This spring* brings a bounty of books with ties to horse racing, and only one is about the 12th Triple Crown winner — Joe Drape’s American Pharoah: The Untold Story of the Triple Crown Winner’s Legendary Rise, which comes out on April 26. If this biography by a New York Times writer of the first horse to sweep the American classics in 37 years isn’t definitive, it’s still the book anyone else who tries to write about American Pharoah will have to cite.
Two more new releases are set for April 26 — Eliza McGraw’s Here Comes Exterminator! tells the story of the longshot winner of the 1918 Kentucky Derby. The author’s history with the great horse goes deep:
My affection and reverence for Exterminator started when I read Mildred Mastin Pace’s 1955 “Old Bones, the Wonder Horse” as a child. I became re-interested with his story when I was writing an article about cavalry horses in World War I, and saw contemporary headlines. Now, I’ve become obsessed, and spend hours at the Library of Congress and the National Sporting Library in Middleburg, Va., leafing through old copies of the Thoroughbred Records from the 1920s. Last year, my preoccupation took me to Pennsylvania, to visit Garrett and Muriel McDaniel. Garrett is Henry McDaniel’s great-nephew. “These were Uncle Henry’s,” he told me, handing over a worn pair of binoculars. They felt heavy and cool in my hand, and I imagined the thrill McDaniel felt as he watched Exterminator flash around the track.
McGraw writes more about Exterminator and her research on Raceday 360.
For the more literary-minded, there’s The Sport of Kings, the second novel by Hemingway/PEN award finalist C.E. Morgan. Set on a breeding farm owned by a powerful Kentucky family, centered on a horse named Hellsmouth, it’s described by the publisher as “an unflinching portrait of lives cast in shadow by the enduring legacy of slavery.” (Put it on the shelf next to Lord of Misrule.) You can read an excerpt on the publisher’s website.
The Legend of Zippy Chippy: Life Lessons from Horse Racing’s Most Lovable Loser, by humorist William Thomas, is in bookstores (and ready to ship from Amazon) today. There’s been some good press around this book and the Zippy Chippy story, such as this delightful New York Post feature. Zippy’s enjoying a happy retirement at Old Friends’ Cabin Creek farm.
If you’re interested in the intersection of horse racing and tech, or the collision of social media and the Zenyatta fandom, Holly Kruse’s Off-Track and Online: The Networked Spaces of Horse Racing has you covered. Kruse approaches an “overlooked” industry and its participants as a researcher and racing fan, a compelling mix for an academic title that opens with the invention of the totalizator and tries to impress on readers the importance of “understanding age, gender, class, race, and geography in broader social contexts.”
It might seem an odd pairing, but My Adventures with Your Money can easily be read alongside Kruse’s book as a tale of finding innovative — and not always legal — ways to use new technologies. Published last fall (making it the * in this round-up), T.D. Thornton’s history of con man George Graham Rice fits our cultural moment (and maybe this election season). A swindler, a grifter, a hustler who couldn’t stop hustling, Rice got his start selling tout sheets and manipulating the tote, then bounced in and out of prison for luring suckers into bad investments in the go-go days of 1920s Wall Street (he was also a “pioneer of sex appeal” in marketing). Rice preyed on the greedy and naive and relished it — if you like to root for charismatic anti-heroes (Walter White, Donald Trump), or if you’re fascinated by how such people entice dupes into their schemes, you’ll probably get a kick out of his story.
It was with sadness that I read on the New England HBPA website that trainer Mario DeStefano died at age 78 on Saturday, January 10. From his obituary:
Mario began his teaching career at LaSalle Academy in Providence followed by over thirty years as a History teacher, coach and athletic director in the Providence School System. He projected his love of wrestling through his coaching and refereeing in the RI Wrestling Community.
Mario’s love of horses was his greatest source of enjoyment. Since the 1960s he had been involved with thoroughbred racing in the New England area. As an avid horse Owner/Trainer he was well known in RI, at Suffolk Downs and Rockingham Park horse communities. He was a past president of the New England Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association.
