Warren DeSantis had a magnetic personality, a charisma that shone through in any room he was in, which went a long way toward carving out his lasting legacy at Saratoga Hotel and Casino and in the harness racing industry.
DeSantis, a Schenectady native who from 1986 to 1996 served as the racing secretary and later general manager at the Saratoga Springs’ harness track — then called Saratoga Raceway — died earlier this month. He was 75.
Skip Carlson, Saratoga Casino and Hotel’s Vice President for External Affairs, counted DeSantis as a longtime friend and mentor. The two shared a Christmas Eve birthday — DeSantis in 1945, Carlson a decade later — and Carlson saw firsthand the impact he had at the raceway when he came back to the Capital Region after working as the racing secretary at Pompano Park in Florida.
“Warren was a larger-than-life individual,” Carlson said. “He had a unique personality. He had charisma. That’s one of those things where you either have it, or you don’t, and Warren had it. If you were in his presence, you just felt good. He made everyone around him feel good, and he was just a genuine person.”
Friend and horse racing author Bill Heller remembered DeSantis as someone who left a genuine impact on the sport of harness racing.
“He had a deep regard for the sport and the horsemen,” Heller said. “He was a visionary in a lot of areas.”
The son of longtime Schenectady Union Leader sports editor Al DeSantis, Warren DeSantis was a 1963 graduate of Linton High School. He remained close with a tightknit group of friends from the city that he grew up with, a group that included Basketball Hall of Famer Pat Riley, with whom he remained lifelong friends.
“It was uncanny how successful that whole group of individuals became,” Carlson said. “They were all very successful in their own fields, and Warren kept in close contact with all those guys. They really had a unique bond, a Schenectady bond, that really kept them close.”
When DeSantis came to Saratoga Raceway in the 1980s after new ownership took over the facility, he made an immediate impact. Among the biggest moves made by DeSantis, according to Carlson, was bringing harness driver Wally Hennessey to Saratoga Raceway, where he was a mainstay for several years on his road to a hall of fame career.
“Warren always saw Wally as being a fantastic driver,” Carlson said.
Heller said that DeSantis was committed to making the raceway successful, even during difficult times.
“It was hard,” Heller said. “It’s always hard, and it became harder in more recent years, with more and more competition. Saratoga harness was a fine place to race, he dealt with the horsemen for a long time and he did a great job with it.”
Beyond the harness racing operation, DeSantis proved instrumental in helping bring in revenue to Saratoga Raceway during financially tough times by booking a series of major concerts. Jon Bon Jovi, New Kids on the Block, U2 and the Lollapalooza festival all played dates at the venue in the early 1990s.
“He was a jack of all trades,” Carlson said. “He was a great promoter. I think he got that from his father, Al. . . . Warren was instrumental in promoting and organizing those four concerts.”
Carlson also fondly remembered DeSantis’ “encyclopedic” knowledge of sports and his gregarious nature.
“I’ll miss him,” Carlson said. “He certainly left his stamp here. Anyone that came in contact with him liked him, remembered him. When you were sitting with him, you just felt like you were in a good place.”