Sam Slater, who built HCP Sports from a self-described one-man band into a leader in live video sports programming, is retiring.
But don’t expect the affable horseman to disappear from the jump-racing scene. Chairman of the National Steeplechase Foundation, he will continue to be a regular at many race meets and will serve as the non-executive chairman of HCP Sports, which he owns.
“It was just the right time,” said Slater, 65. “I have a lot of other things going on, and I especially want to help non-profit organizations.” At last count, he said, he is on 12 non-profit boards. “I like to help out, and I’m also hoping to relax a little bit.”
National Steeplechase Association President Guy J. Torsilieri hailed Slater’s contributions to steeplechasing over more than 35 years. “It is impossible to describe fully how important Sam has been to our sport,” Torsilieri said. “He has been an innovator, and the service that he and HCP Sports have provided to American Steeplechasing has helped it to increase its popularity and prosper.”
American jump racing is a highly visual sport, and since the late 1970s Slater has been at the forefront of providing the images seen by sports fans around the globe. As technology has advanced, he has adopted the latest tools and applied them to chronicling the world of jump racing.
Among the many innovations over the years have been the helmet camera to provide a rider’s perspective, the use of a Steadycam to provide up-close coverage of races, and drone videography to create a unique view of a horse race.
That he chose to apply his art to steeplechasing is hardly a surprise. Steeplechase racing is in his blood, inscribed indelibly in his DNA. His maternal grandparents were Miles and Joy Valentine, leading owners into the 1980s. His mother, Jill Fanning, was a prominent horsewoman in eastern Pennsylvania, and his sister, Joy, was a top rider who once had a mount in the Grand National at Aintree, England.
While his sister was beginning her ascent in the sport, Slater took up the camera to record the races. The races and the camera had to be timed with care. “In those days, the film cartridges were three minutes long,” he said, and the film-maker had to hope that the horses were behind a stand of trees when the time came to switch cartridges.
He continued his film work while attending the University of Pennsylvania, and he subsequently landed work overseas with David Balding, a cousin of prominent British trainers Ian and Toby Balding. Based in London, David Balding provided independently produced footage to the BBC that included auto races, the Grand National, the Epsom Derby, and the Irish Derby.
Those were heady times for horse racing in England and Ireland, when the sons of Northern Dancer were rewriting the record books by winning one classic race after another. Slater was there for The Minstrel’s triumph in the 1977 Epsom Derby. “The experience with David opened my eyes to the possibilities,” he said.
Back in the States, Slater was asked to put together a film crew for the 1979 Maryland Hunt Cup, in which his mother had a starter, British import Cancottage. “I said, ‘Okay, that sounds good.’ ” The film crew he recruited was one of the best, from the Sabol family’s Philadelphia-based NFL Films, and Slater was on his way toward creating Hunt Cup Productions, the predecessor to HCP Sports.
Helping to put together the 1979 crew was Damon Sinclair, who became Slater’s business partner and now heads HCP Sports.
Slater entered the sports-video world at an auspicious time. ESPN was getting started, and it desperately needed content. Plus, the home-video revolution had begun, and affordable equipment was becoming available. Slater shot some early editions of the Colonial Cup, and in 1982 was asked by Foxfield race director Steve Groat to record that Virginia meet.
Perhaps the biggest breakthrough was the first Breeders’ Cup Steeplechase in 1986 at Fair Hill, which Groat then was managing. Hunt Cup Productions was hired to provide live footage from the Maryland course as part of NBC’s coverage of the third Breeders’ Cup World Championships at Santa Anita Park in Southern California.
Steadily, Hunt Cup Productions added new clients, and late in the 1990s the National Steeplechase Association approached Slater about videotaping all of the race meets. The pace could be hectic, especially when three race meets are being run on the same day.
Slater said he and his wife, Lornie Forbes, will not miss the frenetic pace of race day and the worry about everything working as it should. Still, he looked back over those years and declared them to be time well spent.
“I won’t miss worrying about whether everyone was paid and that I was paid,” he said. “Through the years, we’ve employed a few hundred people. For the most part, we’ve had a good time doing it.”