Jessica Chapel / Railbird

Turf Writers

Rider’s Eye View

The late John Oaksey’s bittersweet account of the 1963 Grand National:

It was, I think, setting out on the second circuit that the thought of victory first entered my head. Carrickbeg had long since made the fences look and feel like hurdles and, after jumping the water well behind, he moved up outside his field turning away from the stands with a surge of power that warmed my heart.

At Becher’s second time round he made one of the few mistakes I remember, and for an awful moment his big brave head seemed to rest on the quarters of another horse stumbling in front of us. But then, somehow, we were clear, and at the Canal Turn, as Ayala blundered badly, Carrickbeg nipped inside him like a polo pony.

Now there were only a handful ahead, and as the fences flicked by we pulled them back, one by one, until four from home, when for the first and only time in this hectic, wonderful race, fate took a hand against us.

He was denied the win. “I know who you are,” a man said to him on the street years later, “you’re the b—– who got tired before his ‘oss“.

From Chantilly

Honestly, these French.” Honestly, have I mentioned lately how much I enjoy reading Chris McGrath’s Independent columns? Today’s piece comes from Goldikova’s barn, where trainer Freddie Head took questions about the 5-year-old mare who may beat Zenyatta to the punch as the first horse to win three consecutive Breeders’ Cup races. Not that anything is to be assumed. “Gio Ponti, if he runs, will be the one to beat this year I suppose,” Head told the Racing Post, speculating on possible challengers in the Mile.

Vic Ziegel, RIP

The 72-year-old sportswriter died Friday:

… and the only one who could lighten such dark and heavy news would have been Ziegel himself.

Nobody had a more deft touch with written words or humor than Ziegel, The News columnist and former sports editor, who spent his life making readers smile or chuckle over the one-liners he so painstakingly crafted.

I can’t remember ever reading a bad Ziegel column. He could do humor without snark, criticism without condescension. Even covering the biggest racing days, when every little detail that could be reported seemed to have been so, his words always sounded fresh, his stories always new.

“It astounded my father — a man who rode with the Cossacks; the friendlier Cossacks — that a son of his earned a living writing 24-21, 4-3, $12.60 to win,” Ziegel once wrote of his career. “The truth? It still astounds his son.”

7/27/10 Addendum: Allen Barra remembers Ziegel. “But at a particular time, hell, there were times when I think I was the best.” No question.

Media Notes

No big horse, no big storylines, and still NBC pulled in 16.5 million viewers for the Kentucky Derby. That’s the most since 1989, and seven million more than watched in 2000, the last year the Derby was broadcast on ABC. Year-round fans might find the show unwatchable (and the repellent Bravo Oaks coverage even more so), but the network must be doing something right — mixing horses with human interest stories, Al Roker, fashion, and giddy Glen Fullerton added up to excitement for a sizable audience. “You know, every single minute of it was entertaining,” wrote one TV critic, praising the network for making the Derby “accessible.” The network’s contract for the Kentucky Derby and Preakness is up this year, as is the ESPN/ABC contract for the Belmont Stakes. After five years on separate networks, will the Triple Crown return to one?

Dan Liebman has filed his last Blood-Horse column. According to the Paulick Report, the editor, a 15-year veteran of the magazine, was dismissed this week, his exit announced to staff with a cold email. Evan Hammonds, who was named digital editor last November, is now the executive editor for both print and web Blood-Horse products. Speculating from afar, merely as a reader and interested observer, the move seems a strong hint that Blood-Horse — which already leads the Thoroughbred Times and Daily Racing Form in such areas as web design and the use of RSS and the Twitter API — will be putting more emphasis on developing their online presence and digital products.

I only ever exchanged a few emails with Liebman, whom I wish well, and almost all were related to the National Turf Writers Association, which I expressed an interest in joining (and did apply for membership to) several years ago. The group wasn’t quite ready for bloggers back then, but it’s gratifying to see things change, and so swiftly. Over the past six years, the racing blogosphere has exploded, growing from a handful in 2004 (this little site was one of the first) to at least 130 active independent and media-affiliated blogs*, covering every angle of the game, in 2010. With that growth has come an acceptance of blogging as a legitimate medium and bloggers as legitimate turf writers, an acceptance that reached a new high last week, when — for the first time — an officer of the NTWA announced on Twitter that the group had accepted a new member, and that new member was an independent blogger. Congratulations to the NTWA on opening up to turf journalists working in new media, and to Brooklyn Backstretch on joining their ranks.

*And it’s not only blogs. As a friend emailed earlier today, referring to the recently launched Stride and ZATT, “I can’t believe there are TWO horse racing magazines. Magazines!” There may be fewer full-time turf writers and industry publications might be struggling, but we really are living in an era of plentiful racing content from an incredible range of sources.

Reading Palmer

On the Second Pass, John Williams resurrects Joe Palmer for a new audience:

I don’t want to give the impression that an interest in the sport, or a knowledge of its history, is entirely unnecessary to an enjoyment of This Was Racing. But it’s easy enough to skim any confounding details and focus on the more universal sentiments. Like many great writers and conversationalists, Palmer mostly circled his ostensible subject, rarely landing on it. The most memorable stretches of the book aren’t about racing at all. They’re about recipes for jellied whiskey or the Australian hobby of “kangaroo chasing” or listening to a band torture “My Old Kentucky Home.” (”I could have played it better on a comb.”)

More than half a century removed from his work, it is good to be reminded of what a master turf writer Palmer was. Read the complete review (and then, if you haven’t, “This Was Racing”).

From the archives: An excerpt from “This Was Racing” about trainers Duval and Hal Price Headley, Menow, and the 1938 MassCap.

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