By Rob Potter
MONTICELLO August 17, 2007 Harness racing is in John Manzi’s blood.
So much so, in fact, that if someone didn’t know better, they would think that he was at least 1/4 thoroughbred.
Earlier this year, after a lifetime of living, eating and breathing harness racing, Manzi was inducted into the Communicator’s Corner of the Harness Racing Hall of Fame in Goshen.
Manzi, for those who don’t know him, is the Public Relations Director of Monticello Raceway, a position he has held since 1980.
Friendly, charismatic and, at times, a little wacky, Manzi was not always as such.
He was born in Brooklyn and was raised in Mongaup Valley, only a few miles away from Monticello Raceway.
Manzi was immersed in harness racing, even at an early age.
His father, John Manzi Sr., raced horses. His two uncles, Al and Richard, also raced horses.
In addition, John Jr.’s cousin, Catello “Cat” Manzi is also a Hall of Famer who has won hundreds of races in his spectacular career and still competes today.
By 1958, three years before he would graduate from Monticello High School, John Manzi was working as a trainer at the stables he and his family owned locally.
As soon as he was able, Manzi began his racing career.
“I won seven out of eight of my first races at local county fairs,” Manzi said, “but it took me about 26 races on the major circuit to win my first.”
Manzi may have been down, but wasn’t going to let something like this stop him from living a dream.
“In 1974, after living and racing all over the East Coast, I got a chance to come back home,” he said.
In April of that year, Manzi became the assistant to Monticello Raceway Racing Secretary Ralph Swalsky.
“He gave me a good working background and taught me a great work ethic that still stays with me today,” Manzi said of Swalsky.
Two years later, after a brief stint as Racing Secretary, General Manager Leo Doobin “kicked me upstairs, so to speak, and moved me into the field of publicity and public relations.”
Manzi said that the move left him bitter.
“I was scared to death of public speaking, back then but now, you can’t get me to shut up!,” he commented.
This personal growth came slowly, he said, and was the result of a number of factors, some of which included his working with two industry greats.
“I had the good fortune of watching and befriending the greatest PR man of them all, Allen Finkelson,” Manzi said.
Manzi admired Finkelson, who was the PR Director at the raceway until 1976, and tried to mimic his every move so that one day he might become as great.
From 1976 to 1980, Manzi was assistant to the new PR Director, Andy “Satch” Furman, whom Manzi described as “a dynamo.”
“He was a real natural,” Manzi said. “He would do almost anything to get publicity, and I learned more from him in nine months than I could’ve in three years of college.”
Manzi described Furman as hardworking and original, two attributes he says he has tried hard to take on for himself.
Furman left Monticello Raceway in 1980 after a publicity stunt went a little too far for some people’s taste.
With an opening available, and with six years at the raceway and nearly 25 years in harness racing under his belt, Manzi took over as PR Director.
Its been 27 years since then, and Manzi has done a lot to gain national notoriety for “his raceway.”
“Its been a great time,” he said. “I’ve done some crazy stuff.”
From racing elephants, to camels, to elephants against camels (“Who would’ve thought an elephant could beat a camel?” he asked), to having a former New York Giant football player race against a horse, Manzi has built quite the repertoire.
“I’ve even raced horses down Main Street Monticello to get attention for the raceway,” he said.
“And you know what? It never gets old.”
Even as racing popularity has declined, Manzi has stayed hopeful.
“When [Raceway Senior Vice President] Cliff Ehrlich switched us over to daytime racing a while back, it saved us from going belly up,” Manzi commented. “And again, I think things are looking up for us. There’s so much money on the line now thanks to the casino here.”
And after seeing so much, and being at the helm of the Monticello Raceway PR office for nearly 30 years, one thing remains supremely important to Manzi.
“It’s the people,” he said. “I’ve never made a lot of money, but I sure have made a lot of friends.”
And what does the future hold for Manzi?
“Man, I’ll be here ‘till I can’t work anymore,” he said. “I plan on being here forever.”