Racing Future is determined to inspire a new generation of fans to enjoy the sport of horse racing.
Racing Future continues to celebrate those who have made and continue to make great contributions to the sport of horse racing.
I have had the pleasure of knowing Amy Zimmerman for many years. I have always found her dedication, knowledge, and experience of the game to be at the top of the field.
In this “Racing Future Celebrates” feature we showcase a behind-the-scenes talent who shares her thoughts on the sport and its future.
President & CEO
No one in horse racing has won as many Eclipse – horse racing’s “Oscar” – awards as Amy Zimmerman who has over 25 years-experience as both a racetrack and sports broadcasting executive. In her current executive roles at HRTV, NBC, and Santa Anita Park, Zimmerman is undoubtedly one of the most talented, respected, and positive forces in horse racing today.
Much has been made and continues to be made in the media and on backstretches everywhere about the decline of horse racing. This week, Racing Future asked Zimmerman to share her expert insights on the current state and future of the sport.
Declining fan numbers is an ongoing discussion within the sport of horse racing. This is a challenge for the sport because it is dependent on fans wagering on race outcomes.
Zimmerman believes there is a disconnect between people and horses.
“The more generations we get from the horse as a member of the family, the tougher it gets,” she says.
Historically, the popularity of horse racing for spectating fans was due in large part because the majority had a connection to and an understanding of horses.
“Also in some ways,” Zimmerman says, “We tend to shy away the wagering aspects of the sport.”
Betting is legal but suffers from a long-established perception of seediness. Potential fans may avoid going to the races due to the mistaken belief that an on track experience will mean interacting with the stereotypical problem gambler, a hat-wearing, cigarette-smoking guy who’s anxiously clutching the day’s racing form.
Zimmerman also says that we should be more open about another issue in the sport: animal welfare.
“We tend not to talk about accidents in the sport,” she says.
And, we should. And, not just because animal rights groups are vocal in the media but more because the people in the sport work very hard, spending countless hours and millions of dollars trying their very best to prevent injuries to both horses and riders. By not talking about accidents, horse racing is allowing others outside the sport to “paint its picture.”
“Stopping horse racing will not prevent horses from dying,” she says. “It is not acceptable that horses die. Ever.”
However, tragedies do occur and the sport should constantly engage with the public through continued education so that everyone understands the equine athletes themselves, their daily treatment and care, and the lives they live.
Currently, for example, those without a lot of knowledge of the life of a race horse may not know that every race horse is examined by a veterinarian every morning. This is because no one wants horses to breakdown, to be euthanized, to suffer or die suddenly. The horses are family members.
Zimmerman has done a masterful job capturing this through her many award-winning films but especially as writer and producer of HRTV’s Inside Information: Swale, which tells the story the 1981 foal out of the last stakes winning horse bred by Bull Hancock at Claiborne Farm.
Hancock had been breeding horses at Claiborne for decades and had seen clients’ horses win the Derby, namely Secretariat, but he’d never had one of his own go on to victory at Churchill Downs. Hancock passed away in 1972 so he never lived to see Claiborne’s “homebred,” Swale, become the surprise winner of the 1984 Kentucky Derby. With his other wins, Swale looked to be a great stallion prospect but 8 days after winning the Belmont, he suddenly dropped dead in his stall.
In the documentary, Zimmerman captures the emotion of the Hancock family who clearly feel that losing Swale was the same as losing member of their own family.
“And that was 25 years later!” Zimmerman exclaims.
Zimmerman’s response is quick. “First of all, there needs to be a governing body to oversee the sport,” she remarks.
Horse racing insiders have long-discussed this idea although it has never been successfully implemented. And, Zimmerman is completely aware of that.
“I’m afraid it will take a crisis to make it happen,” she says.
In the United States the larger racing organizations such as Churchill Downs, New York and the Stronach Group do a good job of working together for the most part. Conflicts can arise and compromises are necessary. The greater issue, says Zimmerman, in terms of creating a nationwide governing body is that the sport is currently controlled at the state level through individual racing boards.
At this level it is easy to draw a parallel between the horses who are the heart of the sport -- who race because competing against one another and having the sheer will to win, are instinctive parts of their character -- and legislators and decision makers who are passionate about horse racing yet protective of their “turf.” In this way, the sport is “fractured” and “fractious” she says, and this is difficult to overcome.
Zimmerman points out that some of her comments are nothing new. Indeed, she says, old horse racing newsreel clips from the 1950s “say it all” because there was always someone saying, “We need to attract more young people to the sport.”
“And that was sixty years ago,” Zimmerman reminds us.
Zimmerman doesn’t see the declining-fans issue strictly in terms of a young or old demographic. Instead, she says, the audience should be broken down into three segments:
- Online wagering fans (whom she views as the greatest avenue for growth)
- Mid-week on-track visitors seeking a wagering experience
- Weekend on-track visitors looking to enjoy a special events experience
When asked about focussing on a particular age group, such as Millennials (approx. 20 – 40 yr olds), she says that the problem with attracting and maintaining engagement with this group is that many are too busy working and may have little disposable income to use for special events let alone for wagering.
To grow the fan base in all of these groups, Zimmerman is certain about one thing:
“Educating people is the most important.”
Education will teach people about the horse, will help them to re-connect with horses in all their majesty, and bring them out to watch the races.
Beyond horses and the racing community, what matters to Amy Zimmerman?
“My family,” she says, without hesitation.
She talks then of her son, who is 4 ½, describing a little boy who loves horses. He visits Santa Anita often and when he does, he revels in the animals, the community, the jockeys who have been so kind to him.
“Those of us who are part of horse racing sometimes forget what’s so pure about the sport – the animals.”
Through the eyes of her son, she says, she is constantly reminded of that and how these animals try so hard, often overcoming obstacles, to become champions.
At the purest level, she agrees, horse racing involves flight animals but each has their own personality. Instinct mixed with these distinct personalities are showcased on the track and the ones with the most “heart” do their best to win. Zimmerman says the best example of this is a horse who, in 1976, sold for just over $1,100 as a yearling.
Not well bred and with ill-formed knees, this yearling was John Henry; he seemed an unlikely race horse. He was far from pretty to look at and had a very difficult personality. However, he went on to become one of Thoroughbred horse racing’s most recognizable champions running 83 times and winning more than $6m during his career. Zimmerman knew and visited John Henry for 26 years while he lived out a grand retirement at Old Friends Farm in Kentucky. John Henry, she says “was my friend,” a sentiment which she captured so well in her 2007 story of her final visit with him.
In his humble beginnings and his awe-inspiring record, the story of John Henry is akin to what Zimmerman sees in her son when he visits the horses at the track. There is a purity there that no amount of fractiousness and challenge can overtake. For her, it really is all about the horses.
“They touch you all the way inside,” she says.
“I fell in love with horse racing on TV,” Zimmerman says.
Zimmerman was 11 when Secretariat graced the covers of Time and Newsweek and raced across our TV screens to become the celebrated Triple Crown winner in history. What started out as a childhood passion has taken Zimmerman to the heights of Thoroughbred racing business.
She got her start in the horse industry as a writer and photographer. In college she studied history and journalism and worked at California Thoroughbred. When she graduated, she moved East, believing that the home of the Kentucky Derby would be the most likely place to launch a career in horse racing broadcasting. However, it didn’t take her long to change course.
“I’m an L.A. girl,” she says, laughter in her voice.
From August to November 1986, she worked part-time at Santa Anita Park during the Breeders’ Cup. It was the break she needed to really get into the business on the West coast and she’s never left. Her work ethic and determination were in full play during those first few years.
“Up until 1991 I was a seasonal employee,” she says.
Like many members of racing communities that develop in the back stretches of tracks around the world, from the gallopers to the barn staff to the hot walkers, Zimmerman worked other jobs outside of racing because she knew what her goals were but also had bills to pay. Fortunately, for the sport of horse racing, she persevered through those early years.
