In the Paddock: The Game’s Friend

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Vic Zast was the type of person that every time I was around him I learned something new.

I don’t remember the first time I met Vic, but it was long after I’d read his writings in The Blood-Horse. The author description at the end of his pieces essentially said he was a lifelong fan of racing, was from Chicago and had worked in a variety of businesses that included cosmetics, distilled spirits and racing. He’d traveled the world, from Australia to Ascot, Dubai to the Derby and everywhere in between.

Vic loved Saratoga, owned a home here and was a steady presence at the races. He rarely missed a big race in the United States either and it was at those events and in my six-year run as president of the National Turf Writers and Broadcasters that I got to know Vic a little better.

I can’t say for sure but I think Vic served on the board for each of those six years. What an ally. Not just for me and for the organization, but for all of racing journalism and racing in general for that matter. He was an ally because he was doing something he enjoyed.

He wasn’t in it for the financial reward or the perceived perks. Vic always had seats of his own and unquestionably any money he made writing was a significant cut in pay from his days as a successful executive or entrepreneur.

Vic brought a fresh perspective to the organization, and not one that I, the executive team or the board of directors agreed with or understood. He looked at the big picture, annually nominating and endorsing candidates for the organization’s three awards that were against the grain or off Main Street.

“We need to give him this award. He’s going to win a Pulitzer Prize one day and we’re going to look silly for not recognizing him before that,” Vic said about one nominee.

Vic wanted to hike up the cost of the tickets to the NTWAB’s annual awards dinner and improve the quality of the event to match the price.

In professions – racing and journalism – filled with status quo, Vic was anything but.

The last few years my wife, then wife-to-be Elizabeth, and I got to know Vic and Maureen Zast a little better. We’d see them at various racing functions, catch up, trade stories about me growing up and them spending summers in Saratoga. He’d always invite me for lemonade on the porch when I was in town from Lexington for the sales, the Round Table or racing.

Elizabeth will never forget another encounter with Vic, during one of the NTWAB awards dinners where she was probably overrun with stories of deadlines, editors, writers and racing.

“You certainly win the award for best shoes tonight,” he said in his gravely voice with a light grab of the arm and a wink.

The highlight of last summer was getting an invite to Vic and Maureen’s house on Fifth Avenue for a get together they called, “Our Shortest Party” that came before a showing of the feature-length documentary “Our Longest Drive.”

Drinks, Garrett’s Popcorn and other hors d’oeuvres were served on the lawn before we all headed downtown to the Saratoga Film Forum inside the former Saratoga Public Library building on Broadway to watch the film.

The award-winning film’s website describes it as “three retirement-aged buddies (who) decide to drive the ashes of their friend to a three-hole golf course in the Arctic. Their plan is to play golf on a grassless three-hole course at midnight of the summer solstice – the year’s longest day when the light of the endless northern days makes it seemlike there’s no end to anything – after a journey of 5,500 miles, spanning 17 days, seven states, two Canadian provinces and territories. They meet interesting people, explore new horizons and discover that the time remaining to them should be filled with adventure and learning.”

The film was truly enjoyable and we’ve shared our copy with others after watching it at home.

I think our copy is in Cincinnati with Elizabeth’s family and I’m hoping to get it back so we can watch it again.

Two days after the event I thanked Vic for the invite, telling him, “Wow,

I knew it was going to be good but it turned out to be awesome. Well done and all praise that you’re earning for it is so, so deserved. See you at the races my friend.”

The next time we corresponded Vic informed me of his battle with cancer. He’d found out about it in late July, when a spot on his pancreas showed up and needed to be removed. He spent August in Saratoga preparing for chemotherapy, all the while writing his Saratoga Diary for The Blood-Horse.

Around that same time I resigned from a director’s position with the NTWAB, a decision that came after I let my emotions get the better of me for one of the few times in my life.

The first note I received was from Vic, who by then I certainly considered a friend.

Tom – I’ve enjoyed serving with you on the NTWAB board. Sorry to learn about your resignation. Keep your head high. You’ve accomplished a lot in your years of service. Vic

We corresponded a little more through the fall and into the winter and I regret that the last time came in January, on a cold afternoon here in Saratoga (yes, it gets seriously, seriously frigid in the winter) when I found myself on Fifth Avenue not far from Vic and Maureen’s house.

I’d heard he was able to make it to the Breeders’ Cup a few months earlier, keeping a streak of 30 straight intact, despite his ongoing battle with the disease that claimed his life Aug. 3.

Tom, how nice to hear from you. I’m writing you from Evanston Hospital, where I’m recovering from a Grade 1 12-hour surgery to remove my pancreas, spleen and other organs.

The tough part is recovery, which requires me to train my bladder, stomach and bowels to function. I’m in great pain and imagine to be this way for a month.

One thing for sure is that I plan to make Saratoga this racing season. It’ll be my 50th summer. Best to Liz and others who know me there.

Once again, thanks for the e-mail.


Vic never made it for his 50th summer, but he’ll be with us this morning as we remember him from one of his favorite spots, Section J of the clubhouse at Saratoga Race Course from 8-9:30. I’m looking forward to it because we’ll all learn something new about Vic Zast, a man I was honored to call a colleague, humbled to call a friend.