Mario did not enjoy a reputation around the track as an easy person; I don’t think it’s speaking ill of the dead to say that he could be irascible and morose. But I knew Mario as a teacher, and as a teacher, he was generous and patient.
I met him during the 2004 Suffolk Downs meet, when I was a new racing fan and he had a chestnut gelding named Ascot Doll who I liked. I introduced myself to him in the grandstand one afternoon. “Come by the barn,” he said. I did, the next morning, and the next, and the next, and then he put me to work. The job was hotwalking and the pay was $200 for six days a week, plus lunch on race days. I thought this was a pretty good deal, because I knew almost nothing about horses and wanted to know more.
Mario started me slowly, walking the two quietest of his six horses. He spooled out responsibilities as I grew more comfortable in the barn. Working with Marco, the groom, I was taught to mix feed, feel for heat, pick feet, wrap legs. I learned how to rub a horse, and how to hold my hand against its flank so that I could feel a horse picking up its foot while I wasn’t looking, guarding against a kick. Mario was quick with corrections when necessary, and he was always clear and direct. He answered questions the same way.
He was also a careful observer of horses and humans. “Look at this,” he’d say to me, and point out a subtle sign of soreness in a horse, or a handler being rough. Perhaps the greatest lesson I learned from Mario was that the way to be with a horse was confident and calm, that fear and anger didn’t belong.
He was soft with his horses. Call Me Mr. Vain, a kind, classy gelding and the winningest horse of 2003, was then in Mario’s barn, recovering from a tendon injury. I remember a trainer once telling Mario that he treated Mr. Vain too much like a pet. And one morning, another trainer stopped by to yell that he had to get “rid” of one, because “he’s a rat.” Mario yelled back and chased the guy off. Then he took the so-called rat — Ascot Doll, nursing a bum ankle — out of his stall for his daily walk around the backstretch. My clearest memory of that summer is of the pair of them standing near the gap watching horses train in the pinky morning light, Ascot Doll lazily flicking his ears and tail, Mario’s hands dropped low, the shank hanging loosely from his fingers.
I’m attending the 2015 Online News Conference (#ONA15) on Thursday and Friday and to keep from over-tweeting — and to gather all the great stuff that’s being said — I’ll be adding notes from the panels and events in the occasionally updated post below. (There likely won’t be much that’s racing specific, although I’ll do my best to make those connections.)
Friday: We Belong Here with Soraya Chemaly (@schemaly), Dr. Michelle Ferrier (@mediaghosts), Amanda Hess (@amandahess), Laurie Penny (@Pennyred), and moderated by Sarah Jeong (@sarahjeong) #ONA15keynote
Whose Idea Of The Future Is This? with Teresa Jusino (@teresajusino), Sherryl Vint, Ytasha L. Womack (@ytashawomack), and moderated by Matt Thompson (@mthomps) #ONA15future
I’m pairing the Friday morning keynote and a panel from the last session of the day because I can’t shake the connections between them. The first was a thoughtful, nuanced, and at times, harrowing discussion of online harassment and its effects. The second was a philosophical conversation about futurism and rethinking communities, media, and technology. Both were very much about who gets to speak, the backlash to diversity, and imagining better.
We Belong Here tweets:
Thursday: A Three-Part Plan for Audience Engagement with Greg Emerson (@emersongreg), Alexandra Smith (@alexandraleighs), and Carla Zanoni (@carlazanoni) #ONA15plan
Solid advice from all three panelists: Go where your audience is, know what your goals are, and deliver value.
How do you market your journalism? Zanoni talks about how at the Wall Street Journal, engagement editors ask, “Where is the best place to tell the story — and what kind of data can we add to it?”
“Traffic data doesn’t tell you about your content, it tells you about your audience,” says Emerson, who stresses the importance of defining what it means for a piece to “do well.” What does it mean to be successful?
