Spotlight On: Jeff Zidek

The Meadows’ jack of all trades assumes yet another role as announcer

story by Evan Pattak

If you could use only one word to describe Jeff Zidek, it would be “multitasker.” He’s able to cram so much into each moment that you wonder how he keeps the balls in the air. Over the past 32 years at The Meadows, he’s been the public address announcer, backup race caller, public relations director and co-host of “The Meadows Racing Network” and its current incarnation, “Meadows Live!”

Step up to a digital kiosk to listen to a wagering tutorial, and it’s Zidek’s voice you hear. Crack open the race program and you’ll find Zidek’s picks under his nom de course, The Professor. Add stints as publicist and webmaster for the Meadows Standardbred Owners Association (MSOA), publicist for the Pennsylvania Fairs and president of the Pennsylvania Fair Harness Horsemen’s Association, and you get a sense of Zidek’s presence. Did we mention that for a few years he trained his own stable, racing primarily at Northfield Park?

But wait—that’s only half of it. During much of that service to The Meadows, the MSOA and the fairs, he worked simultaneously as sports information director for Saint Vincent College, about 40 miles east of the track in Latrobe. He also founded and coached the varsity bowling team, ran the campus TV station, and enjoyed faculty status, teaching such courses as video production.

On a typical day, Zidek would finish his work in academia, highball it along Interstate 70 to the track, fish his Meadows shirt out of a drawer, and ease into the co-host’s chair just as the lights came on. Even then, his multitasking wasn’t done. While on the air but unseen to viewers, he would work the internet, updating statistics for the teams in his SID portfolio, or chatting up a bowling recruit. And he’s a family man to boot, somehow carving out time for his wife, Jackie, and his children: Ryan, a photographer and graphic designer, and Sara, a senior at the College of Wooster.

All that changed dramatically in November 2019 when The Meadows named Zidek to succeed the legendary Roger Huston as its full-time race caller. He retained his coaching position at Saint Vincent, but as he says in this conversation with Evan Pattak, for the first time in his career, he’s pretty much focused on one thing.

HB: It’s unusual for someone to become a full-time race caller—at a year-round venue—and find that he’s less busy than ever.

Zidek: The tempo is a little slower. As a college sports information director, I was responsible for keeping tabs on 24 sports. Here we have one. I have one very focused job, yet I’m accustomed to being pulled in 20 different directions. I guess when you get to this age in life, this is what you want, this is what you aim for, a way to slow down a little.

But I’m still in that transitional period where it’s difficult for me. I will say that I no longer handicap while driving down I-70. I now wait until I get to the track to open my program.

HB: So, you’re cured of multitasking?

Zidek: I might still answer an email while I’m reading the order of finish, but I probably shouldn’t.

HB: Take us through your typical day at the track.

Zidek: I get here at 9 a.m. each race day. I look over the program, make some notes for the show, try to come up with what I call my value plays, do some work for The Meadows Facebook page and answer any questions I’ve received from horsemen.

Then I take a walk through the casino and racebook and talk to racing fans because there’s always somebody with a question about today’s races. I’m always happy to answer. I’m accustomed to being around people, but I now spend five hours a day sitting in a booth talking to an unseen audience. So, I enjoy the opportunity to go downstairs and talk to patrons. That to me is one of the best parts of the job. In fact, we’re actually thinking about doing the first part of each show from the racebook to get it closer to fans.

HB: Many race callers dreamed of that job as kids calling mock races in front of their TVs. Were you one of those?

Zidek: When I was a kid, my grandfather and parents used to bring me to The Meadows once a year. My grandfather was such a big racing fan that he’d take a couple weeks off each year to tour East Coast racetracks, all the way from here to Hialeah and back. He passed away when I was 8, but he always told me I would be a sports broadcaster someday. It’s kind of funny that I ended up being a broadcaster in his favorite sport, but it was completely unplanned. I never gave it a thought as a potential career.

Then, when I was 18, the cable TV system in my community began carrying The Meadows Racing Network, and it rekindled my interest. At the time, I was a communications major at Saint Vincent and hoping for an internship at The Meadows the following summer. I was looking strictly at the PR end of it. I wanted to work in public relations, advertising, media. I wanted to promote the sport.

So, I sent Roger a letter to introduce myself. He called me up the next day—he didn’t know what my voice sounded like, which was good because I’ve sounded like a 70-year-old chain smoker since I was 12. He offered me a part-time job as in-house PA announcer. I took it and began working each Sunday night for $50, decent money for a student in 1987.

The job grew to four days a week. At the same time, I took a class in voice and articulation that really helped me develop more of an interest in broadcasting. Eventually, Roger invited me to call our baby races one Saturday morning. I did that a few times, then filled in for him once when he was out of town. After that, I was the regular backup.

