Making the Call

Mike Hall reflects on a ‘tremendous’ career in the judges’ stand

by James Witherite

For decades, NFL referee Ed Hochuli was noted for his encyclopedic knowledge of the rules and penchant for providing detailed in-game explanations of close calls on the gridiron. Andy Van Hellemond and Wes McCauley likewise became household names among hockey fans and gained favor on the ice through their common-sense discretion and healthy rapport with players.
Admittedly, most officials—regardless of the sport—anonymously blend into the fabric. The memorable ones are few and far between. Over the past three decades, Mike Hall has stamped himself as one of harness racing’s preeminent judges, adjudicating over tens of thousands of races and standing out among officials through his application of a perfect blend of knowledge, clarity and common sense.

“Over the years, your philosophy for judging changes from being an extreme stickler to figuring out that common sense should rule, both on the track and off. Once you figure out that you don’t have to nitpick every little thing 100 percent of the time, it seems to work out better for everybody. Sometimes a good talking to is way better than having a penalty.”

For Hall, the journey to the judges’ stand began in 1990, on a particularly cold January day in his native Maine.
“It was freezing cold—it was below zero and the wind was blowing. I think I had about 15 horses,” said Hall, who in 1990 was stabled in Cumberland, Maine, after catching the harness racing bug in his teenage years and taking out his trainer’s license in 1983. “I just happened to get Hoof Beats, and I saw an article that they were looking to train a person to be a judge. Actually, at the time, I knew very little about what the judges did. I took care of my business and tried to stay out of their business.”
Encouraged by a desire to escape long hours in the bitter New England cold, Hall—who graduated from The Ohio State University’s two-year equine program—threw his hat in the ring, and little did he know at the time the magnitude of that decision.

“The internship was a combination of funding from the North American Judges and Stewards Association, the Meadowlands and the USTA. It ended up that 35 people applied, and they picked out however many they wanted to interview in person. The interviews were at the Meadowlands. It was Chip Hastings, Stan Bergstein and I think Hugh Gallagher.”
Lo and behold, Hall got the internship, and it laid the foundation for a career that can only be described as—as Hall is so fond of saying—“tremendous.”
“I went to the USTA, did the school and took the test,” said Hall. “Then, I went to the Meadowlands and was an intern there for eight or 10 weeks, and then I got my first job as an associate judge at Northfield Park.”

Hall worked at Northfield, just outside Cleveland, for five years, under presiding judges Tim Fouts and Steve Fields, before his first stint at the helm, across Interstate 90 at the now-defunct Raceway Park, in Toledo, Ohio. Hall cites one particular experience with Fields that helped shape him into the official he is now:
“One night, we missed a call, and one of the ladies from the clubhouse said there were some guys down there waiting for us,” Hall said. “Steve says, ‘Thanks a lot for telling us.’ She said, ‘They’re not angry or anything; they just want to ask you something when you come down.’ Steve said to me, knowing my demeanor at the time, ‘You walk right behind me and shut your mouth.’ The guys confronted him, and Steve handled it as professionally as we could. We missed a guy running into somebody else, and it was just one of those things that we were looking at something else and missed it.

“I was so fortunate to work with him. The first few years, he showed me how to do this, how to do that.”

After two years as the presiding judge in Toledo and two more at Northfield following Fields’ retirement, Hall’s journey took him to all three commercial harness tracks in Pennsylvania, marked by a 10-season stay in the stand at Harrah’s Philadelphia, where he presided over the action from the track’s 2006 opening. Seven years later, on June 19, 2013, Hall’s life changed again—but by his own admission, he’s extremely fortunate it changed rather than ended.

“It was a beautiful night out and I took a motorcycle ride, and never got home again for about two months,” he recalled. “I got hit by a drunk driver about three miles from my house. Multiple fractures—both femurs, five vertebrae, and a lot of other stuff.

“They said, ‘What about the guy that hit you?’ I wrote a letter to the court that said, ‘I don’t care if he has any penalty; I just want him to stop drinking and driving.’ There was a rule in Delaware that he had to go to jail—he had to go for three years. I’m hoping he doesn’t drink and drive anymore. I never saw the guy; never spoke to him. People got a lot worse than myself; I was still breathing when it was over.

“It makes you think different of how important some things are that really aren’t as important as you thought they were,” he continued. “Since those years, my philosophy on judging has changed—it’s probably not softer, but understanding that you don’t have to give a penalty for every little thing that happens.”

It’s hard to keep a good man down. With the aid of a wheelchair and his fellow officials, Hall returned to the stand that same October—albeit in an associate role—and has since undergone extensive rehabilitation to regain the ability to walk. He remained at Harrah’s Philadelphia until 2015, when he moved to Harrah’s Hoosier Park to work as a judge and investigator for the Indiana Racing Commission until 2021 before retiring—OK, semi-retiring—to warmer environs in Arizona.

“I went to Running Aces that summer,” he explained. “Then, the next year, I didn’t want to be gone from here for that long, but I went to work in New York that summer—at Vernon and Yonkers. I was driving home, but before I could get home, I stopped at The Meadows, and I was there for four months. Actually, this past year, I only worked for 10 days in Minnesota, and that was it. After the meet was over, Bob Corey retired, so I knew they were going to need somebody.”

