At first, Sandra Salmen didn’t realize it, but then she admitted it — the trademark hugs she was giving out to one and all Saturday at the Fair Grounds were lasting a little longer than usual.
For good reason.
After an official relationship with the Fair Grounds that goes back 45 years and unofficial one that goes back to the early 1950’s, when her grandparents would bring her to the races, Salmen is retiring as the track’s Horsemen’s Relationship representative.
For those of you who don’t know her but have been to the Fair Grounds, she’s the woman who’s always in the winner’s circle getting everybody together for a celebratory picture and otherwise making sure it’s a joyous occasion.
For those of you who do know her, she’s the can-do person, facilitating things large and small for everyone from owners on down.
Salmen’s cubbyhole office in the rear section of the racing office is a must-stop-by place for visitors, although there’s always someone in there with her ahead of you.
Horsemen’s Relationship representative is deliberately a very encompassing title. If anything, Salmen has broadened it.
“I love horses, and I love people,” Salmen said between presentations to the eight stakes winners Saturday. “That’s what’s made this the perfect job.”
There was no recognition of Salmen on Saturday, but there were plenty of testimonials from both those who know her well and those whom she made feel like they do:
- “The history and links to the past she brings to her job is unbelievable and what she’s done for the horsemen, done for racing is immeasurable. With Sandra. it’s always, ‘What do you need?’ She’ll help anybody do anything and that means if you’re a groom, a hot walker or the owner of a Grade I winner. She’ll treat you all the same.” — Roger Heitzmann, executive director of the Louisiana Thoroughbred Breeders Association.
- “People will call me after a race and talk about the how she’s the nicest lady they’ve ever seen. Owners like being catered to, and she’s always so friendly and sweet. It’s always ‘I’ll take care of it,’ and then, ‘What else can I do for you?’ She needs to go to Churchill Downs (the Fair Grounds parent company), and show them how it’s done.” — Cindy Jones, co-trainer of Fair Grounds Oaks winner I’m a Chatterbox.
- “She’s played an integral part of in as much as possible keeping a family atmosphere at the Fair Grounds. She’s hands on, personable and has an extensive black book so that she can reach out to people about everything. I’ve know her for 25 years, and never seen her in a bad mood.”
— jockey Robbie Albarado.
- “I’d never met her before today, but I felt like I’ve known her all my life. She just makes you feel like one of the family.”
— Stacy Rolling, co-owner of New Orlenas Handicap winner Call Me George.
Salmen’s father, Raymond Salmen, was one of the leading owners at the Fair Grounds in the 1960’s and 70’s. Sandra Salmen considers A Letter of Harry, her father’s horse, who won the 1979 New Orleans Handicap, as her favorite.
She also owned a few horses of her own under the Knot Very Stable banner.
Salmen worked in various functions at the track from 1970-90, leaving on good terms when the Krantz family purchased the facility.
She remembers how in 1993 she cried when a fire destroyed the grandstand.
After Hurricane Katrina, Salmen reached out to Churchill Downs, the Fair Grounds’ new owner and came back to work in 2006.
“Sandra’s relationship with the horsemen and the community has been invaluable,” Fair Grounds president Tim Bryant said. “You can’t measure it.
“It’s clear that she’s been very passionate about racing for a long time. And the thing I really appreciate is that she has been so supportive of me.”
That support was especially appreciated last year when the racing community was highly critical of the way Churchill Downs Incorporated was running the Fair Grounds. The dispute resulted in improvements being made to several areas of the operations, but it took the threat of CDI’s operating license not being renewed.
“I believe in the Fair Grounds, and I also believed what the horsemen were telling them, especially about things like the turf course,” Salmen said. “It was obvious some things needed tweaking.
“But I also understood Tim, who has been just marvelous to me. I’m glad things have been worked out.”
Salmen said she had been thinking retiring for some time, but waited until she could find the right replacement.
She has now in Paige Albarado, who has been an intern to Salmen since last year.
If the name sounds familiar, yes, she is Robbie Albarado’s wife of three weeks.
“I’ve really learned a lot about kindness and patience from Sandy,” Paige said. “She never gets upset about things and always keeps cool under pressure.
“And she’s one of the kindest people I’ve ever known. I don’t really think I’m taking her place.”
Salmen is taking a long-awaited trip to Australia with her husband in the coming weeks before making any other plans. She promises to be back at the track in December for Louisiana Champions Day.
But her job will belong to Paige Albarado.
“I have two pieces of advice for Paige: Smile and enjoy it.”
And don’t forget the hugs.