It’s the first Saturday of March Madness, and while the overflow crowd at Lagasse’s Stadium—the sports book and bar inside the Palazzo—is fixated on the college basketball action, Hank Goldberg has his head buried in the Daily Racing Form, looking for the pony that’s most likely to pay in race No. 5 at Aqueduct. No surprise there, when you consider that the life of the man nicknamed “The Hammer” revolves around three passions: horse racing, professional football and figuring out a way to make money off of both.
In that respect, Las Vegas was built for the longtime ESPN horse-racing analyst and NFL prognosticator. Sure enough, the Miami-based Goldberg, 70, can be found in his home away from home—usually at the Palazzo or Red Rock Resort—about a half-dozen times a year, always looking to recapture the magic he made on his first visit to a racetrack some six decades ago. “The first time I went to the track, when I was 17 years old, I hit a 25-to-1 long shot on a horse named Heavenly Girl. And then the second time I went, I hit a $450 [daily] double on a $2 bet. From there, I was hooked.”
The chase for the Triple Crown continues [May 21] with the Preakness Stakes. What are the odds Kentucky Derby winner Animal Kingdom ends the 33-year Triple Crown drought?
He didn’t run for six weeks [leading up to the Derby] and now he’s gotta come back in two weeks. All indications are that he ran the race of his life [at the Derby] and now he’s going to bounce. We’ll see what happens. But I’ll tell you, he beat a pretty bad crop of horses, so maybe he’s just better than the competition. I wouldn’t bet on him to win the Triple Crown, though.
What’s the most money you ever won on a Triple Crown race?
The year Smarty Jones was going for the Triple Crown and got beat by Birdstone in the Belmont Stakes , I hit the Oaks/Belmont double. I hit the Pick-4, the superfecta, the exacta—I won $23,000 on that one race. And I had to go to work, so I went to collect before I was going to tape my ESPN post-race analysis, and the track people were taking pictures because the government had you do that, like you were an illegal or something. It took me 25 minutes to collect.
Why has horse racing dwindled in popularity over the years?
You know something? People keep saying that, and they had 164,000 people at Churchill [Downs] for a race without a superstar. It was a record crowd. But there are some areas where it’s not doing that well because the sport hasn’t been marketed very well.
So what changes would you make to give the sport a boost and broaden its appeal?
I would make it more affordable for people to go. For example, what Gulfstream [Park in Florida] did on its big day this year, selling tables for $200 in the turf club, that’s an outrage. You want to get people out to the track and you want to encourage younger people to come out, and you’re not going to do it by charging $200 a table on your big day. And the Daily Racing Form costs $7—that’s nuts. That’s how people learn the game, by reading the Racing Form, which is foreboding enough as it is. A person who comes to the track and doesn’t know what’s going on, the first thing he sees is he has to pay $7 for the tools to figure out the sport. Somebody ought to beat those people up with their papers. And the fact that Zenyatta and Rachel Alexandra [the top two horses last year] never hooked up—you need a strong national racing commission to make that happen.
What’s your best Vegas memory?
I can tell you my worst. I had the Buffalo Bills in the Music City Miracle [the Jan. 8, 2000, playoff game in which Tennessee won on a trick kickoff return for a touchdown on the last play of the game]. I was in Vegas for that. But my best Vegas memories were the days I was out there in the 1970s with Jimmy the Greek. We used to hang out at the old Churchill Downs sports book with all those characters that Jimmy was friendly with. At the time I was ghost-writing his column and working with him on his football stuff. But hanging out with The Greek in Las Vegas was kind of like hanging out with Obama in Washington, only nobody was mad at Jimmy. He was the man, and wherever we went, he was treated like a king.
What’s the biggest NFL bet you ever cashed?
It was the Raiders against the Dolphins in the [Dec. 21, 1974] playoff game in Oakland, and I middled the game. I was working as a spotter that day for NBC, and that was the game where [Raiders quarterback Ken] Stabler took them down the field and they scored on a closing drive in the last seconds and won the game by two points. The Raiders were favored by 1½ on the West Coast and 2½ on the East Coast and I collected each way. After the game Don Meredith, who was [calling] the game for NBC, said, ‘Well, sorry about your Dolphins.’ And I said ‘Ah, those things happen.’ And he said ‘You son of a bitch, you middled this game, didn’t you?’ He knew!
What’s your take on the NFL lockout situation, and would you bet the season starts on time?
My take is they better get it settled, and I think they will. I can’t imagine [Dallas Cowboys owner] Jerry Jones with that stadium he built being empty in September. There are six teams that I know of that are for sale that want to get this collective-bargaining agreement done so that they can get on with their sales. But I would bet that they’ll miss a couple of games. They’ll probably play all 16 games, but just start late.