Among the anecdotes I hoped to use involved Team Baffert and its use of the Spanish slang word chingon, which came up frequently. Journalists are hard-wired to protect what they think—or know—might be exclusive information. At one point during Belmont week, when I was alone with Baffert, I said to him, “You’re a chatty guy. Do me a favor and let’s keep chingon between us.” He did, and I’m thankful for that, too.
In one magical romp around the Belmont Racetrack oval, he elicited a level of fanaticism the sport hasn’t known, quite literally, in decades.
Or, since Zenyatta, in certain quarters. A corner of Twitter lit up when the weekly NTRA Thoroughbred Poll appeared Monday and American Pharoah was #1, but one vote short of unanimity. Someone had voted Shared Belief on top.
“Inane,” said a turf writer, demanding an explanation.
Shared Belief was the #1 horse last week. He’s the #2 horse this week.
It’s a funny argument, except it’s also representative of an orthodox tendency within racing media, a group increasingly dominated by trade-affiliated outfits (Blood-Horse, Daily Racing Form, TVG, etc.) and freelancers, who move between journalism and public relations within the industry out of necessity. It’s a tendency that makes room for unchallenged narratives — that portray trainer Bob Baffert as transfigured by his Triple Crown horse, smoothing the complicated edges of his story; that deny criticism of marketing initiatives such as America’s Best Racing or the “Big Day” trend by dismissing the heterodox as “haters.” It makes it hard to hold a contrary opinion. Who wants to be the odd person out, especially when we share one love — the horse?
Both Bob Baffert and Linda Rice were breaking horses for their horsemen fathers while in their early teens, and both trainers have been successful at racing’s highest level. Guess which one gets a New York newspaper profile that emphasizes skill and accomplishment in its first paragraph?
For a trainer, there’s no substitute for the knack, and Bob Baffert had it in junior high. It’s called “the third eye,” the uncanny ability to scope out young horses and identify who will be the best runner in the bunch.
For an industry in which the ultimate compliment is being “a real horseman,” Linda Rice is an anomaly. Barely topping 5 feet, Ms. Rice has shoulder-length blond hair and sharp features that could make her a Ralph Lauren model. The first female horse trainer to top the standings at a major racetrack, she’s tough and she speaks at a no-nonsense clip.
… “therapeutics” given to horses that don’t need them are abusive.
Let’s put aside Lasix, the subject of Hancock’s phrase above, and talk about thyroxine, the synthetic thyroid hormone supplement trainer Bob Baffert admitted dosing his entire stable with during a period in which seven horses under his watch died suddenly. Trainer Steve Asmussen did the same, a practice that became public knowledge following a PETA expose. Both were cleared of doing anything illegal or improper in investigations that largely dismissed indiscriminate thyroxine use as acceptable, rule-abiding care.
“I haven’t found a barn that uses it on all their horses,” said California equine medical director Dr. Rick Arthur of the Baffert barn regimen, yet: “[The thyroxine] was legally dispensed and reported as labeled. It was within their right to do so. There is no violation of any rules.”
“The KHRC also did not uncover evidence of a rule violation with respect to thyroid hormone supplementation,” determined Kentucky re: Asmussen (PDF).
It’s a measure of how thoroughly the discussion about dispensing therapeutic drugs like carrots has been shut down following both investigations that I feel it’s in bad taste to bring the issue up right now, when Baffert is going for the Triple Crown with American Pharoah in a bit more than a week. I mean, even the Paulick Report — the publication that most aggressively chased the Baffert sudden death story — is running a piece lauding the trainer’s “horse sense” and speculating that he might be “the chosen one” to win racing’s most elusive prize. Ed Zieralski worried that “a lynching party” would pursue Baffert in 2013 if he made it to the Kentucky Derby that year (he didn’t) — he doesn’t have to be concerned about that this year, when even an inquiry about a case of colic in a Baffert Derby contender “wasn’t a question that could be asked,” in the words of Daily Racing Form correspondent Marcus Hersh.
“To me, that’s the hardest part. You have to deal with everybody. This is easy — today with you guys. But when we get up there, everybody is going to want to push the race and all that.”
And all that. I hope it’s all that. I hope some reporter breaches etiquette.
Without objective coverage, what passes for reportage these days often is rewritten press releases, that is when industry media bother to make the effort at all.
Internet news disseminators have joined this bandwagon, learning to follow the money—their own—and tend not to trumpet any commentary that could be construed as controversial, thus becoming part of a problematic trend.
Sure, I smirked a little reading that. And then I sighed, because it’s a simplistic critique. There’s a bit too much romanticizing about the Great Newspaper Turf Journalists of Yore these days by those who look across the press box and see only decline in the presence of the digital-first breed now filling the seats.
Oh, that’s a gross generalization, you say? You bet.
When I started following racing a decade ago, both of Boston’s daily newspapers had a turf writer. Most newspapers of any size in a market with a racetrack had a turf reporter. There’s no denying that layoffs and buyouts and retirements and the swift shift to digital media has made the newspaper turf writer an endangered species and left significant gaps in coverage. Everyone who thinks about the subject should feel a little alarm at the thought that Tom Noonan and Alan Mann — both expert as they are in the areas they blog about regularly — are pretty much it for purveyors of ongoing, critical, non-trade press coverage of NYRA. (Noonan, bless him, actually files FOIA requests.)
