The Parx Racing Hall of Fame Class of 2018 inductees is the most eclectic yet. It includes a former governor who was critical in getting expanded gaming enacted in Pennsylvania in 2004, a veterinarian who saved Smarty Jones’s racing career in 2003, a horseman who has done just about everything in Pennsylvania racing, a trainer who left Cuba by boat in 1980 and has now won 1,000 races, and a Pennsylvania-Bred horse with 22 lifetime wins who was nearly unbeatable when he ran at Parx.
Former Pennsylvania Governor Edward G. Rendell could not make the Sept. 15 induction ceremony at Parx, but the day before, he said that he “was very honored”.
“One of the many reasons I got behind expanded gaming is because the horse racing industry is such a great job producer in the Commonwealth,” the governor said.
Steve Crawford, who was the governor’s chief of staff, accepted the Hall of Fame plaque for Rendell.
“The governor is a big racing fan,” Crawford said. “He was very instrumental in making sure the live racing is healthy and doing very well in Pennsylvania in 2018.”
It was the summer of 2004 when the Pennsylvania Race Horse Development and Gaming Act was signed into law.
“I remember the thrill of actually getting it passed and the fact that we were not only able to combine property tax relief for the citizens of Pennsylvania, but also to protect the agricultural interests and the trainers and the jockeys and the groomsman and all the people that work on the backside,” Crawford said. “That’s what this is for.”
Back in 2004, Governor Rendell cited Smarty Jones’s run to the brink of the Triple Crown as a major impetus in getting the slots bill, a.k.a. Act 71, passed. Crawford agreed.
“Smarty Jones could be credited for getting slots passed in Pennsylvania because of the way that he captured the imagination of not only Southeastern Pennsylvania, but all of Pennsylvania, if not America,” Crawford said. “It was really a heartwarming story.”
Without Dr. Patricia Hogan, the Smarty Jones story may never have begun. After Smarty banged his head on the starting gate in a freak accident during his early training at Parx, it was her treatment of Smarty’s badly swollen head and eye in the summer of 2003 that gave him a chance to run that fall and into 2004.
“Smarty Jones, he’s my first love,” Dr. Hogan said. “He was the neatest horse. The injury, of course, was very dramatic… Such a memorable animal. He really put me on the map for my career, just a fairy tale sort of ride that I had with the Chapmans, John Servis and that horse. It’s just something I’ll never forget, one of the best memories of my life.”
Dr. Hogan has also been very instrumental in Parx’s decade-old racehorse retirement program, the PTHA’s Turning for Home, Inc.
“When I started my career, it was really a bunch of ladies having bake sales, trying to save some of these horses off the track and to see where it’s come,” Hogan said. “This was on my bucket list for my life. Aftercare is in the national conversation now and it should be.”
Another inductee, Russell B. Jones, Jr., has literally done everything in Pennsylvania racing. Everybody in the business knows him.
His reaction when told he had been elected?
“Surprise…I was pleased and I was wondering what was in the minds of those that put me in there,” Jones said.
It was actually an easy call.
“I’ve been a breeder in the state, for, it must be 40 some years,” said Jones, who also sits on the Pennsylvania State Horse Racing Commission. “I was the head of the (Pennsylvania Horse Breeders Association) at one point. I was on a prior racing commission. My brother and I ran what was the biggest consignment agency (Walnut Green) outside the state of Kentucky. Now, I’m retired and that has to be the biggest chapter of all.”
It is kind of a ‘faux’ retirement in which he also finds time to advise his good friend Phyllis Wyeth on matters involving her hot young sire Union Rags, winner of the 2012 Belmont Stakes.
“It’s been thrilling; it’s been a lifetime experience,” Jones said. “Great horse, great lady, may it last.”
This year’s Trainer inductee, Richie Vega, was just a teenager in 1980 when he boarded a boat in his native Cuba that was on a journey to Key West. Any Cuban who wanted to leave was free to immigrate to the United States during what was termed the Mariel Boat Lift. Vega was one of 125,000 who took up the offer.
After a harrowing trip across the sea, he eventually made his way to a refugee camp in Fort Indiantown Gap, very close to Penn National. He saw the lights and heard the noise. He followed both to the track.
“We used to escape from the army base,” Vega said. “We were just kids and wanted to have fun. We were just so glad we were in a country like this.”
Vega worked his way to what was then called Keystone Racetrack in 1984 and never left.
“I could not imagine any of this, not at all, but you get here, you work and you make things possible for you and your family and I’ve got a lot of family,” Vega said.
He also has more than 1,000 winners since becoming a trainer in 1994. His horses have won more than $17 million.
This year’s final inductee was none other than the superstar PA-Bred gelding, Page McKenney, who won 22 races from 58 starts and $1.9 million. It took him 13 starts to win his first race, but once he started winning, the horse, who was born at Northview Farm, never stopped winning.
“He was always different from every other foal we’ve had,” said his breeder and part-owner Dr. James Bryant. “He was very curious and forward and smart… Plus, he was built like a tank. We kind of had good feelings, but who knew?”
Seeing Page McKenney run for the wire was enthralling for everyone, fans included.
“Watching him come down the stretch, head down and ears back, just pure grit and determination, man I’m going to miss it,” Bryant said.
Anybody who saw Page McKenney will miss seeing him run too, a unique horse that was based in Maryland, but was very much a part of Pennsylvania and very much at home when racing right here at Parx.