I remember Ashado mostly for her fourth-place finish, a dead heat with Island Sand, in the 2005 Personal Ensign at Saratoga. I met trainer Larry Jones that weekend, when he hired me to walk his filly. It was the first time I’d handled a $1 million earner, and Island Sand was ill-tempered and nippy. Her groom lifted his shirt to show me the enormous bruise she’d left biting his belly. Jones told an off-color joke at a barn BBQ the night before, and was kind enough to drive me into town on Sunday morning so that I could escape the backstretch for an hour and read the New York Times. He paid me $30 cash to cool her out after the race. We had to go to the test barn, where Todd Pletcher stood, unmoving, watching Ashado circle the shedrow from behind his sunglasses, and Island Sand pulled me around so hard my arm ached.
Congratulations to Ashado’s connections on her induction into the Racing Hall of Fame today, and to all of this year’s honorees.
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.
The Travers is now a possibility for Bayern after the 3-year-old colt trained by Bob Baffert wired the Haskell, winning by 7 1/4 lengths (replay). He was given a Beyer speed figure of 109 for the effort, two points higher than his freaky Woody Stephens win on Belmont Stakes day, and the second-highest Beyer awarded to any 3-year-old of either sex so far this year. Baffert had been thinking of the seven-furlong King’s Bishop as Bayern’s next start, “but I don’t think I’ll back him up after this,” he said post-race, per the Monmouth Park press notes. Instead of the 10-furlong Travers, writes Mike Watchmaker, “consider the nine-furlong Woodward at Saratoga against older horses one week after …” Hm, why not? The Haskell to Woodward move worked for Rachel Alexandra in 2009, and if any horse emerged from yesterday’s running looking like a potential Horse of Year candidate, it was the winner. It certainly wasn’t post-time favorite and fifth-place finisher Untapable — not to take anything away from the filly, who lost nothing as the leader of her division on Sunday and who was really up against it, running four wide on a track that may have been favoring a front-runner, but that performance should put an end to any further comparisons to the truly unbeatable 2009 Horse of the Year.
Related: “Have to bet Bayern off that huge 121 @TimeformUS Speed Figure [for the Woody Stephens],” tweeted Craig Milkowski before the Haskell. “It is a legit number.” The figuremaker gave the winner a 119 after.
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 the 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 bent; 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.
Frankie Dettori’s luggage didn’t make it to Saratoga on Friday, but he eventually did, getting to the track in time to leg up on Tiz Sardonic Joe in race seven after missing his first two rides on the card. In borrowed tack (his pants were lent by Rajiv Maragh, his crop by Julien Leparoux), Dettori rode Tiz Sardonic Joe to second (for purse money only after the horse lost a shoe in the post parade), finishing half a length behind Joes Blazing Aaron, the horse’s older half-brother out of the mare Distorted Blaze. If the Joe Bro exacta didn’t pay off for fans, Aventure Love did in race eight, giving Dettori his first ever career win at Saratoga. He followed up with his second win in race 10 aboard Jet Majesty, both for Wesley Ward, the only trainer to double on opening day. “Hopefully my tack will arrive tomorrow,” Dettori said after the eighth, “otherwise I got to take this lucky one back with me.”
Saratoga opens today! Hooray! Don’t forget your mortality as you’re joining Tom Durkin in his final, traditional opening call, “And they’re off at Saratoga!” Because, “The Spa may be timeless, but we aren’t.” (I kid, Joe. That’s so true.)
John Pricci keeps up the cheer and mourns the lost: “I have no idea what opening day will be like this time; I am haunted by history.”
Today’s Schuylerville Stakes drew five 2-year-old fillies, which has Bill Finley pondering how to fix the broken juvenile racing calendar. “One solution is to simply give up,” he writes. “Do away with the earlier stakes, save money and replace with them with a couple of allowance races.” Maybe, but it sure seems like if there’s anything trainers want to do less than start 2-year-olds in early season stakes, it’s start them in allowance races, ever. (See: 1, 2.)
International superstar jockey Frankie Dettori makes his Saratoga debut this weekend, but he’ll miss his first couple of rides today due to travel troubles, tweets David Grening. He’ll have about 12 chances for a flying dismount in the winner’s circle before the end of Sunday’s card.
“Right now if you look at the Triple Crown, a month or three weeks before the Derby is when the preps end and there’s really not another big 3 year-old race until a month after the Belmont.
“I’m not sure the rest of the tracks in America would be willing to give us a 4-month break with no big 3-year-old races and that’s what you would be asking for. I just don’t see how that could happen.
“It’s a much more complex situation than just those three races …
“And anything I do at Belmont, I’m also very conscious of not wanting to affect Saratoga. I’m trying to complement Saratoga, not hurt Saratoga.”