HB: Your apprenticeship was remarkably short.

Zidek: In my opinion, you either can call races or you can’t, and you don’t find out for sure until that gate springs for the first time. If somebody isn’t meant to do it, I don’t think he can do it. I don’t memorize fields. I don’t color-code anything. I hold the program in my right hand, binoculars in my left. I wear a headset mic, and I glance back and forth the whole time. That’s just how I’ve always done it. I’ve never changed from the first race I ever called.

HB: How would you describe your race-calling style?

Zidek: My style is more low key than Roger’s—that’s deliberate. I never felt it was my job to imitate Roger when he wasn’t here. My job was to be something different, and I’ve consciously tried to be that from the start.

I had some models along the way. Probably the most influential on my style was John Bothe at The Meadowlands. He was low key, but he could get a little fired up when circumstances called for it. I always had a lot of respect for Greg Young at Northfield and the way he added some humor to his calls. I ended up subbing for Greg for about 10 years. And I always liked the calls of Robin Burns. You’ll notice I’m mentioning guys who were big back when I started. There are a lot of great race callers now, but those who influenced me were the stars of the ’80s.

HB: You must have had some reservations about succeeding Roger, a harness racing icon, knowing that some fans would compare you unfavorably to him. Did that give you pause?

Zidek: To be very honest, I never gave it a thought because I’d been here with Roger for 32 years. Had I been called in to replace, say, the late “Bullet” Bob Meyer at Yonkers, I might have felt pressure because I didn’t know him and everybody there did. But I honestly never felt that.

I’ve known everybody here for so long that I don’t feel I have to live up to a standard set by Roger. I think Roger would understand that as well. My attitude is, I intend to be the same race caller, the same person on the air that I’ve always been. I’m not walking into a new environment. I’m still sitting in the same booth, using the same headset, looking out the same window that I’ve looked out for 32 years.

Listen—as far as entertainment venues go, I’ve spent the bulk of my life at racetracks, bowling alleys, and casinos. The Meadows has all three. This is a dream job for me.

HB: I haven’t researched this, but I’m pretty sure you’re the world’s only race caller/bowling coach. What does a bowling coach do?

Zidek: We do every possible aspect of coaching, whether it’s how to play the lanes or improving approach, delivery, and hand positioning. In the last month, I’ve been in Florida and Nevada recruiting. This morning I had breakfast with a recruit from Michigan.

I built the program from the ground up—we started with a women’s team, and we’re adding a men’s team this fall—and I’m very proud of it. We’re NCAA Division III, so we don’t offer athletic scholarships, but last year we finished with the second-highest winning percentage in the NCAA. Until 1994, the college had lanes on campus, but we use commercial bowling centers now. The last pieces of the Saint Vincent lanes are now tables in my office.

HB: How did you get so deeply involved in bowling?

Zidek: I enjoyed watching the Pro Bowlers Tour on TV, so when I was about 7, my dad took me bowling. I loved it. I joined a kids’ league the next year and found out quickly that I was good at it. So good that, later, I wanted to go pro . . . and I had some guys who wanted to sponsor me. Averages then compared to averages now are different because in the ’80s, we didn’t have today’s ball and lane technology. Back then I averaged around 204. I average 215 now at age 51, but I’m prouder of my 204 average at 18 because that was more of an accomplishment in that era.

Here was the problem: I was 145 pounds soaking wet trying to throw a 16-pound ball five nights a week, and I destroyed my thumb and wrist. By the time I was 21, I had to give it up because I’d caused so much damage to myself. I didn’t bowl for 14 years, came back when I was 35, bowled for a few more years, got hurt again with the same injury, and quit again.

Finally, I had surgery last year that fixed the damage, and I actually tried a couple of senior pro tour events. I bowled a PBA50 regional event in Dayton and a national touring event in Indiana. I finished near the bottom of the pack in both, but it was a bucket list thing. I’ll probably try it again this summer.

HB: Speaking of bucket lists, what would you like to accomplish as a race caller? When it’s time for you to pass the mic, how would you like to be remembered?

Zidek: I’m not looking to be a legend like Roger. I’m not looking to be a benchmark—“Work hard and you can be the next Jeff Zidek.” That’s never been my goal in life. I just want to come in, do my job, enjoy what I do, make it as enjoyable as possible for the people who listen to me and work with me and then go home to my family. Someday, if people want to look back and say, “Jeff was a good announcer,” I’m content with that.

Evan Pattak is a veteran harness writer, publicist, on-air analyst/commentator, and owner whose 2009 Hoof Beats article on horse slaughter won the John Hervey Award. He provides public relations services to the MSOA. To comment on this column, email us at readerforum@ustrotting.com.

 

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