JC / Railbird

Turf Writing

Odds and Ends

Exacta-mundo on the current state of turf blogging: “… I can’t help but think we’re now truly in a time when there’s no one left to ask the needed questions without feeling like they have something to lose.”

If you’re in Massachusetts, you still stand to lose 5% on winning wagers paying more than $600: An amendment striking the new withholding requirement, which went into effect this spring, didn’t make it into the final version of the supplemental budget bill passed by the state legislature. How many Bay State bettors have been affected? Racing director Jennifer Durenberger told the Massachusetts Gaming Commission in this morning’s meeting that the state’s three simulcasting licensees report a total of 860 instances of state withholding since May, compared to 10 for federal withholding.

Another kind of loss: “… last Saturday at Hollywood was either a celebration or an early funeral.” (For consolation, see the coach.)

The Must-Reads, 2011

As each year comes to its end, I go through all the racing stories I’ve bookmarked or shared over the past 12 months and pluck together a short list of pieces that stand out, whether for great reporting or great storytelling. If you haven’t read the stories linked below yet, take a few minutes to enjoy some of the best turf journalism from 2011 before 2012 begins:

As 10-year ban hangs over Rick Dutrow, opinions vary about controversial horse trainer.” The definitive profile of the New York trainer, handed a record suspension this year, by Jerry Bossert for the New York Daily News.

For Pletcher, managing a training empire is all in a day’s work” Joe Drape on how he does it, for the New York Times.

Pletcher was an assistant to trainer D. Wayne Lukas, dubbed “The most interesting man in racing,” by Gary West this spring, in one of the last posts published on his Star-Telegram blog. That the formidable turf writer with the superb flapdoodle detector was let go by the newspaper was a loss for Texas racing. Fortunately for readers, West now appears on ESPN.

Claire Novak won her first Eclipse award this year with “Pressure off Durkin at Belmont,” about the announcer’s decision to step down from calling the Triple Crown races on NBC, but I’m biased toward her terrific Kentucky Derby week story, “The Inside Scoop: Why Calvin Borel owns the rail,” which appeared on Kentucky Confidential. For fun, and a touch of Gay Talese, Novak’s recounting of a New Orleans cabbie’s racetrack story can’t be beat.

At Suffolk Downs, a rider reached a significant milestone: “Piermarini gets win 2000 on Sugar Trade.” Susan Salk of Offtrack Thoroughbreds talked to Tammi Piermarini about becoming only the fifth female jockey in racing to crack 2K.

Ryan Goldberg added context and depth to this year’s intense (and ongoing) Lasix debate with his well-researched and matter-of-fact story for the Daily Racing Form, “Lasix: Demystifying the drug, methods of training without it.”

DRF photographer Barbara Livingston shared some marvelous historic racing photos from her private collection this year, as in this post: “Man o’ War’s funeral: Remarkable final tribute for majestic champion.” The great horse was laid out in a casket for viewing; thousands filed past to pay their respects.

In search of the Kelco.” Bill Christine, at HRI, on the handicapping gizmos of yesteryear (which gave me an excuse to post about the Race-o-meter).

Gray Thoroughbreds, a precious relic of the breed’s earliest days, became a rarity on the racecourse for a good part of the 19th century.” I had no idea. Kellie Reilly on the revival of grays in the 20th century, on BRISnet.

The Must-Reads, 2010

It’s no exaggeration to say that every year I bookmark, tweet, or link here to hundreds of horse racing features, columns, and blog posts — stories and opinions that catch my attention for a turn of phrase, the quality of storytelling, the depth of research, an unusual argument, or a striking insight. A few each year — like the 10 pieces below — are especially memorable.

The Making of ‘Legends’ (Pat Forde/ESPN)
“The present is another matter. The present stings a bit. The present is Kentucky Derby week, and it offers vivid evidence of how brutally hard it is even for learned horsemen with a lot of money to win a Derby — or to simply reach the starting gate.”

The Linemakers (John Scheinman/Pimlico)
“It is no secret the man gambles with gusto, a word that derives from the Latin gustus, or tasting. Carulli is all appetite and, like the bear he resembles, doesn’t like to be disturbed while concentrating.”

The Best Broodmare of All Time? (Alicia Wincze/Lexington Herald-Leader)
“Though Hasili was a stakes winner on the track and had a solid pedigree in her corner, nothing in her form could have indicated the impact she would have on the sport once she entered the breeding shed.”

What Makes the Great Ones Great? (Jay Hovdey/DRF)
“No question, in terms of personality type, the great ones appear to be happy in their work.”

Why We Love Secretariat (Meghan O’Rourke/Slate)
“In the moment when he pulls away from Sham, his brilliant archrival (who would’ve been a champion in any other year), we have the sense of an animal exceeding the boundaries of the category of animal.”

Forlorn Filly Comes from Nowhere (Bill Finley/NY Times)
“A few days after he bought a modestly bred horse from a friend named Don Hunt, Tim Snyder took a moment to reflect. He had no money, no horse trailer to get his new acquisition to where he needed to go and a filly that had been rejected by nearly everyone else who had come in contact with her. The horse had a clubfoot, a bad shoulder, a reputation for being slow and was blind in one eye, reason enough for Snyder to second-guess what he had just done.”

Who Really Invented Race Charts? (Kevin Martin/Colin’s Ghost)
“Whatever the case might be, it was Brunell who had the foresight to put race charts and later past performances into a daily publication dedicated to racing. While the above puts his role as ‘originator’ in doubt, no one can deny that he popularized the tools that all horseplayers have been dependent on for more than a century.” [See also, Martin’s follow-up post.]

Rachel’s Place in History (Gary West/West Points)
“Most of us had never seen anything like Rachel Alexandra, and for having seen her, I’m grateful.”

Frankel’s Rise No Romantic Dream (Chris McGrath/Independent)
“Despite the present, witless tendency to treat them as characters in search of an author, men such as Frankie Dettori and Henry Cecil could never be adequately prefigured by a script.”

A Vote for Horse Racing (Claire Novak/ESPN)
“For now, suffice it to say it is the opinion here that a vote for Zenyatta is, simply put, a vote for horse racing. To recognize this kind of runner as vital to the sport’s survival is common sense, not emotional gibberish as some would choose to believe.”

What’s missing? Add your must-reads from the year past in the comments …

Thursday Notes

Dewhurst dozen halved, but the big three remain. Trainer David Simcock is certain “lazy” Dream Ahead won’t hang this time, not with regular rider William Buick up, and not with competition from Frankel and Saamidd. “These are good enough horses that he’s not going to be streaking five lengths clear.”

Aidan O’Brien trainee Bright Horizon, possible for the Breeders’ Cup Marathon, looks a lot like recent winners, writes Brad Free: “… his form in Europe is comparable to Marathon winners Man of Iron and Muhannak.” But both those horses won over Pro-Ride; the Marathon this year will be run over dirt. The Churchill Downs surface could be advantage Americans.

Why are sportswriters so invested in sports stars retiring while still on the top or, as Rhoden puts it, with their ‘legacy intact’?” So, it’s not just racing …

Buy a Belmont Stakes winner: Da’ Tara is available as a racing or stallion prospect as hip #3308 (PDF) in the Keeneland November sale.

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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