This May, Hall will embark on his 35th season as a judge, rejoining the crew at Running Aces and fulfilling one of his most passionate professional pursuits: helping develop new officials.
The baton has been passed. Just as Hastings, Fouts and Fields were instrumental in Hall finding his path as a racing official, Hall is committed to paying it forward. Since his time at Harrah’s Philadelphia, Hall has gotten his greatest professional satisfaction from taking new officials under his wing, both on the job and in the classroom.

“I have no interest anymore in being a presiding judge—I’ve seen it and done it—but I sure have interest in working with a guy who’s not as experienced and might need a little guidance once in a while,” said Hall, who has taught at numerous Racing Officials Accreditation Program seminars and USTA continuing education events.

“I so enjoy teaching the new people. You can tell that some of them think they know all about what they need to do, but by the time they’re into it a few weeks, they find out, ‘Boy, I don’t know [anything] about this.’”

One of the judges Hall influenced is Tom Salerno, who started with Hall at Harrah’s Philadelphia in 2006 and is currently the presiding judge at the Meadowlands.

“He’s in the top five judges I’ve ever worked with, and you know why? He’s got common sense, he doesn’t do anything foolish, and he doesn’t do anything if it doesn’t need to be done,” Hall said. “I’ve worked with a lot of people during their first judging duty, and within the first couple weeks of getting to learn the routine, he had it down.”

In more recent years, Hall has mentored a couple other promising officials, teaming up with the USTA’s Official’s Internship Training Program in one notable instance.

“John Zawistowski interned with us at Running Aces when I was there in 2021,” explained Hall, who, along with then Running Aces presiding judge Bob Corey and Minnesota Racing Commission administration, provided five weeks of intensive, all-encompassing hands-on experience. “Then the USTA had a job lined up for him in Kentucky, and then after that he went to Ohio and Indiana.
“Then, after that, at The Meadows, we had a girl there named Jaclyn Lees. We trained her while I was there, and now she’s an associate judge. She was a top-notch investigator, but she went to the accreditation school and all that. It was real nice watching a younger person that wanted to learn about the job.”

As for what makes a good judge?

“You have to know the rulebook, you have to know when to apply it and how to apply it, and you have to be able to get along with people when they’re not in the best mood,” said Hall. “Most times, when you’re doing something, you’re messing with somebody’s money.”

Given the thousands of dollars at stake—for horsepeople and bettors alike—every time the starter says “go,” Hall believes strongly in treating all parties with a vested interest in the outcome of each race with transparency and fairness. In the same vein as Hochuli and other NFL officials, Hall has long been a proponent of judges joining racetrack broadcasts to provide their rationale for disqualifications and other incidents, and he wishes the practice would take hold more universally.

“We started that at Northfield when I was there with Steve Fields,” Hall said. “He was a fan of the process, but he wasn’t a great fan of going on and explaining, so sometimes I did it. I don’t understand why they don’t do it everywhere. They’re the ones making the decision; why shouldn’t they explain it? I’ve heard so many excuses—‘Oh, we can’t do that.’ Well, why can’t you? You don’t have to get into a long-winded deal; just make sure you have cooperation with the TV department to have the shot set up right.”

In most issues on the track, judges have a fair bit of discretion in how to achieve a fair playing field. But in the case of certain absolute rules and zero-tolerance policies, Hall feels the pursuit of consistency in application often comes at the expense of fairness for participants.

“In the 1990s, a horse got a positive for morphine at The Meadows,” Hall recalled. “They brought in a chemist from Allegheny County, and he had a box of poppyseed crackers with him. He said to me, ‘Judge, if you ate that box of crackers, you’d have more morphine in your system than that horse.’ I’m sure it was a contaminant, but what were you going to do? It’s impossible to use common sense on those things because the rules of a particular commission are written in stone and they don’t bend. Although, which would you rather have: consistency or fairness?”
Beyond contaminants, withdrawal times and minor overages, Hall feels that racing rules written in such a way that remove all nuance and room for interpretation likewise have the potential to do more damage than good.

“The rules that have a number attached to them are the ones that cause problems,” Hall continued. “I saw this happen: A horse was on top by three or four lengths and he goes off stride, the driver takes him out of the way, he goes all the way back to last but probably ran 25 or 27 strides. When he got him back trotting, he caught up and finished third. He was 40 lengths behind and finished third, and they placed him last. Those rules lend consistency, but they don’t always lend fairness.”

From Mike Hall’s first foray into harness racing—when his father and uncle went in together on a $600 claimer in the early 1970s—to his storied tenure as a racing official at over a dozen tracks, the impact the sport has had on him—and he on it—is immeasurable. And his work in developing the next generation of the sport’s judges is cause for optimism that common sense and fairness for all harness racing participants will continue to be of utmost importance.

“Of the people who run a race meet, what they want to happen is that there’ll never be any infractions or interference,” Hall said during a speech at the 2011 World Trotting Conference, in Jersey City, N.J. “But that’s not going to happen, so the best thing to have is a trained crew of officials to take care of the problems when they do
happen.” HB

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