It’s easy to see evidence of Zimmerman’s talents and respect in the lengthy list of awards and accolades she has won including 9 National and Regional Emmy Awards and 18 Eclipse Awards. Her contributions to Thoroughbred horse racing have also been acknowledged by the California State legislature and she is a director and voting member of several national racing organizations.
Amongst all the well-earned accolades and awards, there is one that stands out.
“Without question,” she says. “The Penny Chenery Award.”
She learned she’d won the Penny Chenery Distinguished Woman in Racing Award in 2011 when she misunderstood a comment and thought she was being asked to get a crew together for the awards ceremony. The delight at winning such an award -- named after the owner of the awesome Secretariat, and which is a recognition of the recipient’s enormous contribution to the Thoroughbred racing community -- is evident in Zimmerman’s voice as she describes the day. The award was presented by Penny Chenery in person. And, Zimmerman says, the luncheon was dedicated to cancer research, which was very moving on a personal level. She enjoyed having her brother there to watch but her parents were unable to attend as her mother was undergoing treatment for a recent diagnosis of leukemia.
In horse racing, there are women jockeys, trainers, owners and barn staffers and there have been for many years. And, of course, there are women such as Penny Chenery. However, many would agree that there are a great deal more men than women, and certainly in positions of power, such as racetrack management for example, the sport is dominated by men. Many would agree that this can present unique challenges for women. When asked about this, Zimmerman’s response is surprising,
“You know, I’ve never felt that it’s a man’s world,” she says.
She remarks that she is merely standing on the shoulders of the great women who came before her, especially in the broadcast booth. She sees herself as taking up where these pioneering women in racing, journalism, and broadcasting left off.
Regional (Ohio Valley Chapter), Best One-Time Sports Special, HRTV, 2012
Regional (Ohio Valley Chapter), Best One-Time Sports Special, HRTV, 2011
Regional (Ohio Valley Chapter), 6 Emmys, including Program Writer, HRTV, 2010
Sports, Best Turnaround Sports Special, NBC Sports, 2008
Regional (Ohio Valley Chapter), Best One-Time Sports Special, HRTV, 2008
Sports, Best Live Sports Special, NBC Sports, 1992
Outstanding Live Television, Sr. Associate Producer, NBC Sports, 2012
Outstanding Television Feature, Producer / Writer, HRTV, 2011
Outstanding Live Television, Reporter Producer, ESPN, 2011
Outstanding Television Feature, Producer / Writer, HRTV, 2010
Outstanding Live Television, Reporter Producer, ESPN, 2010
Outstanding Live Television, Reporter Producer, ESPN, 2009
Outstanding Live Television, Associate Producer, NBC Sports, 2008
Outstanding Television Feature, Executive Producer, HRTV, 2008
Outstanding Live Television, Associate Producer, NBC Sports, 2007
Outstanding Television Feature, Executive Producer, HRTV, 2006
Outstanding Live Television, Associate Producer, NBC Sports, 2006
Outstanding Live Television, Associate Producer, NBC Sports, 2005
Outstanding Live Television, Associate Producer, NBC Sports, 2004
Outstanding Live Television, Associate Producer, NBC Sports, 2003
Outstanding Live Television, Associate Producer, NBC Sports, 2002
Outstanding Live Television, Associate Producer, NBC Sports, 2001
Outstanding Local Television, Executive Producer, Fox Sports West, 1999
Outstanding Live Television, Associate Producer, NBC Sports, 1996
Outstanding Television Feature, Executive Producer / Producer / Writer, HRTV, 2012
Outstanding Television Feature, Executive Producer / Producer / Writer, HRTV, 2007
Outstanding Local Television, Producer / Executive Producer, Fox West 2, 1998
Outstanding Local Television, Producer / Executive Producer, Fox West 2, 1997
Outstanding Local Television, Producer / Executive Producer, KDOC, 1993
Outstanding Local Television, Producer / Executive Producer, KDOC, 1989