Mark Cusano gave up one career that required working most weekends nearly four decades ago for another that did just about the same and he doesn’t look back with even the slightest tinge of regret.
Cusano is looking back in a different way this week, as he prepared to host the final episode of the weekly “Down The Stretch” racing program on the Capital District Off-Track Betting television network in upstate New York. The special two-hour last episode, which brings back a longtime co-host and features a collection of some of Cusano’s favorite interviews over the years, airs at 10 a.m. on the Capital OTB channel.
Saturday’s broadcast ends a more than 25-year run on the cable network for Cusano, who hosted the show with respected turf writer and racing historian Michael Veitch the first 19 years of its existence and by himself for the last 6 1/2. Cusano also produced the show during that time, working with associate producer Julie Hoxsie since 1994, and spent countless hours preparing for the program anchored by its in-depth interviews with the best horsemen in the game.
“We’re going to have some fun Saturday and I hope I can hold it together,” Cusano said this week from his home in Niskayuna. “I don’t know what’s going to happen.”
Cusano wasn’t sure what was going to happen back on March 7, 1992, when he and Veitch hosted the show, then known as the Morning Line Saturday Edition, for the first time. Cusano came to television after a stint as a public handicapper and turf writer for The Post-Star in Glens Falls, radio jobs at WQBK and later WGY and prior to that as an assistant golf professional at The Edison Club in Rexford, N.Y., and Wolfert’s Roost in Albany.
He gave up his career in the golf industry in 1982, the same year he met his wife-to-be Mary Ellen.
“I didn’t feel as though I wanted to work every weekend,” Cusano said of that decision, which led to him forming his own racing media company. “And in the golf business you’re working every weekend.”
Cusano wound up working plenty of weekends anyway, as a handicapper and writer first for the Post-Star and later for his hometown paper, The Daily Gazette in Schenectady. He and Veitch started together as co-hosts of the show when the previous host left for a job in radio.
“I worked for two newspapers and two radio stations since 1983 and in the early 1990s Mike Veitch and I were regular guests on a show that Paul Vandenburg did for Capital OTB,” Cusano said. “When Paul left to make his fame and fortune in radio, management came to me and said, ‘would you like to take over the show?’ I said I would be interested but I want to change things a little.
“I wanted to highlight interviews with people in the industry. I thought it was missing from the landscape, not only locally but nationally, and said I’d like to do that. They said, ‘all right, let’s see how it works.’ ”
The format worked and it worked extremely well for 25-plus years.
The program’s strength came from its interviews with trainers, but mixed it up with race analysis from Cusano, pedigree profiles from Veitch and a perfect mix of humor and subtle good-natured ribbing between the co-hosts.
“We were very, very fortunate in that, I can honestly tell you, that over the last 25 and a half years, we have been able to get nearly everybody that we wanted to get,” Cusano said. “Without their cooperation there’s no chance this would have lasted. It’s easy to have a concept, an idea, but when you rely on other people to be a key part of the concept they have to cooperate. We couldn’t have gotten better cooperation across the board. Trainers, jockeys, racing officials, politicians.”
Veitch and Cusano, who will be together on the show for the first time since April 2011, don’t remember that first episode back in March 1992. They both looked back fondly at the early days, when the interview subjects included Ron McAnally talking about Paseana, Neil Drysdale discussing A.P. Indy and Shug McGaughey discussing future Hall of Famer Lure.
“From my writing and from being on that show, I believe that if you’re a racing fan you can’t get enough of trainers talking about their horses. I really believe that,” said Veitch, a Saratoga Springs native, retired teacher and active writer for The Saratogian. “The key was live interviews, not taped, live TV. We had horseman from around the country who were wonderful. That was the key to the show. Mark is a very big key because I know that he enriched the knowledge of the Capital District when it came to Thoroughbred racing. This is the Saratoga region and yet this thing never existed. I give Mark great credit.
“And another thing, and this is not to disparage people at the track, we really weren’t about gambling. We were about the sport and business of Thoroughbred racing and the finer aspects of it. … This was a place where they saw a whole different look at the game, and I think they did think it was from the inside and for the most part it was.”
Cusano estimates he’s done more than 1,200 shows and personally conducted more than 2,000 interviews. He said McGaughey, whose Hall of Fame career was well underway when the show started and continues at an excellent rate of success today, was probably the program’s most frequent guest.
“Both Michael and I enjoyed interviewing Shug,” he said. “I had people say to me, ‘I could listen to Shug forever,’ with that drawl. He speaks in a cadence and it makes you sit back, relax and listen.”
