Modesty, honesty, integrity and intelligence, trademarks of a well-spent life

Modesty, honesty, integrity and intelligence, trademarks of a well-spent life

By Kimberly French

The dire ramifications of opening a racetrack had been debated amongst Seattle denizens for the entire 28 days it took to build Longacres, but 13-year-old Pete Pedersen and his friends were determined to be present on August 3, 1933, when the new facility was unveiled to the public.

It was a little over four miles from their homes in Rainier Beach to Renton, but the boys refused to allow a lack of transportation to thwart their plan. They hitchhiked to their destination and squeezed through a gap in the fence to gain admittance.
As Pedersen surveyed the scene, he realized this place was definitely not hell. Actually, it was heaven.

“Many in Seattle and its environs regarded this horse racetrack as a den of iniquity,” the 2008 Washington Racing Hall of Fame inductee remembered. “A gambling attraction in a provincial center of the Great Depression, but I regarded it as a cathedral. As are all racetracks, in my perception.”

Since that August afternoon, Pedersen, who now resides in Arcadia, California, has been affiliated with horse racing as a backstretch worker, racing official, steward, publicity director and turf writer for more than seven decades. In 2001 he was honored with the Eclipse Award of Merit for his service to the sport; in 2005 he received the Joe Palmer Award presented by the National Turf Writers Association; and in 2008, the Laffit Pincay Jr. Award, which is granted by Hollywood Park.

The 89-year-old’s work has appeared in Collier’s, Liberty, Turf and Sport Digest, Thoroughbred Times, Daily Racing Form, San Francisco Chronicle, The Blood-Horse, Los Angeles Times and the Washington Thoroughbred.

“It just shows what might happen to you, if you live long enough,” Pedersen said. “You might get some accolades in this business, even if you are a hated official.”

Young Man from Seattle
While he attended Franklin High in Rainier Valley, Pedersen walked hots and sold programs at Longacres. He also aided in returning the barn area to its foundation after the structures were swept to “Monster Road” by yearly floods from the Green River Valley.

“My early years at Longacres were unforgettable,” Pedersen recalled. “I fell in love with the horses, their conditioners, their grooms and hotwalkers, their exercise riders, their jockeys and agents, owners and breeders – the mosaic is endless.”

After he graduated from high school in 1938, Pedersen attended the University of Washington and earned a degree in journalism. As an undergraduate, he was a member of the university’s rowing crew, which captured the gold medal for eight-oared crew at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin.

“I was honored to be the first oarsman to win the Academic and Inspirational Awards in the same year,” he said. “I was also astounded when I sold a fiction story to Collier’s magazine (a top publication then) for $500. I’ve never recaptured the thrill I got when my professor told me the news.”

The racetrack, however, remained Pedersen’s “major lure” and after betting on the maiden Crystal Chief, who paid $99 for a $2 win bet, racing even financed a year of his college tuition. He also worked as a teletype writer for editor Mike Donohoe of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer.

In 1942, Pedersen entered the Naval Air Corps. During the time he guarded the Bermuda Triangle, he discovered two things about himself. One was his dedication to work in racing if he came back from the war and the second would also involve a change in lifestyle.
“I was never a hero,” Pedersen said. “But I was a hero to myself, because when I got in the Air Corps, I found that I had an acute case of acrophobia.”

When his tour of duty was complete, Pedersen returned to Longacres, where he worked for R. E. (Lanny) Leighninger in the publicity office. The following season, when Leighninger decided to remain at Hollywood Park, Pedersen “inherited” the position of the Longacres’ publicity director.

“I wasn’t cut out for it, but I jumped at the chance,” he said. “I have wonderful memories of the first turf writers in the Northwest – Mike Donohoe and Chick Garret, Seattle Star; Bob Schwarzman and Kent Powell, Seattle Times; Danny Walton, Tacoma News Tribune, and so many others. I hesitate to name names because there are so many, I would be devastated if I left one out.”

Since Longacres ran during the spring and summer, at times it was difficult for Pedersen to supplement his income with writing assignments, but after meeting Oscar Otis, who was the lead reporter for the Daily Racing Form and lead turf reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle and Los Angeles Times, and working for Leighninger, the young man was supplied with a seasonal assignment to write sidebars and handicap for the Chronicle and Times.

California Bound
“Oscar was the fastest type writer in the West, but even he had a tough time pounding out that many articles and human interest yarns,” Pedersen recalled. “The turf writing beat in San Francisco was a delight – Bay Meadows, Golden Gate Fields, ancient Tanforan and the fair circuit.

“Los Angeles offered Santa Anita, Hollywood Park, Del Mar, Los Alamitos and Pomona,” he continued. “It was the entertainment capitol of the world and in those years, horse racing and the people involved in it took no seatings in the balcony. It was top drawer all the way; I reveled in the milieu and was getting paid for it; $15 a day!”

