-By Dick Jerardi
John Hicks grew up right near Rockingham Park in Salem, New Hampshire. There was no chance he was not going to be in horse racing. His father started as groom, became a trainer and then a steward at the “Rock” among other tracks.
“I was around the racetrack my whole life,” Hicks said. “I followed in his footsteps.”
There really was no doubt.
“This was it,” Hicks said.
Hicks has memories from a time when the New England circuit was thriving with racing at Rockingham, Suffolk Downs (Boston), Green Mountain (Vermont) and the Massachusetts fair circuit.
“It was a lot of fun,” Hicks said of his early days on the track. “You got to go to the barn as a young kid back then, play with the goats and the horses. Messing around the backside was a little different back then. We behaved ourselves. Summers up there (at Rockingham) were like Saratoga. Summertime in New Hampshire, it was a lot of fun.”
Hicks has been a Parx steward since 2001 after working as a racing official in South Florida for 20 years.
He got his start like his dad, working on the backstretch.
“I worked for Vinnie Blengs walking horses in the summer,” Hicks said. “Worked my way down to South Florida and then worked my way up here.”
Hicks is employed by the Pennsylvania Horse Racing Commission after his long run in Florida.
“It was a little challenge being back in the northeast,” Hicks said. “You had to readjust to the weather, but the people are the same. You see the same people. Doesn’t matter where you are, Northeast, West Coast, South Florida. You always cross paths with somebody you know. It’s been a lot of fun being here, enjoyable.”
Being around the game as long as Hicks has, you have seen some really good horses. He specifically remembers Timely Writer, a New England star capable of winning big races anywhere and Royal Ski, owned by Boston Bruins goalie Gerry Cheevers.
He remembers not only the horses, but the feeling that was engendered just by hanging at the track.
“The summers were a blast, playing softball, hanging out at the lake,” Hicks said.
Sadly, the New England circuit is just a memory now.
Hicks not only worked at Gulfstream Park, Calder and Hialeah, he was also a state steward at Pompano Park, a harness track.
During his Florida run, Hicks saw all the great horses and trainers that would come down from New York every winter.
“All the big trainers, Woody Stephens, Billy Turner, all those guys were down there, you saw all those great horses all the time,” Hicks remembered. “We had a great time. Although you worked six days a week and you were there from 7 in the morning until 7 at night, but you had a blast.”
When Hicks’ dad became a state steward at Calder, John became a claims clerk in the office at 19-years-old. He’s been on the track ever since.
Stewards, like referees and umpires, generally don’t have fan clubs. Hicks understands.
“The public is the main thing for us,” Hicks said. “We want to make sure that the public gets a fair shake. We’re there to make sure of that. We do get some angry phone calls or letters from time to time.
“But we try to do what’s right and we try to do the best for the fan, for the owner, for the jock, for the trainer, for everybody involved.”
The most controversial recent decision the Parx stewards had to make was after the 2018 Grade I Cotillion Stakes when Mike Smith on runner-up Midnight Bisou claimed foul against winner Monomoy Girl and Florent Geroux. The stewards eventually decided to disqualify Monomoy Girl and place her second.
“When you always have big races like that, you want to make sure you can put (camera) shots together if there’s an incident in the race,” Hicks said. “You want to adjudicate the race just like you would any other race any other day. I mean a million dollars is a lot, but some of these people are running for $25,000-$30,000, and that’s a lot of money to them too. So we want to make sure we take the care for every single race.”