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Turf Writers

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John Pricci on the racing media:

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 even 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.

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.

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