JC / Railbird


Churchill Downs opened the Mansion to the press on Wednesday, giving turf writers who knew the sixth-floor space as the Joe Hirsch Media Center a chance to check out the open bar, modern art, and chandeliers that will be enjoyed by 320 Kentucky Derby-goers whose tickets — purchased for $7,000 to $12,500 apiece — guarantee entry into an exclusive, swanky club.

Ever since Churchill announced plans last summer to transform the press box into a high-roller party palace and move the media into a renovated part-year simulcasting hall on the ground floor of the track, there have been complaints about turf journalists being downgraded. “Money trumps everything, including media,” wrote Ray Paulick then. “Wish @ChurchillDowns would just call it the Rodney Dangerfield Media Center,” he tweeted today, with a link to a piece on the Sherman Report headlined “Booted out: Churchill Downs eliminates press box for Kentucky Derby; Most media will watch on TV.”

Let’s be honest: Most media watched the Kentucky Derby on TVs in the Hirsch press box (balcony spaces with a clear view of the track were assigned, and limited). Even more watched the post-race interviews on TV. For a good number, the move from the sixth floor to the first isn’t going to significantly change their process (the TVs in the new space are actually better, Jennie Rees wrote in January), and the reasons for being in the old press box (atmosphere, inspiration, the roar of the crowd) that Paulick — as well as Tom Pedulla and Neil Milbert — give the Sherman Report aren’t great arguments for allotting the media such prime square footage.

Even though I haven’t seen the new press box, I suspect it’s an improvement in some important ways. It’s closer to the action, certainly. There’s room for post-race press conferences. And the Hirsch center was built for a kind of journalism that was disappearing even when it opened, in 2005. It was anachronistic space (albeit very nice space), accessible only by elevator, for a time when every major newspaper sent a reporter to cover the Derby and those reporters ensconced themselves in the press box, leaving — if they did — to get the same quotes from the same connections as every other reporter.

Journalism now is a mix of the old standards — turf writers are still collecting those quotes — and the new ways of social media. To the extent that a press box still makes sense, it’s as a staging ground and retreat — a secure place to store gear and focus on work without distraction for a while before plunging back into the scene. Every journalist with a smartphone or tablet now carries a media center with them, and they need to, because — even more than in 2004, when Milbert didn’t go outside and missed just how torrential was the rain in which Smarty Jones won the Derby — the best stories are outside the box.

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Earlier this week, InsiderLouisville.com ran a story by Mark Coomes about “distaff” turf writers, the women in racing who are increasingly prominent as reporters and analysts. It’s a piece that starts with a valid point — in 40 years, women have made big strides in turf journalism, helped considerably in the past decade by the explosion of blogs and social media — and then veers off into gender essentialism and stereotypes that manage to denigrate men and women. Anyone who’s ever read one of Steve Haskins’ in-depth features, or the analysis of Kerry Thomas, knows that —

The testosteronic perspective sees race horses as abstractions whose relative abilities are best expressed in the hieroglyphs of a past performance chart.

— hardly applies to every male turf writer, any more than —

The estrogen crowd relishes the living, breathing animals — their distinctive quirks, markings and mannerisms.

Does to every female turf writer. I’d like to say more, in particular about how blogs, etc. opened up opportunities for women (and racing fans, generally) in the turf world, but I have Derby past performances to study. I’ll quote Teresa Genaro instead, who summed up not only my thinking about Coomes’ piece, but the tone of his replies to criticism about it, in a post on Facebook:

I don’t know what makes me more frustrated: the article itself and its myriad sexist comments and depictions, or the author’s response that indicates that he’s basically doing women a favor.

If there’s anything that’s clear in Coomes’ story, it’s that “the estrogen crowd” — with all its credits, accomplishments, and awards — doesn’t need favors, especially ones that come wrapped in gendered silliness.