Breeders’ Cup Presents Connections: Halstrom Picking Up The Torch At Indiana Grand

Rubber pavers and fans in the paddock at Indiana Grand are among the new things that will greet horsemen and fans when the 2020 meet eventually gets underway, but the one that will mean the most to the local community is a plaque along the paddock’s outer fence.

Dedicated to the late Jonathan B. Schuster, the plaque will honor the long-time vice president and general manager of racing as Indiana Grand faces its first season of racing without him at the helm.

Schuster had been with the Caesars Entertainment-run track since its first season 17 years ago, and his sudden passing on Christmas day in 2019 will long be felt by the Indiana Grand community. Liked and respected by both his co-workers and Indiana horsemen alike, Schuster had an impressive ability to transcend difficult borders and make everyone he met feel they were heard.

Fellow Caesars employee and Arizona Race Track Industry Program graduate Eric Halstrom, then employed at Louisiana Downs, was devastated when he heard about Schuster’s passing.

“I’d known he had some health issues years back, but he never mentioned one word,” Halstrom said. “Me and some others it hit pretty hard. He was a friend of mine, we’d partnered on some things between Indiana and Louisiana Downs, and I spent a lot of time working with him last summer.”

Halstrom found himself with mixed feelings when he was later asked to step into Schuster’s role at the Shelbyville, Ind., racetrack.

“He was such a good guy, that I wanted to make sure I came in with the understanding that this is bittersweet,” Halstrom said. “I’m happy to be in Indiana, but I wouldn’t be there had something bad not happened to Jon.”

Even before Halstrom’s mid-February arrival, the staff at Indiana Grand had begun to plan tributes for Schuster. A stakes race on opening day was to be named in his honor, as well as one on Indiana Derby night, and a scholarship fund at the RTIP would be set up in his name.

Jon Schuster, right, with Peter Sacopulos, secretary of the ITOBA and Rachel McLaughlin, on-air racing analyst (Photo by Linscott Photography)

“He was very dedicated to Indiana Grand and extremely respected in the horse racing industry,” added Mike Rich, senior vice president and general manager at Indiana Grand. “We want to ensure his legacy and work continues on for many years by establishing several new initiatives in his honor connected to the business he loved so much and worked so tirelessly to promote.”

Though the complications of the coronavirus pandemic have put the 2020 season on hold for now, Halstrom looks forward to picking up Schuster’s torch and guiding Indiana Grand racing into the future.

“One of the great things about the Indiana program is there’s cooperation and capital that I haven’t seen in a lot of places,” he explained. “There’s a schedule planned for the next 10 years with capital and upgrades – that’s not a luxury that every racetrack gets, so I’m grateful to be able to work with the horsemen on that.

“I’ve talked with my boss, Mike Rich, a lot, and there’s two things he wants to make sure horsemen know: one, we’re not going to do anything until we’re sure it’s safe, and second we’re gonna promise these horsemen I have that we’ll be ready to go as soon as we can.”

Approximately 200 horses are currently on the backside at Indiana Grand, filling less than a fifth of the facility’s 1,000 stalls. The track had to stop allowing horsemen to ship in back in March, which was an especially difficult decision given that Indiana received over 1,500 stall applications for the 2020 meet.

“We’ve done a lot of things behind the scenes, being ready and keeping talking with how quickly we can turn things around,” Halstrom said. “I worked for a long time with Brian Elmore, the executive director of the Indiana HBPA, so these are easy conversations for us to have.”

Facing down the challenge of not just stepping into Schuster’s shoes, but also dealing with an unprecedented pandemic, has not lessened Halstrom’s excitement for 2020. He traveled back to his native Minnesota to be with family for the time being, but his mind has remained fully committed to his new home in Indiana.

“I’ve spent more time sitting here thinking than I normally would,” Halstrom admitted, laughing. “I’m just chomping at the bit to get back there. I fall way on the glass half full side of stuff!”

One of his ideas was to contact Ben Huffman, racing secretary at Churchill Downs, about the possibility of including the July 11 Indiana Derby ($500,000) as a points race for the re-scheduled Kentucky Derby. Huffman couldn’t commit to anything, Halstrom said, but the timing and the purse could prove to be perfect for the first Saturday in September.

Other ideas revolve around Indiana Grand’s new sportsbook, located inside the casino. By combining sports wagering with an OTB, Halstrom hopes the new Vegas-style attraction will help draw people to the races.

“The crazy part about it now, is that all these plans we were making in February and stuff, some of it just doesn’t apply,” he said. “There’s no MLB, no Master’s, I mean they’re all coming back, just like we are, but some of the given sports cycles are just changing.”

The when may no longer be concrete, but Halstrom firmly believes Indiana will have a strong 2020 meet as soon as the track is able to re-open.

“Our purses are good, and extremely stable,” he explained. “I think in an environment in the Midwest, I understand some of the instability of different things, and we’re as solid as you can get. The quality just keeps going up, the proximity to Kentucky is great. We’re never going to be Churchill, but there’s a niche for what we’ve got and some really good racing. Not running head to head with them is exactly the right thing to do, and we’re attracting some of the best horsemen in the country because we’re an hour and a half away.

“I have fun trying to bring people to the racetrack, and we’re going to try to make Saturday evening racing a family-type event. In the end, the overall racing quality is going to go up.”

It’s important to Halstrom that Indiana Grand continues to improve and grow the racing program not just because that’s his job. It feels like Schuster left him the torch, so to speak, and Halstrom doesn’t want to let him down.

The best way to carry on that legacy is to commit to carrying on one of Schuster’s highest-held principles, Halstrom explained. Schuster was the irrepressible link between the horsemen and the racetrack, and he prized listening openly above all.

“The easiest way to describe Jon is he was just very easy to be around,” said Halstrom. “I’ve talked to a couple horsemen walking around the barns and stuff, and one of the first things they said is that they didn’t always agree, so that tells you that Jon didn’t just roll over, that wasn’t the way. But he would ask about your family and stuff, and he remembered everyone; he really cared.”

The post Breeders’ Cup Presents Connections: Halstrom Picking Up The Torch At Indiana Grand appeared first on Horse Racing News | Paulick Report.

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