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.
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“.
“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.
… 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.
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.
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.
EJXD2 and the rest of you are missing the real story here: CLAIRE NOVAK IS ON FIRE!!!!!!
So true. Reporters aren’t usually the story, but this one deserves to be. Over the past year, writing for ESPN and elsewhere, Novak has emerged as one of the best turf writers working, with a particular flair for features and profiles. She’s a storyteller, attentive to detail and dialogue, as in these pieces:
– Old School: “Once, the legend sat down to critique the rookie’s technique. He watched the field come down the lane, the rookie whipping right-handed, his runner flying past them in the stretch. Switch sticks, go to your left hand, thought the legend. And as soon as he thought it, the rookie did it. That’s when he knew this kid was good.”
– Birds of a Feather: “It hits him again and again this morning, as reporters cruise by the shedrow and racing paparazzi set up their shots and fellow horsemen stop by with handshakes and admiring remarks, but it still hasn’t quite sunk in.”
– Two Months Later: “It is picture-perfect, might as well be a postcard scene. But something in the idyllic freedom of it all taunts Rene Douglas.”
And she’s a solid beat reporter. Saratoga doesn’t lack for daily coverage and commentary from a top turf writing colony, but Novak’s Albany Times-Union articles, whether about Da’ Tara finishing last in a race in which his trainer expected better, the introduction of more humane whips, or substance abuse among jockeys, have regularly stood out this season (as have the vignettes and opinions she’s been posting near-daily to an ESPN blog). On fire? She certainly is, to the good fortune of readers, racing fans, and turf journalism.
– New York Times turf writer Joe Drape (@joedrape) has joined the mindcasting masses on Twitter, and although it appears he’s still settling into the amorphous medium, his feed has the potential to become an interesting glimpse into how one reporter covers his beat. Drape’s already proven capable of engaging his followers and sparking micro-debates — not a bad start.
– Seattle Post-Intelligencer publisher Roger Oglesby said on Wednesday that Hearst would announce its plans for the newspaper, which has been up for sale and is expected to shut down all operations but its online presence, sometime next week. All 170 employees of the paper have been notified that their jobs will end between March 18 and April 1, including veteran turf writer Larry Lee Palmer, who filed his last column on Monday. Bizarre and despicable, writes Marks Potts of the vague situation.
– Post Parade broke the news earlier this week
that turf writer Gary West has been laid off. 3/13/09 Update: West remains employed. “Apparently we still live in the age of miracles,” said the Star-Telegram writer. Guess that means Post Parade won’t become Texas racing’s publication of record on March 21.
– Another Twitter mention, this time for NYRA, which is doing a bang-up job sending out scratches, links and photos, updates on inquiries and spills, etc. through its @NYRAcomm and @NYRAnews feeds. What is the funny little service good for? Anything that can be delivered in 140 characters — Twitter is broadcast, micro-blogging, chat, live search. More tracks would do well to follow NYRA’s lead. (That may be first time I’ve said such a thing — go NYRA.)
– I’m looking for a web developer with strong programming and database skills, experienced in building web applications, to work with on a project. Racing knowledge would be nice, but isn’t required. Please email for details.
Copyright © 2000-2016 by Jessica Chapel. All rights reserved.