Also: “Your audience does not equal community,” and “Your audience is not one audience,” it’s segmented. Understand those segments. Know that it’s no longer enough to hire digital natives to navigate these channels: “You have to hire social natives, data natives, mobile natives,” says Emerson. “We all need to up our game.” Talks about how everyone is reading on phones, which is nice crossover with the Wednesday night ESPN longform panel and Kate Fagan pointing out how she reads long, deeply reported stories on her phone, but doesn’t want writers to change how they approach their work for that reality. It’s not about how you’re creating the work, but how you’re presenting it and measuring its effect on the audience.
Smith on a related topic: Goals, she says, look different for every newsroom, every beat. “You can’t be everything to everyone when it comes to metrics.”
Zanoni on social media: Stick to being present on the platforms where your users are already spending their time. Smith adds, “Do what you can well.”
What’s most important is that you’re adding value, says Emerson, who gives a few tips for how to do that: “If you give different context than everyone else, you will get more engagement.” Also, it’s no longer about being first, having a scoop [changing idea about what it means to win] — you might be alone out there with a story on Twitter for a few minutes, but you will be overtaken. “Think like a curator, not a megaphone.”
Another tip? Be clear, not vaguely clever or cute [something to balance when it comes to establishing a voice]. Remember that Google is indexing tweets now and people want to know what they’re clicking. “The more specific you are, the more value you bring.”
Thursday: Deep Dive into Google with Emily Bell (@emilybell) and Richard Gingras (@richardgingras) #onadeepdive
Emily Bell, Tow Center for Digital Journalism, and Richard Gingras, Google Head of News, get the conference off to a rousing start with a lively hour-long exchange covering such topics as the Trust Project, mobile, ad blockers, local news, and the Google algorithm.
Gingras begins by warning that there will be no letting up in the pace of digital news. Quoting Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf — “[George] can keep learning the games we play as quickly as I can change them” — Gingras says that tech skills are as essential as journalism skills and that “news organizations today have to treat technology equal to writing and storytelling.” Combined tech and journo skills “enable better journalism.”
Re: the Trust Project: Gingras raises the role of editors and the question of making their work more visible. “How can we surface the work that goes into journalistic verification to consumers?”
Moving on to the user experience of news, Gingras jolts the room by declaring, “The mobile web is in crisis.” He cites the the too-common experience of disruptive or obnoxious ads. Users are telling publishers ads have so degraded the experience that they’ve lost trust — “Ad blockers are a symptom of the problem,” he says. “The experience is so egregious, people can’t stand it.” The way forward is open source and open web. “We need to create experiences on the mobile web that are powerful, elegant, and sustainable.” (Google, through Gingras, is clearly staking out a position as being for the open web in opposition to the closed platform of Facebook and now, Apple.)
Bell asks him about Apple News: “Do you think Apple will actually succeed in moving people from the open web to a closed version of the web?” He replies: “I certainly hope not.” (Is this an awkward moment to mention that Railbird is available via Apple News?)
Gingras, though, believes publishers “should use any and all means to build audience,” answering a question about the Washington Post planning to publish all content on Facebook through Instant Articles.
Also discussed: The atomic unit of news. Gingras initially cites the article as the atomic unit (raising questions about what that means for content management/development/reaching readers through alternate forms), pointing to the decline in the website homepage as an entry point for audiences, but later speaks of videos/photos/all types of content as potentially being atomic units.
Audience member asks skeptical question about trust vis-a-vis Google’s algorithm. “We show our work,” Gingras answers. The results can be analyzed. Also says, feed the algorithm: “The more signals we have the better.”
Gingras leaves the audience with questions at the end — “What is the nature of the evolving form of the article?”, “How do we take full advantage of the opportunities in data journalism?” — and wraps up with, “It’s [all the questions that are being asked in this transition] only going to be solved by the collective efforts of everyone in this industry.”
Deep dive tweets: