By Jim Charvat
Connie Broge © Benoit Photo
Disneyland lays claim to being the “Happiest Place on Earth” but anyone who has spent time in the winner’s circle at Del Mar knows that Mickey and his friends have a close rival.
Getting to the winner’s circle is the culmination of weeks or even months of hard work and patience preparing a Thoroughbred to race. There’s the daily care, the fitness building gallops and workouts, and the schooling at the gate and in the paddock.
Then comes race day. The walkover to the receiving barn then on to the paddock. The saddling in front of dozens of gawking onlookers. Just the recipe for unsettling a racehorse.
Once on the track, the horse has to get a good break, have a perfect trip and run faster than everyone else in the race. If all of that comes together, the horse and its connections earn a trip to the winner’s circle.
The story goes that from 1875 to 1929, the Kentucky Derby winner would stand on the racetrack in a circled area, drawn out in chalk dust, leading to the phrase, “winner’s circle.”
Most winner’s circles at most racetracks these days aren’t even circles. At Del Mar, it’s a rectangle. The enclosure is lined with flower beds and is about the size of some living rooms in Del Mar, with artificial turf flooring. It’s a rather small space in relation to the rest of the racetrack but it’s where everybody wants to go.
Once you get there, you get to meet Connie Broge, the winner’s circle coordinator. She’s the one who’s impeccably dressed with the infectious smile. She’s part greeter, part presenter, and part crowd controller.
Broge’s been running the winner’s circle at Del Mar since 2001 but her racetrack career started in the eighties up at Santa Anita where she did all sorts of different jobs. One in particular paved the way to the winner’s circle.
“I did the stable tours,” Broge remembers. “They started at 6 a.m. and ended by 8:30. I hopped on the tram every weekend and did 12 loops around the backside. The more I did it, the more people I got to know.”
Before long she was recruited to run the winner’s circle at Santa Anita, a job she held for 15 years.
“I had worked here at Del Mar just a few times,” Broge says. “I would help Mrs. Harper who used to have big events and I would come and help with ticketing and check-ins. When this (the Del Mar) job became available I had just left Santa Anita and we were in Carlsbad. Craig Fravel called me and asked ‘What are you doing this summer.’ I think he knew I had left Santa Anita and he said, ‘Would you like to come work for us.’ So I decided to try it for a summer. That was 22 years ago.”
Connie begins her day before the gates open and the crowds arrive. She gets everything she needs, the flowers, the bottles of bourbon, the trophies and gift bags down to the winner’s circle.
“We have a florist who delivers the flowers in the morning and I count out the right number,” Broge says. “Same thing with the liquor. I make sure I get it down there so I don’t have to carry it down through the crowd. If it’s a stakes day, I take the trophies down. Just to make the day look seamless.”
She brings four pair of shoes with her to work.
” I don’t wear them all but the track wrecks your shoes,” Broge remarks. “It destroys the glue and they break.”
Connie shows up a few minutes to post for each race with the bouquet of roses and sets it down on a table in the winner’s circle. She then retrieves the bottle of bourbon from a trackside locker. She makes a few notes in a notebook then waits for the race to go off.
Once the race is over, Connie goes into action. As the happy winners make their way into the winner’s circle she directs them where to go and stand for the picture. In the case of a victory by MyRacehorse, it’s a larger than usual group. They file in and take their places, filling up half of the enclosure. Connie walks in front of the gathering holding up her phone, instructing everyone “no phones.” That’s because when Tom Albanzy, the track photographer, takes the picture, he won’t have a photo full of people holding phones up in front of their faces.
As the owners and trainer make their way into the winner’s circle, Connie hands them flowers and bourbon. The first picture is taken with the horse and jockey. Everyone is asked not to cheer or make loud noises so as not to spook the horse. Once the first photo is taken, the jockey dismounts and goes to the nearby scales to get weighed-in while the horse is escorted out of the winner’s circle and back to his or her barn.
While all this is going on, Connie supervises, telling everyone to stay where they are until a second photo can be taken. It should be noted that she is never in the photograph.
Then everyone files out. Connie gladly fields any questions someone might have. She also takes down orders for pictures. It’s a 5-to-10 minute celebration that goes on anywhere from eight to 11 times on race day. Most of the time everything goes off without a hitch.
“I tell people my job is a cross between a hostess and a traffic cop,” Broge says. “I only do the traffic cop because that’s their (the owner’s) moment in the sun. These owners and all of the people associated with them should be able to enjoy that and be in their glory of that moment without a bunch of stupids getting in their picture or interfering with their fans.”
The dynamics around the winner’s circle have changed with the rise of fractional ownership. It has made Connie’s job more difficult but she’s not complaining.
“I started doing this job before there was any such thing as fractional ownership,” Broge says. “We had owners like Bob Lewis, who had 400 horses but when one of his horses won, it was he and Mrs. Lewis and maybe a few of their guests. Now we have fractional ownership and there are 200 owners and maybe 100 come down and they all bring a guest or two. We’re doing the same thing, just with a lot more people.
“We started seeing this in 2009 with Good Friends,” Broge continues. “That was the first really giant group that we had down here. All of us who are down there, the security people, myself and Tom (the photographer), we all started figuring out early in the day if we had the possibility of having some of those people. We’d mark our programs and if it looked like one of them was going to win we would adjust.”
There have been talks of limiting the number in the winner’s circle but Broge wonders how you could do that.
