; the buy-in for the main event will be $580, with guaranteed prize money of more than $300,000 and four $5,000 Aruba packages at stake.

WHAT’S IT TAKE TO BE A SUCCESSFUL PLAYER? FIRST AND FOREMOST, it’s patience, because the cards aren’t always going to go your way. Even though luck plays a role, though, you have to put the time in to win consistently. That means studying the game and staying in the loop as far as what’s going on in the industry. I’ve never been one for reading a lot of “how-to” books, but I know there are a lot of people who do. Experience is a big factor; the more hands you play, the better you get. There are a lot of young kids who are seeing five or six games at a time on the Internet, so they see many more scenarios than the average person who sits down at a table and is playing maybe 30 hands in an hour.

FOR A WHILE, THAT’S WHAT I DID FOR A LIVING – PLAY POKER part-time and deal part-time. I was pretty decent, but obviously your priorities flip when you have kids. Just like someone who plays horses for a living, it’s hard to achieve any long-term success, unless you get real lucky and make a six-figure score in a tournament and are smart enough not to gamble it all back. But I know people who travel here to play and make their living in our room. We have some really aggressive games, and there are guys who sit down and don’t blink at playing for $30-$40,000.

FROM THE BEGINNING, WE KNEW THE BEST WAY TO DRAW PEOPLE AND RETAIN BUSINESS was to make sure our staff is the best it can be and make the building and our amenities stand out. The tableside massage services are very popular, and we have staff trained to accept wagers on the horses. I know it’s a cliché, but you are only as strong as your weakest link, and all of our employees have their role in making the operation a success. I am proud of all of them – the managers, tournament directors, cashiers, floor staff and members of the cleaning crew.

WE PROMOTE A LOT OF CHARITY AND FUND-RAISING EVENTS, and I’m always looking for new ways to increase our community involvement. In the past couple of years, we’ve held events for Ronald McDonald House, Support our Troops, Shriners and various youth sports organizations. If we can promote our business and give back at the same time, it’s a win-win for everyone. 

THERE HAS ALWAYS BEEN TALK IN FLORIDA OF ADDING TABLE GAMES AND/OR SLOT MACHINES, and I’m open to all of it, because you know you’re giving more people what they want. We definitely have an eclectic mix of players, from ages 18-90, with about 10-15 percent of poker players being women. So I would expect things such as slot machines, blackjack and roulette wheels would give all of our customers attractive options they currently lack.

MY MAJOR SOURCE OF RECREATION IS FOLLOWING THE RED SOX AND THE PATRIOTS. My wife, Cheri, goes crazy every year because I try to go to as many games as I can. I always say the Sox are going to win the World Series, and you have to admit, three of the last 10 isn’t half-bad. I spend a lot of time with the kids, and we just got them a new puppy. We’re building a screened-in pool, because I want our house to be that neighborhood place where everyone hangs out. Whether it is after school or summertime, they can spend all their time there.