Breeders’ Cup Presents Connections: In Dual Role, Lies Helps Horseplayers Feel Heard At Will Rogers Downs

Pulling double duty is nothing new for John Lies, but he’s probably the only racetrack employee in the country with the skills to act as both track announcer and racing secretary.

Lies currently fills both positions at Will Rogers Downs, and it requires a delicate balancing act. Lies does his best to meet the needs of the horsemen while still putting together a competitive card that horseplayers will appreciate, and catering to both groups in his position as the track’s public spokesman.

Last week was no exception, though the new publicity surrounding Will Rogers added a new twist to the challenge.

The track in Claremore, Okla., handled just over $2 million in March of 2019. As the worldwide coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic brought most horse racing to a screeching halt, Will Rogers found itself in the unique position to be one of only two racetracks hosting live races early in the week.

In March of 2020, Will Rogers Downs handled $15,782,869, an increase of over 650 percent from 2019 – this despite the fact that races are being held behind closed doors and Oklahoma residents do not have access to advance deposit wagering (ADW).

“The increases have been astronomical,” Lies said.

Will Rogers carded 67 races in March of 2020, up from 29 the previous year. That difference, along with the increase in field size, encouraged Lies and other track officials to incorporate a Pick 5 into the wagering menu three weeks ago.

“Our wagering menu was pretty simple before, but suddenly we’re the only game in town and we had the field size to do it,” Lies explained. “It did well right off the bat.”

The Pick 5 format was a simple one: the pool paid out daily, no carryover, no consolation; whoever had the most winners got the payout.

This week Will Rogers considered altering the bet’s format to a jackpot-style wager. By the time the track reached out to United Tote to test the format on Tuesday, word had gotten out about the idea and disgruntled horseplayers were quick to voice their opinions on social media. Negative feedback reached track officials through other sources as well.

Lies said Will Rogers quickly decided to scrap the idea, leaving the wager in its original format.

“I think there are two important takeaways from this,” said Lies. “One, that handicappers feel that their voice was heard, and two, that the track is not robbing them. This is not about greed; it’s about trying to figure out what’s going to work best for this track, for this wager, right now.”

That’s the philosophy that has gotten Lies through the majority of his career; figuring out the best way to move forward at any given time. He’s known he wanted to be a track announcer since the age of nine, when he got to meet Trevor Denman at Del Mar in person, but didn’t make it into the booth until he was 28.

“When I was six years old, my dad (a trainer) would find me imitating (Denman’s) race calls from the track,” Lies said, laughing. “I’d be using his voice and his accent and the whole thing. I will never forget that day I met him. It was the original building at Del Mar, before the renovation, so we went up the old turf club elevator, then walked up those rickety old stairs and entered the tiny old announcer’s booth.

“He encouraged me to develop my own style, and I’d go back and visit him as I got older. But first I went out and got a good education.”

After graduation from college, Lies went back to the track and worked several entry-level jobs both on the backside and in the racing office. Eventually he met Vic Stauffer and Luke Kruytbosch, the announcers who helped him get his foot in the door at Lone Star Park.

“Trevor was the influence that really taught me the fundamentals,” Lies said. “Like, judging the pace of race without using fractions, does a rider have a lot of horse underneath him, being able to pick up a horse running from far back, and being cognizant of who the favorite is and where he is at all times.”

During the off season, Lies worked in the racing office at Del Mar under Tom Robbins.

Ten years later, the opportunity to call races at Will Rogers came about. Since Lone Star and Will Rogers ran on opposite days, Lies jumped at the chance to work for both tracks simultaneously. In 2016, when the job for racing secretary at Will Rogers came open, Lies got another call.

“The opportunity came up to sort of make that a package, be the racing secretary and track announcer,” Lies explained. “I had to make a tough decision, because I’d announced at Lone Star for over 10 years and that was going well, but this was an expanded opportunity.

“I’m not educated in the way a lot of the new people are now, like at the RTIP program in Arizona. I kind of had to dive in and figure it out for myself. Specifically, I had to learn the region.”

There are certainly differences between racing in Southern California and in Oklahoma, Lies said. Of course, announcing the sprint-breed races is almost an entirely different discipline, but there are also key differences in the way that agents and trainers interact with the racing office.

“Here, (jockey agents) act more like assistant trainers than jockey’s bosses,” Lies said. “The role just plays out a little differently in terms of racing office procedure.”

Lies said he cannot imagine doing anything else with his career, and that while balancing the duties of announcing and serving as racing secretary can be daunting, he wouldn’t trade it.

“I enjoy both for different reasons,” he said. “The passion is always there for the race calling, I enjoy that discipline and skill set. At the same time, the racing secretary office is a whole different set of skills that I enjoy. The main thing that I enjoy about the racing secretary job is the writing of the condition book – I’ve been in racing my whole life, so figuring that out is what I enjoy the most.”

Moving forward, Lies said Will Rogers plans to keep its Monday/Tuesday/Wednesday racing schedule through the end of the meet on May 20, rather than switching Wednesdays for Saturdays in the month of May. Since the meet opened, Will Rogers has run 14 race days and accumulated over $44 million in handle, so the momentum is there.

Lies’ regular balancing act now includes increased biosecurity protocols, and, so far, the measures seem to be working. By maintaining those and continuing to heed the needs of the horseplayers and the horsemen, there is no reason the record-breaking meet at Will Rogers won’t be able to continue.

The post Breeders’ Cup Presents Connections: In Dual Role, Lies Helps Horseplayers Feel Heard At Will Rogers Downs appeared first on Horse Racing News | Paulick Report.

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