“These people are so excited,” Broge notes. “It’s like they just won the Kentucky Derby and many go on to join smaller partnerships or go on and buy horses on their own. So it is working.”
So how does a person get the job of winner’s circle coordinator? It’s certainly not something you go to school for. In Broge’s case it was a matter of getting to know people and more importantly, them getting to know her. Once you spend just a few minutes around Connie Broge and her likeable personality, you understand why she’s perfect for this kind of job.
“I knew it wasn’t lifting heavy bricks,” Broge continues. “It’s fun.”
Like many people who work at Del Mar, Connie does not ride horses or own one. She just loves being around them.
“I have a very healthy respect for horses,” Broge says. “I think they are magnificent. I know probably more (about horses) than the average person but I’m not an expert. I’ve seen the people who are at the top of this game, who own the top horses, and they are out of my league.”
But Broge is second to none as a winner’s circle coordinator. She is always trying to connect the dots and make a connection with people.
“My job is for those people who come down to the winner’s circle,” she says. “It’s just like if I go someplace I’ve never been before and I don’t know anyone and I don’t know where to go, don’t know what’s expected of me. Then somebody walks up and says ‘Hi, I’m so glad you’re here. Come over here and we’ll talk and you’re going to have your picture taken.’ And I see these people just go ‘Whew, I didn’t know what to do.’ That’s what I do.”
There can be no other job in the world that has more positive vibes on a daily basis than running a winner’s circle, except maybe the person who delivers the check to a lottery winner. Every winner gets flowers and bourbon.
“Del Mar is pretty unique in that,” Broge says. “We are pretty generous in what we do for our horsemen. The bourbon depends on who our sponsor is. This year it’s Blade and Bow.”
The color of the bouquet is random, though Connie has made a few exceptions.
“Years ago Mr. and Mrs. Bob Lewis were Oregon University fans,” Broge remembers.” They would often wear the school’s yellow and green colors. So if I knew they had a horse running I would always bring yellow roses and she was so nice about it.”
The distribution of the trophies is a little more complex. The trophies are for graded races and stakes races only.
“The racetrack provides a complimentary trophy,” Broge says, “and then often times people in larger groups want a trophy as well and I place the order for them.
“For the Grade 3, overnights and the other stakes we have trophies purchased at the factory,” Broge continues. “They’re sitting on the (factory) shelf waiting for us to give them engraving instructions. So, when we have a race and Joe Schmo wins, we send the name of the winner and the name of the race and so forth to the folks who make the trophies and then they engrave them and send them to the people.”
The Pacific Classic trophy is a little different. For one thing, it’s really heavy.
“They (the factory) send the trophy to us and we take the plate off and give the plate back to have it engraved. We then hand the trophy to the winning owner here and then they (the factory) send the plate.
“The best laid plans,” Broge chuckles. “The owner (of Arabian Knight, winner of this year’s Pacific Classic Amr) Zedan isn’t in the United States so we are going to send the entire trophy back to the factory, have them engrave it and they are going to send it to his farm in Lexington.”
Then there was the time California Chrome won the Pacific Classic in 2016.
“The man that owned the horse (Steve Coburn) put the very expensive Tiffanys trophy on his head,” Broge recalls. “A trophy that we needed to send back to Tiffanys (for engraving). That was the last I saw of it. I turned around and it was gone. I called security and told them to close the gates and don’t let a big guy with a silver trophy on his head leave. Somebody found him as he was on his way out of the racetrack.
One of her favorite parts of the job is dealing with the large group’s that come to track.
“Every race I have two people with me from the group’s (Group Sales) department,” Broge says. “These are the large groups that fill all the rooms and all of the tables. As part of the booking of a date, if the group is lucky, they get to send two people down to the winner’s circle to watch a race. These can be two people who work for a bank or a people from a group of bowling alleys.
“I had couple in a group get married in the paddock,” Broge says. “They just celebrated their 34th anniversary and they come to the racetrack every year on their anniversary so I get to see them every year.”
Connie will talk to these people prior to the race. She knows enough about the horses and the history of the track to answer most questions, but often times that’s not what they talk about.
“I had two lovely women in the winner’s circle and one of them was housing two female scientists from the Ukraine who got out after the war started. So that’s what we talked about. Who cares what the surface of the track is.”
If you don’t wish to talk horses with Connie, you can always talk about the movies. More specifically, about her career in movies.
“I had always wanted to be an extra,´ Broge says. “It looked like fun. I signed up with Central Casting and I started getting jobs for upscale older women because I was wearing my clothes from Santa Anita. I got my SAG-AFTRA card and soon I was doing a few little speaking parts and some different TV shows like ‘The Office.’
“I have been in movies but I make a point to tell people I am not an actress,” Broge continues. “I’ve been in a lot of movies as an extra. I’ve had a couple of speaking parts, most notable is ‘The Hangover.’ Everybody has seen that and knows the movie. In the first year it came out I was working here. It was a hit and the little theatre in Encinitas ran it every day for a year so most people at the racetrack went to see it.”
Broge has been married to her husband Allen for 55 years. They have two children and seven grandkids.
"My husband loves the races,” Broge says. “First time we ever went to the races was Hollywood Park. We were like 18 and 20 and we won $7 that day and he walked away saying ‘This is fun.’ I walked away saying, ‘That was the most boring six hours of my life; I’m never going back.’”
Funny how life works.