When the 1947 Longacres meet drew to a close, Pedersen decided it was time to change career paths. He quit his job at the track, loaded up his belongings and took the road to California to pursue a position as a steward’s aide at Tanforan. The following year he returned to Longacres as a steward’s aide and then in 1951 was hired by Bill Kyne, who founded Bay Meadows and Portland Meadows, as a patrol judge.

After 1955, Pedersen remained in California. He began working at Santa Anita in 1958 and at Del Mar and Pleasanton in 1968.

He believes references from Don Smith, general manager of Del Mar; Marj Everett, chief executive of Hollywood Park; Carleton Burke, director of racing at Santa Anita; and Kyne, are what enabled his initial advances as a racing official.

“I realized it was time to fish or cut bait,” Pedersen said. “I was fascinated by turf writing and the newspaper business. I still, am, but being a racing official supplied a steady paycheck and seemed to be the sensible choice. It also had to be California, because Washington only had two tracks at the time, so I severed ties with the track of my dreams and moved south.

“There were a number of worthy aspirants vying for the official’s job at Santa Anita,” he continued. “There was no greater highlight in my racing years than when Mr. Burke called me into his office and said I had the position.”

Even though Pedersen’s career kept him away from the races in his native state, he insists that is where his heart has always remained.

“I surely didn’t forget my roots,” he said. “The Northwest participants were heroes and heroines to me. I watched Ralph Neves ride his first winner in 1934 on a horse named Lioleli owned by the Y6 Ranch master C. B. “Cowboy” Irwin and trained by “Silent Tom” Smith, who later directed the career of a horse named Seabiscuit. [Note: Both Smith and Irwin’s daughter Frances Keller are also members of the Washington Racing Hall of Fame.]

“And then there was the maiden win of jockey Gus Glisson,” Pedersen continued. “I proposed to the Los Angeles Turf Writers that he deserved to be awarded the George Woolf Memorial Award. Glisson, whose career was cut short by injuries, was the first honoree.”

Over the next 50 years, Pedersen worked at nearly every major West Coast racetrack and retired after Hollywood Park’s 2005 spring/summer meet. He feels his main contribution to the racing was to insure a fair hearing.

“When I came on the track, licensees coming before the stewards to review an infraction did not ask for justice,” he explained. “They were asking for mercy, and I’d like to think I helped in the matter of due process, as well as remembering that the licensees were not the enemy.”

He is well known, however, for his modesty, honesty, integrity and intelligence.
“Pete was able to do such a wonderful job because he has a great knowledge of the backstretch and the sport itself,” said Tom Robbins, who is the vice president of racing at Del Mar. “He is such an intelligent, straightforward individual he was able to capably manage the differing personalities in racing and he was able to transition as the game changed. I’m proud to have worked with such an outstanding individual. It was a pleasure.”

Pedersen does not garner respect from just his co-workers and feels a steward cannot possibly do the job well without a thorough knowledge of all the backstretch citizens.
“He was very fair,” National Racing Hall of Fame jockey Laffit Pincay Jr. told The Blood-Horse in 2008. “What I liked about him, he was always very respectful. Some stewards like to show their authority and power. He was always very kind. He let you know in a nice way what he thought.”

Pedersen presided over 100,000 races and witnessed countless others as a fan, so it stands to reason that he would find certain moments more memorable. He cites being able to observe horses like Citation, Spectacular Bid, Round Table, *Noor, Swaps and Determine and jockeys like Shoemaker, Pincay, Arcaro, McCarron and Delahoussaye as some of his proudest moments.

“I also witnessed the equine spirit,” Pedersen said. “Mioland from Oregon and Sir William from Washington. I teared up when (Sir William) broke down in his final tune-up for the Kentucky Derby while at Bay Meadows. Then there was *Mafosta, who ran three-quarters in 1:09, which was then a world record, when he shipped in from British Columbia.”
One of the most gratifying events in Pedersen’s long and distinguished career was the decision between eventual victor Wild Again, Gate Dancer and Slew o’ Gold in a photo finish first edition of the Breeder’s Cup Classic (G1). Gate Dancer, who finished second by the slimmest of margins, was disqualified to third for interfering with Slew o’ Gold, who was the favorite.

“We had a lot of problems back on that day in 1984 [the other was the disqualifi-
cation of first place finisher Fran’s Valentine to tenth in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies (G1)] and it was a tough decision, but we came out of it alive,” Pedersen said. “That brought great satisfaction, but I was fortunate to have two ex-jockeys by my side. Like I said, it was a tough decision, and not appreciated by all, but I think historically, it proved to be a good one.”

So how does Pedersen feel when he looks back on his career?
“It’s been a ball, this racehorse game,” he said. “Every day I witnessed the triumph of the human spirit and the triumph of the equine spirit. I am very fortunate I have been able to do that.”

Pennsylvania resident Kimberly French is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in Thoroughbred, Standardbred and Quarter Horse publications. She also freelances as a production assistant for ESPN’s horseracing broadcasts.