04/21/2011 12:18PM

Q&A: Jeremy Plonk


Along with his Horse Player Now (www.horseplayernow.com) co-owner, Joe Kristufek, he co-hosts “Night School,” an interactive, online fan education forum, every Monday night from 8:30-10 p.m. Eastern. It is carried on several racing-related websites, including drf.com and ntra.com.

Birthdate: Oct. 2, 1971, in Hanover, Pa.

Family: wife, Andrea; daughter, Sophia

Got into racing because. . . “My mom tells me that I could read the Racing Form before I could read a book, so I guess it was meant to be – and you can blame my dad. My family has zero connection to racing other than a fan’s passion. While an undergrad at the University of Oklahoma, meeting and talking with Jim McKay at Churchill Downs’s Collegiate Sports Journalism Seminar back in 1993 sealed the deal. I wish they’d bring that program back. Without it, I’m probably covering a high-school tennis tournament somewhere this week and not gearing up for my 16th Kentucky Derby.”

What made you and Joe want to launch this project? “We unveiled ‘Night School’ on a localized basis with Arlington Park’s website last summer. We did five sessions but could tell within 20 minutes that we had something. Plus, we’ve been doing live chats almost daily for XpressBet for more than a year, and that really helps our team have a finger on the pulse of horseplayers. I get tired of hearing how the industry is dying and nobody has any good ideas, so Joe and I rolled up our sleeves and tried to make the industry an offer it couldn’t refuse.”

Racing has talked a long time about needing to improve fan education, but it seems as though you and Joe are among the very few actually doing something about it: “Well, that’s good for business (laughing). It’s an outsourced world, racing or not, and we’re aggressive about our ideas and seeing them through. For a two-man company, people in the industry love working with us because there’s no red tape, no conflicts of interest, and no long delays in decision-making. How we herded more than 30 cats to take part in this project, many of which are otherwise competing factions, might be the crowning achievement.”

Can you envision this project being incorporated by individual tracks for on-site use, especially at tracks that get a lot of beginners, like the popular summer-racing sites? “Pimlico is bringing us in for the Preakness for the second year in a row. Our crew, led by 20-something Brian Spencer, will be in the Wagering 101 infield tent at Pimlico working with fans. And Joe has been doing this on track for years at Arlington. I’m just riding his coattails online. If we do well enough, there’s a ‘Night School’ on-track tour concept in the works, yes.”

Both you and Joe have been involved in the game for years as journalists and handicappers. Let’s give everybody a brief rundown of your street cred: “Joe is the morning-line maker at Arlington and still has his feet wet at the track level. He and I met in 1999, when we were on-air hosts for The Racing Network. That went out of business, so I guess we’re better on the web than we were on TV, huh? I was track handicapper at Remington Park in the mid-1990s while also calling the official Equibase charts there. As a free-lancer for more than a decade now, I provide stats and research for NBC Sports, have provided research for a few hundred shows for ESPN, and have been an ESPN.com columnist since 2000. I also spent four years as editor of ‘The HorsePlayer Magazine.’ ”

Are the seminars designed for beginners or more advanced handicappers? “We try to accommodate both. By having anywhere from three to five experts on the panel, one panelist, usually me, will try to talk directly to newbies. At the same time, Gary Stevens might be telling a more advanced player what a turf foot looks like.”

There are study materials that can be downloaded before each seminar. Who puts all that together? “Joe and I develop the study materials for each session while blabbering on the instant messenger on our computers, bouncing ideas back and forth. We then merge our page with the one Daily Racing Form produces each week, so fans get a two-pronged set of notes.”

How can people access the study material and the Monday seminars? “Any of the more than 30 websites throughout the industry provides the seminar archives and live events, which link to the materials. Visit drf.com or your local track website, and I’ll bet it’s there.”

Your seminars also include Caton Bredar, who, in addition to being a terrific handicapper and broadcast journalist, happens to be a very nice person: “Caton joined the Horse Player Now team in January, and I’m proud to have her and Bob Neumeier in our family. It says a lot when folks of that repute want to connect with racing fans on a personal basis.”

Besides Caton and Neumy, who are the other regular or semi-regular contributors to the project? “Jill Byrne has been on almost weekly. We worked with Jill when we were providing daily racing chats for Churchill Downs a few meets back, and she’s just got a spark and knowledge that connects with fans.”

Monday will be the 10th of 40 scheduled forums. This past week, trainer intent was the topic. What are some of the upcoming topics that are scheduled? “Jockey handicapping, strategies for handicapping the Derby, and specific strategies to specific wager types are in the immediate next few weeks.”

Who are some of the guests you are hoping to have on for upcoming forums? “We’ve already had Gary Stevens, Donna Brothers, Ken McPeek, Tom Amoss, Randy Moss, Mike Welsch, Andy Serling, and many other well-known guests. Steve Crist from DRF has committed to joining us later in the year, and we’re excited about that, while Bob Baffert looks like he’s game to join us when his schedule permits. I’d love to have Dick Jerardi and Jeff Siegel and so many others.”

In general, do you think racing is doing enough on the web? “Absolutely. There’s not much you can’t do online when you talk about horse racing, from stats to interaction to live video to placing a bet. Tracks like Keeneland are an absolute forerunner on this stuff when it comes to technology. If anything, more live video, even if just for feature races.”

What other ways can web users be reached by racing interests? “Be personal. Not everything online has to be a senseless YouTube video gone viral. For fans to become serious horse-racing customers, you’re looking to go from zero to 60. You’re not starting at 20 or 30 miles per hour. Racing is presenting itself well on the Internet. It just takes time.”

Have to ask you, since we’re only weeks away – who is your Derby horse? “My last two picks were Conveyance and Mr. Hot Stuff, so I obviously overthink the race as it gets closer and get too cute. It’s Nehro today. I’ll probably wind up with 70-1 Twice the Appeal winning by May 7, so please freeze this pick in time.”

Best horse seen? “Little Bold John was a win machine in Maryland growing up, and I don’t care how old you get or how many greats you’ve seen in recent years, you always think things were better when you were younger! And why not hold on to those memories?”

Hobbies? “With a young daughter and a business that requires constant attention, my life right now is dedicated to being the best dad and husband I can be when I’m not working. I will always sneak in time to watch my beloved Oklahoma Sooners.”

Future ambitions? “At 39, I’ve already worked professionally in the media for more than 20 years. I just want to keep things going on the path they are. I love life, and horse racing has been a big part of that. I hope some day people say that Joe Kristufek and I did something to help turn the corner for the game. On a more serious note, hitting the Derby superfecta in two weeks ranks up there pretty high, too.”