There are so many fascinating faces in the sport of horse racing who do not often have the chance to tell their story because they are too busy listening to everyone else’s. So, I took it upon myself to make an interviewer the interviewee, for once, and that person is Joe Kristufek.
I watched Kristufek on television on Kentucky Derby Day this past May, as he is the paddock presenter and analyst for Churchill Downs and the Kentucky Derby. I became interested in knowing more about his involvement in the “Sport of Kings.” I was surprised to learn that Kristufek was not “born” into the sport, like so many others are. He grew up a few miles away from Hawthorne Race Course and Sportsman’s Park in Chicago, IL, but had little to no exposure to the sport until high school.
“Neither one of my parents had any interest in horse racing or gambling. I was always more interested in baseball cards and statistics. My exposure to horse racing was limited to watching the Derby on television. I looked at entries every now and then, but my interest did not peak until college. I attended Columbia College and worked in the Sears Tower in downtown Chicago. There was a betting parlor in the area and I began to go in on my lunch breaks and after work to watch and bet the races, to kill time. It did not take long for me to be mesmerized by the gambling aspect of the sport.”
As Kristufek continued to watch and wager, he became increasingly invested in learning how to handicap. “When I got that feeling of ‘wow, I was right’ after winning a race, I got more and more into it.” He began to contemplate what he wanted to do with his life, as he was still in school but was becoming so much more interested in handicapping the races. His decision came as an epiphany while watching Tony Cobitz giving his picks on television in the paddock at Arlington Park. Kristufek thought to himself, “Tony gets paid to talk about his picks for the races on television? That’s what I want to do.” He soon after changed his major to Print Journalism. Every assignment he completed was about some aspect of horse racing, and he loved it. “Once I realized I could turn my love for handicapping and the sport into a career, it focused me even more. I started going to Hawthorne and Sportsman’s Park and began introducing myself to people.”
Kristufek landed his first job working at Hawthorne in the press box and as on-air talent, and he maintained that position for several years. This was his “foot-in-the-door” so to speak, as in 2003, he became the owner, producer and host of the popular horse racing magazine show “Horsin’ Around TV.” 85 episodes aired from 2003 to 2005 on Fox Sports Chicago and Comcast Sportsnet Chicago. In 2008, he became the the co-creator and co-owner of horseplayernow.com, which was the horse racing industry’s first online, interactive live fan education forum.
Kristufek believes fan education is one of the biggest components of horse racing that is overlooked:
“Fan development is so huge. Horse racing isn’t just 10 horses running around in a circle. Racing doesn’t really do a great job expanding their fan base. I am the ambassador of fan development for America’s Best Racing, but a vast majority of individual tracks don’t do nearly enough to develop a fan base. People walk in and out of race tracks every day and don’t learn two percent of what they should learn while they are there. You need people who are willing to get in the trenches and show people the ins and outs of horse racing with backstretch tours and seminars. Keeneland has “Betologists” and NYRA is attempting to roll out some fan development ideas. We need to teach people how to handicap a race and the correct way to bet and maximize their money. This game is driven by handle. You don’t teach people how to win; you teach people how to lose less.”
Kristufek explains that it is not easy to work in the horse industry. He has been a freelancer since he graduated college, and he is lucky enough to love what he does. Kristufek puts a lot of time in on his off-days and he tries as much as possible to project his enthusiasm for the sport.
“You need to be assertive but friendly to succeed in horse racing. People want someone who is entertaining, but who is also accessible and will provide them with necessary information. In order to do my job well, you have to watch tons of replays and keep notes. Anyone can take a program and ‘handicap’ a race. Some people can watch 20,000 races and not ‘get it,’ and some are just naturals at it. I should be able to tell you something you don’t know by reading the Form, or else I’d be nothing special. I try to provide people with ‘outside-the-box’ information; I attempt to be creative and not focus solely on statistics.”
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Kristufek wears many hats in the sport of horse racing. He has contributed picks for Arlington Park and Hawthorne Race Course for many years and is currently an odds-maker for Arlington and Kentucky Downs. He is a handicapper and racing correspondent for the Daily Herald, a newspaper in his hometown of Chicago. He is the paddock presenter and analyst at Churchill Downs. While Churchill Downs is closed, Kristufek is an analyst and morning line maker at Ellis Park, which just recently opened for their 2017 season. He is also an analyst and reporter for the Breeders’ Cup. Kristufek has also gone overseas to cover the Dubai World Cup Carnival and the Hong Kong International Races. He continues to work in fan development for Horse Racing Nation and America’s Best Racing… etc. (I would be here all day if I added everything else Kristufek does and has accomplished!)
Aside from Kristufek’s professional accomplishments and love for handicapping, I was curious to know what other aspects of horse racing he enjoys the most. His answer was not surprising:
“I love everything about it! I think any person who doesn’t really gravitate towards racing has no idea how fascinating it really is… from the day a horse is born to the day they make it to the track… how much goes into that and the challenges and the animals themselves.. unlocking the key to their potential and discovering what makes them special… the fans, the color, the pageantry, the social aspect of the sport, all of it. Unfortunately, I don’t really get the chance to enjoy the races while indulging in a few adult beverages and socializing. I wish more people in the world had some kind of clue to how fascinating it really is.”
Kristufek has witnessed many great events in the sport of horse racing, and I made sure he knew how incredibly jealous I am, and how lucky he is to be that person in the paddock, talking to trainers, owners, and meeting these amazing animals. I wanted to know what his favorite experience has been so far, and he couldn’t give me just one:
“This is hard.. I have a few. Zenyatta. When she beat the boys in the Breeders’ Cup Classic at Santa Anita, I was there. When I recall the electricity of the crowd, I still get chills. I was also at the BC Classic in 2010 when Zenyatta lost to Blame. You would think it was like the air was let out of a balloon. Early on in that race, nobody thought she had a chance to even make a race out of it. But, with the way it played out, it was the best race she had ever run in her career, although it was her only loss. I was at the Dubai World Cup in 2016 covering California Chrome that whole week. His win was tremendous. That horse overcame everything he had been through prior and came out better than ever before. I became the analyst for the most famous horse race in the world, the Kentucky Derby, in 2015 and it was the year American Pharoah won. I didn’t get to experience the Triple Crown live at Belmont, but his connections brought him back to Churchill to parade him in front of fans and I was able to experience that, as well as the meet-and-greet in the barn area. Bob Baffert, Jimmy Barnes and the Zayat Family all deserve a ton of credit for sharing that horse the way they did. “
As far as Kristufek’s favorite track goes, he does not have just one (I bet you didn’t see that coming): “Keeneland, Saratoga, Arlington, and Churchill. Keeneland will always have a special place in my heart. Arlington’s beauty surpasses that of any other track. Arlington Million Day will always be one of my favorite days of the year. Churchill has done an amazing job of maintaining the history but continuously upgrading and modernizing the facility.”
Kristufek possesses a great deal of knowledge and experience in the sport of horse racing, and whether you are a marginal or avid fan, there is a lot to be learned from him. He is a genuine lover of everything horse racing, and no doubt will continue to contribute positivity, creativity and growth to the industry. In the midst of the interview, I noted something inspiring Kristufek said, and it was this:
“Being in horse racing enhances your existence.”
This is such a simple phrase, but maintains a bold statement. It rings true for me, and I’m sure whoever is reading this, too.
Joe, thank you for all you have and will continue to contribute to the sport of horse racing. It is lucky to have you, that’s a sure bet.