Cusano said he could not remember an interview he didn’t enjoy and mentioned several favorites this week as he approached retirement.
“Hal Wiggins has gotten lost in the Rachel Alexandra story. It was so much fun to talk to a man who … he hadn’t had that big horse and now he gets Rachel. That was so wonderful to talk to him,” Cusano said. “Art Sherman got California Chrome late in life, it was wonderful. Terrific. Think about it, before they got their big horses they weren’t asked to do a lot of interviews. They were just wonderful.
“We had our regulars, mainly from New York although the California guys have treated us wonderfully. It’s tricky with the three-hour time difference. The year Bobby Frankel won 25 Grade 1s. We were calling him on a pretty regular basis. Bobby could be gruff. I would say to Julie, just tell him if he wasn’t winning everything in sight we wouldn’t have to call him as often. He would be gruff. Yet he always agreed to do it. As it turned out toward the end of his career and the end of his life he did one of the longest live interviews from Saratoga we’ve ever done.
Eclipse Award-winning trainer Chad Brown gave one his first interviews on the show, then as an assistant to Frankel, and Funny Cide’s owner Jack Knowlton also did his first television interview on Down The Stretch.
“He went from the first interview with us and the second interview was with Katie Couric on the Today Show. Talk about going up in class dramatically,” Cusano said. “And Todd Pletcher, who has a wonderful, dry sense of humor. At Saratoga we used to get to tape interviews and we used to tape him every summer. Like everybody else, we gave him a five-minute window. We said be there between 11:40 and 11:45. Todd said to us, ‘could you narrow that down a little bit?’ I’m like, ‘what? Narrow it down?’ Having done television and radio as long as I have so I understand the importance of time but when Julie said that, whew, I said ‘tell him 11:43.’ What time do you think he showed up? That’s right, 11:43.”
Hoxsie played a key role in lining up nearly all of the show’s guests through the years, serving as the first point of contact with horsemen across the country and around the world.
Hoxsie came to Down The Stretch as an intern, starting shortly after writing Cusano and Veitch a letter while she was enrolled in the equine sciences program at the State University of New York at Cobleskill.
Her studies at Cobleskill, ignited after she watched a demonstration of round penning, came around at the same time she was serving as finance director for the Saratoga County Economic Opportunity Council.
“I already had a four-year degree so all of my credits transferred and I ended up going through their program for a four-year degree in animal science,” said Hoxsie said, who later served as executive director of the Saratoga EOC (a position from which she recently retired). “Part of that degree you have to do an internship, so I became interested specifically in Thoroughbred racing at that time. I bought a broodmare actually, so I was involved in some Thoroughbred breeding. I wrote Mark and Mike a letter, saying I was a student – I don’t know if I said I was a mature student – and that I was looking for an internship and was interested in the program. I liked the show.”
Hoxsie said she was “sad” to see the show come to an end and would welcome working in television production in the future if the situation was right.
Cusano said Capital OTB President John Signor offered him the opportunity to return in some capacity during the Saratoga meeting, which he said meant a lot, but for now he’s ready to spend time away from deadlines, research and production of a weekly television program.
“There’s an intangible out there … you just know it’s time,” Cusano said. “For the most part I’m still sharp enough to do an hour of live television, but there’s so much preparatory work. It grinds you down. I noticed in the last year that there might have been small things when it comes to detail that I used to do, that I wasn’t doing as often. Nothing that the audience could notice with the on-air product but I noticed.
“Coupled with the fact that Capital has changed the television station dramatically. There are no regular weekly programs anymore. I could see the handwriting on the wall that chances are if I hadn’t made the decision they might have made it for me. It’s important to me, after all these years to go out on my terms. I was able to do that when I handicapped for the newspapers. I was able to do that in radio. Some people might not think that’s important but it’s important to me. When you do a pretty good job over the years and you work hard, it’s good if you can go out on your own terms.”
A few of the program’s memorable segments and interviews will be part of Saturday’s final broadcast, including one with 2009 Saratoga leading trainer Linda Rice that Cusano considers a favorite. Cusano also plans on keeping a tradition that started with the first show way back in the early 1990s.
“I have ended every single show by thanking the people behind the scenes,” said Cusano, who pointed out longtime director Pat Perretta as a key member of the team. “The techs, whoever worked on the show. I’ve created a roll which includes everyone whoever worked on the show. It’s important for me not to have missed anyone.
“I don’t know how I’m going to feel on Saturday when it’s all over. I’m going to love having Michael back. I’m going to talk to Julie in a segment to hear about things from her end, how it’s been dealing with these guests. I’m going to enjoy those segments.”