But a lot of the coverage 10 years ago was rewritten press releases, and bland race previews and recaps that all used the same quotes from the same NTRA teleconferences and track stable notes. It was much of that “reporting” that’s been squeezed out, and it’s hard to call the development bad. Consider the New York Post writers laid off on the eve of the 2013 Belmont Stakes, who Pricci casts in heroic pose as “trying to broker negotiations between NYRA and Post executives, the goal being to recover advertising that was pulled following the critical story.” Admirable. Yet Ed Fountaine had checked out years ago — he was burned out, something even he acknowledged:
Fountaine … said he was relieved to be let go, citing the daily grind of the job. “I’ve got a screenplay I’ve been wanting to finish, and a couple of books I want to write, projects I couldn’t do because of my job,” he said. “Now I have the time. I’m not doing handstands, but I’m close.”
If there’s a bright side to the losses, it’s that stories deserving more depth and reportage are getting attention, because that’s the kind of coverage that offers enough value to cover its costs and has the potential to cross over (disagree or not with how Joe Drape reports on racing for the New York Times — his work has highlighted real issues within the industry, engages more casual observers, and is pushing reforms). “My reality says racing journalism has gotten better,” tweeted Blood-Horse writer Tom LaMarra. “It covers things esteemed writers of the past wouldn’t touch.” Team Valor is rewarding investigative reporting with a $25,000 annual award (PDF). The Thoroughbred Daily News has used its platform to publish work such as a six-part series on drugs in racing, and given space for debate on stories such as the PETA investigation of Steve Asmussen’s barn. There’s also more room for, and possibilities for the inventive telling of, the kind of soft stories that broadly appeal — think the Blood-Horse longform features, or the New York Times’ “Snow Fall”-like profile of jockey Russell Baze.
What’s in danger of being completely lost is independent, daily coverage that encompasses management issues and handle numbers as much as racing results. Work that’s important for transparency and accountability, but isn’t splashy. I’m not sure what the solution is — turf media support, in the form of advertising, primarily comes from the breeding or wagering segments of the industry, and so that’s where most coverage concentrates, and even though an organization like NYRA is state-regulated, state-managed, and operates on state-owned lands, assigning a beat reporter to it is obviously a hard sell to mainstream news executives who see it, if they see it at all, as a niche within bigger beats such as state government, or sports. This is a problem.
A couple of years ago, I stopped at one of the newsstands in my neighborhood to pick up a magazine with a cover story that was being much discussed online, even though it wasn’t available digitally because the publisher was a web skeptic. A student from a local business school stopped me as I left to ask a few questions. He was doing a survey for a class, and he wanted to know what I’d bought, and why I had done so. Because how else could I read the story I wanted to read?, I replied. “I don’t know,” he shrugged. “I’ve never gone in there. I don’t buy print media.” It turned out that the class assignment was to talk to people who bought products or went to stores with which the students were unfamiliar. It was an empathy exercise, and I was the weirdo.
I laughed and moved on, but the brief conversation stuck with me — to this 20-something guy, a newsstand — a natural part of my then 30-something physical and intellectual landscape — was an alien space frequented by customers who made inexplicable purchases. The encounter comes back to me when I read pieces about the decline of newspapers, about disappearing print; I think about how print still has a place in media, in getting the news to people, and yet how to a rising audience, news is disaggregated and fragmented, delivered by social network and consumed on mobile devices. If you follow the business of media, you know the stats and trends.
“Nothing can compete with the shimmering immediacy of now,” writes New York Times media reporter David Carr in his column this week, “and not just when seismic events take place, but in our everyday lives. We are sponges and we live in a world where the fire hose is always on.” Carr — a journalist rooted in old media but adept at the new — took the train to Saratoga on Thursday, and used the time to catch up on his print reading. His fellow passengers shouted into cell phones and complained about the weak wi-fi.
I’m sure among those wireless users were people trying to access DRF.com or Blood-Horse, or sites such as Horse Racing Nation or America’s Best Racing. (It was the Ethan Allen Express the day before Saratoga opened, after all.) Steve Haskin, in his latest column, lists the last two among the racing outlets that have largely replaced newspapers in racetrack press boxes, which are now mainly populated by “free-lance writers or bloggers,” not the honorable “fraternity” of sports journalists who once smoked, drank, and typed their way to “the top of the food chain.” Haskin sees a worrisome change:
We may not realize it, but this is a microcosm of what is happening to the sport on all fronts, in that we have lost one of the main concepts of journalism — force the public to become interested, just as poker, NASCAR, wrestling, and mixed martial arts have done. Just as milk did years ago and insurance is doing now. The public has proven time and again they will buy anything if you make them. Make racing a product in demand and the newspapers will return, and so will the journalists.
Forcing the public to become interested in racing sometimes seems to me the primary mission of many of the freelance correspondents and bloggers now occupying the press box seats of the sports writers Haskin misses. (Noted: I don’t exclude myself from that project; I work for the Breeders’ Cup on their digital media initiatives, such as this year’s dedicated Breeders’ Cup Challenge website, which is publishing original and aggregated content.) And they’re doing that (we’re doing that) via the channels people click, not newspapers.
Like many others, I was thrown last week at the news that the New York Daily News eliminated its racing coverage and laid off Jerry Bossert. He was the last daily turf writer at any of the city’s daily newspapers; he filed picks and recaps, wrote features and profiles, nipped at NYRA about track conditions, safety polices, and management. He covered his beat with diligence. Where does that kind of journalistic work — which includes oversight and accountability as part of an independent mission — fit into a never-ending stream filled with positive stories and viral content? It has to fit somewhere — it’s necessary. This might make me as much a weirdo as buying a print magazine at a newsstand, but I believe in journalism as a force for public good, not for public relations.
It reminds me a lot of playing online through Xpressbet and other ADW outlets. We trust ourselves and trust the technology every single day we play. We just don’t typically do it at the racetrack, because we’re often too stuck on tradition to realize how society has changed.
Journalism changes, too: Steven Crist on 35 years at Saratoga.
Copyright © 2000-2015 by Jessica Chapel. All rights reserved.