By Dick Jerardi
Jeff Matty fell in love with horse racing at Philadelphia Park. His father, who always had a few horses, would take him to the track on Saturday mornings to watch the horses train. Then, they would go out to breakfast, discuss race strategy and stable management strategy.
When the Saint Joseph’s University graduate, after a decade working in various aspects of the sport, was offered an opportunity to interview for the Pennsylvania Thoroughbred Horsemens’ Association (PTHA) executive director position upon Mike Ballezzi’s retirement, he was honored to be considered. When he was offered the position, he was thrilled to say yes.
Now that he has been on the job for two weeks, he has some fascinating insights into what he has experienced so far.
“Our staff has been second to none,’’ Matty said. “They’re getting me up to speed on everything. (PTHA president) Sal (DeBunda) is just a phone call away. He’s been great. Almost every single one of the board members has called, if not every other day, every third day just to check-in and see how I’m doing. You can tell how passionate they are about this place, how supportive they are of me, and how they want this to be a success. It’s really been great.’’
Matty became a racing official at Parx right after college graduation. He credits longtime Parx official Albert Ott as showing him the ropes. From Parx, he went to Monmouth Park also as a racing official. He learned how the racing office works and saw what he calls “behind the ropes.’’
The day after the 2014 Pennsylvania Derby (aka the California Chrome Pa. Derby), Joe Besecker also a St. Joe’s grad hired Matty as his stable manager.
“Joe taught me everything, how to operate at Parx, how to operate at Penn National,’’ Matty said “We’ve had horses all the way from Philadelphia to California to Florida to Saratoga.’’
Besecker’s stable won its 1000th race this summer, Matty was there for 750 of them.
“It was a great run and I enjoyed every single day and the most important part, the part I liked the best was the interactions with the horsemen,’’ Matty said. “This position is a great transition to that. Dealing with all of Joe’s trainers, we’ve had as much as 15 to 20 on the payroll at one time. So I understand the challenges. I understand what they go through on a daily basis and for me to now accept this position, I think it gave me the experience necessary to sort of go to bat for them on a daily basis knowing what they go through.’’
From his first interview with DeBunda until he was offered the job, Matty also worked on Besecker’s second dispersal sale in two years. It was a whirlwind, but now the new executive director is settled in at his new job.
“I knew there were many different facets to the office,’’ Matty said. “I didn’t know just how many…The part I didn’t expect was just how passionate and involved that our staff is. They each have their specificial roles and duties. This is more than a job to them and it’s going to be more than a job to me.’’
The PTHA is unique in the sport with its pension plan, medical insurance and Turning For Home program, the industry model for how to retire race horses.
“We have people dedicated to those areas,’’ Matty said.
In his first two weeks, Matty has had several horsemen stop by his office to tell him “our healthcare plan not only has helped them, it saved their life.’’
Parx, Matty said, is where “a lot of our horsemen have dedicated their lives and their careers to being here. If we can provide them healthcare, the pension plan, we need to provide it because without them, we are nothing.’’
Every race track has racing, Matty said, but few have what Parx has in the medical coverage, pensions and Turning For Home.
TFH Program administrator Danielle Montgomery and her sidekick Dani Gibson are two of those passionate PTHA staff members Matty spoke of with gratitude.
“I think we’re the gold standard in retirement programs so we’re going to take what Mr. Ballezzi formed and continue it,’’ Matty said. “I think that’s what we can be most proud of, our aftercare program.’’ There is no question about that, just as there is no question Jeff Matty is the right man at the right time in the right place as the PTHA begins a new chapter.