Meeting Tommy Roberts is like popping open a bottle of the finest champagne. Here is a man of so many accomplishments. A radio/television pioneer who has a richly deserved place in The Broadcast Pioneers Hall of Fame. An innovator who was instrumental in putting New Jersey horse racing on the map during the sport’s greatest era. And how about this one: Vice President and general manager of Hialeah Park at a time when it was the Taj Mahal of American racetracks. Named best dressed sports figure of the year in 1969 at the expense of his friend, none other than Broadway Joe Namath and succeeding another gridiron legend Frank Gifford, and so much more. He was called “The voice of horse racing”. His call of Secretariat’s Triple Crown was heard by over 800 radio stations across the country as part of the Mutual Network’s “Race of the Week.” Tommy’s quick wit, personality and work ethic have taken him on a magic carpet ride.
He just turned eighty-nine and shot a ninety-two this morning at Saratoga National. The setting is his beautiful summer home overlooking Lake Lonely. He has another appointment later this afternoon.
So, let’s get started. The words are Tommy’s Pure poetry.
Q: How did you get involved with thoroughbred horse racing.
A: I came back from the Korean War. For public relations, the Commandant of Fort Dix came to my home town of Camden New Jersey to present a medal to me at the Mayor’s office. This led to an offer by the Mayor to obtain a political appointment for a temporary job at Garden State Park Racetrack. I took it and that is how it all began.
Q: You worked for Amory Haskell, owner and founder of beautiful Monmouth Park. The one million-dollar Haskell Invitational is named in his honor. Anything to share with us about Haskell?
A: I was radio/television publicity director at Monmouth in 1958. A new title that I pioneered. The track had a 2:30 post time, which I thought was a bit late for the average blue-collar horse player from Asbury Park to attend the races. At a meeting with the track hierarchy I brought this up with a strong case for an earlier post. A few days later Mr. Haskell, a blue blood to his core stated that he had been made aware of my idea. He told us that he timed how long it took for him to play a round of golf, have lunch and get to the track, and he stated that there was no way anyone could be at the track earlier than 2:30! Eventually the post did change to an earlier time.
Q: I see many photos here of you with Eddie Arcaro, the greatest Jockey to ever grace the American Turf. Your thoughts on him.
A: For the last twenty years of his life I was one of Eddie’s closest friends. We did everything together. We played golf almost every day and had countless dinners together.
He was outspoken and intelligent. They called him “The Master.” I loved him. During the running of a race, he could within a fifth of a second know how fast they were going and how fast he needed to go to win the race. In horse racing terms “He had a clock in his head.”
Q: You have rubbed shoulders with so many famous people. Does anyone come to mind that you would like to reminisce about?
A: President Harry Truman spent a day at Hialeah Park in 1960. I had the honor of spending six hours with him that afternoon. On the NBC -TV national telecast which I hosted he relayed this story to me about his first visit to a racetrack. When he was eighteen he made his way to Cahokia Downs, a bush league racetrack near St Louis, Missouri. It was raining and the track was muddy. The young Truman listened to a tip he was given in one of the races Give’em hell Harry made a five-dollar wager on the twenty-five to one long shot. The horse won and President Truman stated: “I’ve loved horse racing ever since.”
Q: What is your greatest achievement?
A: In 1984, I was given an unrestricted gaming license in Nevada. It eventually changed the face of horse racing worldwide. I started simulcast as we know it. My company Roberts Television International owned the simulcast rights to thirty racetracks, which I then sold to every casino in the state of Nevada and then to every racing venue in this country. When my son Todd joined the company in 1985, we changed the name to Roberts Communication Network. Simulcasting is now responsible for eighty five percent of the horse racing wagering dollar.
Q: You have owned racehorses for many years. Any comment on that?
A: They all became great friends of mine. And frankly quite a drain on my bankroll. Though I must say it sure has been fun owning and running them. There is no greater thrill then seeing one win.
Q: I know that the great television personality and newspaper columnist Ed Sullivan was your dear friend. Some thoughts...
A: Many thought that Ed had a sour personality. The opposite was true of him. He was a gentleman, congenial with anyone he met, glad to sign autographs and ask to hear a bit about the seeker. In the mid-1960s I was named Man of The Year by the nation’s oldest press club, Philadelphia’s Poor Richard’s Club. Ed made a special unannounced trip from New York City along with actress Celeste Holm and comedian Sam Levinson to be a part of it. I will never forget that.
Q: You have led a storybook life. Do you have any regrets?
A: Two immediately come to mind. For ten years from 1955 to 1965, I did basketball play by play for the big five college powerhouses of the Philadelphia area and the NBA Warriors and then the 76ers. In March of 1962 the immortal Wilt Chamberlin put on the greatest single performance in pro sports history with an astounding one-hundred-point explosion against the New York Knicks in Hershey, Pennsylvania. Prior to this my boss at CBS Radio had asked me to cut some of the NBA games in favor of some Philadelphia Phillies spring training contests. The first I picked was the game with the Knicks in Hershey. I had reasoned that the lowly Knicks, twenty-two games out of first place and the game being played in Hershey, a six-hour round trip drive from Philly, made it a no brainer. We were playing the Knicks in Madison Square Garden the Saturday night after that Thursday. Incidentally a game that I did call, and Wilt scored fifty-eight points that night. Since we had opted out of the one-hundred-point game there is no known play by play recording of this historic event. It would have been an historic call...but that’s not nearly as bad as the great chance I had years later, and didn’t take.
Q: Can you tell us about that?
A: I had just finished producing “Barbados Holiday,” with Dick Van Patten after the end of his hit series, “Eight Is Enough”. It was in October of 1981. He asked me to come to L.A. where he planned to plug our special on The Merv Griffin show. I flew out and was invited to Merv’s home. When I arrived, there was quite an array of Hollywood in attendance that had just finished playing tennis. They included Alan Alda, Gene Wilder, Carl Reiner, Ann Bancroft and her husband Mel Brooks, along with others. When everyone was leaving Merv’s ex-wife Julann asked me to stay for dinner to discuss something. While dining with her and her son Tony, she pitched a game show to me that she had run two years before for seven weeks on a local station. Merv would not take it to network TV. I had just failed at selling two game shows that I owned “Strike It Rich” and “The Big Payoff” hosted by the likes of Monte Hall and Ed McMahon. Obviously, I had no interest in pursuing another. On the way out I thanked her for dinner. Casually, I remarked “What is the name of the show.” She replied “Jeopardy.” That’s the one that I let get away. It is important to note that she, not Merv, created Jeopardy.
In closing I would like to thank Tommy for the hospitality and friendship he has shown during out time together. We could only scratch the surface with the time we had. That being said, never a man to waste time, he has embarked on his latest project. He is writing a book on his extraordinary life. Stay tuned.