by Teresa Genaro
In January of 2013, did you watch Bullet Catcher run down Route 1 in Maryland, followed closely by jockey Abel Castellano, tracking the horse in his car?
A few months later, did you observe Spicer Cub’s terrifying trip (above), en route to finishing second at Pimlico?
Did you ever look for a free race replay from a Maryland track, happy to discover that every single one is available on YouTube?
If you did, you have Mike Gathagan to thank.
The vice-president of communications for the Maryland Jockey Club, Gathagan ended a 14-year tenure on Sunday, leaving his position to assume new responsibilities at the Baltimore-based Maryland Catholic Conference.
“I’ve got a real chance to make a difference,” said Gathagan recently by phone. “That’s the main reason I’m leaving. This position has got a great upside.”
Making a difference isn’t new to Gathagan, who helmed the press office at the MJC during an era that saw a major evolution in communications. When he came to the position in 2001, Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube didn’t exist, and both the Baltimore Sun and the Washington Post employed writers who regularly covered the local racing scene.
Before the decade was over, the landscape was nearly unrecognizable, the emergence of social media combining with the decline of traditional coverage and the almost total loss of local coverage.
“We were at a disadvantage without having a beat writer,” said Gathagan, “especially with no one from the [Daily Racing] Form here. We had to come up with different ways to get coverage.
“People would cover the Triple Crown, some would cover the Maryland Million and occasionally the DeFrancis Dash, but we had to come up with something a little different.”
Incidents like those with Bullet Catcher and Spicer Cub fit the bill, especially because neither horse was injured. Both came back to win races, which generated even more coverage, both locally and, especially, nationally. Bullet Catcher made Deadspin, while the Spicer Cub incident was covered by The Guardian.
“That’s the method behind the madness,” Gathagan said of the sometimes-crazy stories to come out of Maryland. “We had to generate some coverage.”
The Spicer Cub video on YouTube has been viewed nearly 150,000 times.
“Unless it’s bad news,” said Gathagan, “we don’t usually get a lot of coverage at Laurel. Pimlico’s a different story; Laurel is always the struggle, so I just tried to hustle as much coverage as possible. You’ve got to adapt.”
Part of that adaptation was entering the world of Twitter, something at which Gathagan initially looked askance but that he came to embrace.
“When they first told me I had to do it, I was like, ‘Oh, another thing I have to do,’” he recalled. “But I really like tweeting and I’m going to miss it. I’ve gotten more than 2,200 followers, which is pretty cool.”
At first content to wait for track photographer Jim McCue to send photos following a race, before long Gathagan took a more assertive role, heading to the finish line to take his own photos to tweet out.
“That happened when I got a better phone,” he explained, with a bit of a laugh.
Gathagan has taken those 2,000+ followers with him, switching his official MJC account to a personal one. He’s not sure how often he’ll tweet now, but he’s convinced that his social media presence was a plus in his interviews with the Maryland Catholic Conference.
Typically, one of Gathagan’s last official MJC tweets was about a jockey.
— Mike Gathagan (@MikeGathagan) February 1, 2015
If you followed Gathagan’s timeline or were on his mailing list, you could be pretty certain to know when a jockey got his or her first win or hit a milestone, and to get a photo of the traditional acknowledgement of the accomplishment, the jockey getting hit with a bucket of water from the rest of the colony on the way back to the jocks’ room. Gathagan’s promotion of the riders on his circuit was steadfast, and among his favorite memories is the campaign he helped put together when Ryan Fogelsonger won the Eclipse Award for Outstanding Apprentice Jockey in 2002.
“We didn’t have a DRF beat writer, so I was using stats and Excel spreadsheets,” he reminisced. “It was really fun to build that campaign, to generate some buzz. I was proud to have a small role in that, to promote a kid who really improved during his bug year and became a good friend of mine.”
2015 is a time of transition for the Maryland Jockey Club. At the end of November, the Stronach Group, which owns Laurel and Pimlico, announced the departure of MJC president and CEO Tom Chuckas, who had been with the company since 2008. In early December, Sal Sinatra joined the MJC as vice-president and general manager. He will serve under Tim Ritvo, who in 2012 was appointed chief operating office of the Stronach Group’s racing division.
Shortly after the announcement of Chuckas’s departure, Gathagan learned of the position at the Maryland Catholic Conference.
“It’s been a great run, and I think Maryland racing is going in the right direction,” he reflected. “The corporate office has Maryland racing, especially Pimlico, in the forefront. I hope the Stronach Group is really patient with what Tim and Sal want to do. I think the future is bright.”
Gathagan has offered to lend a hand as the Triple Crown season approaches, but on May 16th, he hopes that the 140th Preakness is not , for the first since in nearly 15 years, one that he’ll be working.
“I always said that when I left the track, I want to be in the Turf Terrace on Preakness Day,” he said.
“I truly love Pimlico,” he went on. “When I pull off Northern Parkway and onto Winner Avenue, and I think about all the great horses that have been here…I’ll certainly miss it.”
(Featured image, of Spicer Cub, by Jim McCue, Maryland Jockey Club.)