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Maryjean Wall Eclipse Award
winning turf writer

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Maryjean Wall

Maryjean Wall retired in June after 35 years as racing writer for the Lexington Herald-Leader. She voluntarily took a corporate buyout. On her final day of writing for the newspaper, she was at Belmont Park covering the Belmont Stakes and Big Brown's failed attempt at winning the Triple Crown. During her first year on the beat, 1973, she came in with a winning Triple Crown: Secretariat's. She is a winner of three Eclipse Awards.

Wall has moved on to finishing her dissertation for a Ph.D. in American History, a study that looks at the horse industry in the decades following the Civil War. She plans to teach at the university level. She also has set up a web site, Maryjeanwall.com, that will focus on the horse in history and literature, as well as offering occasional articles on various breeds of horses.

History and general-interest articles were those that consistently proved most popular to readers of her stories, according to Wall, which is why she has started the web site. Her strong belief is that horse racing generally has failed to reach large audiences partly because general-interest readers were not offered the types of stories that the fan-on-the-street could read, understand, and enjoy.

Wall's interest in turf journalism evolved from her love of Thoroughbred racing. She grew up in Windsor, Ontario, Canada and wanted to become a jockey. Women were not allowed to ride races at pari-mutuel tracks in North America at that time. She turned to journalism so that she could become involved in racing. She was the first woman voted into the National Turf Writers' Association and served three terms on the Board of Directors.

Wall did not realize her dream of becoming a jockey. But she did learn to ride horses at a track with a storied history: the remains of Kenilworth Park in Windsor, where Man o' War ran his last race. By Wall's lifetime, all that remained on the grounds was the dirt oval of the race course, the entrance gates, and a single barn. But the ghostly hoofbeats of horses from the past were something she says she often thought about while riding on the old course.

Wall has participated in Thoroughbred racing in a variety of roles, from groom to assistant trainer to pony person, while seeing many changes in the sport. She has also trained and ridden her own Arabian horses in dressage.

Her career as a racing journalist also went through many changes. The craft went from typewritten stories to articles filed by wireless on the Internet. One of the last of the full-time racing writers for a general-interest newspaper, she also witnessed the decline in racing coverage across Canada and the United States. It is on this note that she invites discussion on Talkin' Horses.

Santa Ana, CA:
Do you think we do our horses a disservice to race them only on flat turf courses as opposed to more sloped or uneven turf courses? Do we need to focus less on speed for some races and more on ability or talent in such uneven turf racing?

Wall:
I think we'd do well to stick to flat courses on the turf. If you want to train on an up-and-downhill course to develop hind-end muscles and collection, fine. But why would you want to run all-out on the up-and-down, unless you're trying to win a race at Kentucky Downs?

I think it's not such a bad idea to get away from speed, regardless of turf, dirt, or Poly. We're seeing the effects of speed on the breed, and I don't think anyone argues this any more. The question, then, is how do you encourage breeders and buyers to change? In a word, money. If racing associations begin to hang out larger purses for longer races, you'll eventually see breeders begin to react. One thing that got the sport in the shape that it's in now is the 2-year-old sales which are all about speed. Any way you look at it, it's all about the money. That's what drives this sport.

Orlando, FL:
Do you think that American Racing should adopt endurance/distance running on turf, like Europe has 2 1/2 mile races?

Wall:
I would answer this question similarly to my answer given above. This will mean bringing changes to the Thoroughbred in North America. People are already beginning to suggest that we need to get away from so much speed. But somebody has to take action. It can't all consist of talk.

Burgin, KY:
Mary Jean: I've enjoyed reading your stories and features for years - thanks for all of your hard work. Of all the great horses you've had the privilege of reporting on, who has been your favorite and why?

Wall:
My favorite, and a darn good one, was Spectacular Bid. He won all the right races as a 2-year-old. He was undefeated at age 3 through the Preakness Stakes. He lost to Affirmed at age 3 in the Jockey Club Gold Cup, but he was losing (by only ' of a length) to an older horse in Affirmed. He never lost another race in his next 10 starts though his 4-year-old year. The fact that his final race, the Woodward Stakes, was a walkover will always suggest that no other competition could be rounded up to face him. He carried 132 pounds twice. He won sprinting. He won at 1-1/4 miles. Was there anything he could not do? He couldn't overcome the misjudged ride of his jockey in the Belmont Stakes. A horse on wings could not have overcome that handicap.

New York, NY:
Did you ever encounter overt sexism from a boss, fellow journalist, or a source? How did you handle it?

Wall:
Yes, I encountered plenty of sexism and the good-old-boys attitude. It was always there. It's still out there. That's how I developed a Jack Russell terrier attitude.

Lexington, KY:
How do you feel about bloggers and do you think they should have the same access privileges, credentials, and other professional courtesies extended to journalists working for media organizations?

Wall:
This is a timely question and a good one. It's one I might have to deal with personally, now that I have set up my own web site, Maryjeanwall.com. Actually I have considered this and similar scenarios for some time, long before I retired from the Lexington Herald-Leader, because it's no secret that the numbers among print media are declining. I would look around in any press box and wonder, who will be here to join us or take our places some day?

I don't know how publicity departments are dealing with requests from bloggers for media credentials. But I do think there needs to be some professional criteria for admittance to press boxes. Why? Because these are work areas. They are not meant to be hangouts for wannabes. That said, there are many excellent, serious minded and professional bloggers working on-line these days. I think that if a blogger can demonstrate a lengthy history of professional reporting on his or her blog, the blogger should be considered for media credentials. Blogging appears to be the wave of the future; when the future arrives, blogging might be horse racing's only remaining media outlet.

Lexington, KY:
What is your opinion on the NTRA's roll in the industry since its creation? Will it ever be a true "league office" like with the NFL and other sports?

Wall:
It's great if you want to buy John Deere tractors and Dodge trucks.

And no, I do not see a true league office in the future for this sport. It was fragmented from the beginning and always will be. Look at the past performance lines on the sport.

Lexington, KY:
In your opinion, with readership on a continual decline, are newspapers doomed to extinction? Did you jump ship at just the right time?

Wall:
This is a tough, tough question to answer. I don’t think anyone has the crystal ball capable of producing an answer to this one. I did not jump ship, so to speak. I did not realize that layoffs were coming several weeks later at the newspaper where I worked. We simply were offered buyouts and I took one because I wanted to finish my academic work and this was the opportunity I needed. I feel so fortunate that I had already left, on my own choice, when the layoffs occurred. When layoffs were announced, it must have felt like the worst days of journalism were upon our workplace, something I would have hated to see because the Herald-Leader was home to me all of my adult life.

Newspapers, as everyone knows, are taking it on the chin. They’re being broadsided from all directions. Readership has declined. Advertising has declined. The economy is bad. The corporations that own newspapers have radically cut back space. Ink and newsprint cost a lot more than they once did. General readership – and editors – see horse racing low on their interest list and the result is unfortunate for horse racing.

I will say that I think there still is room in newspapers for racing stories – of the right type. I do not mean stories about individual races, unless these races are the important events the public knows about and will read about, like the Triple Crown races. What I’m talking about here are human-interest feature stories.

These are the stories that the general-interest readers of newspapers will read, if they are well-written. They must not be written in jargon, which is the inside-baseball type of language that pops up in stories on individual races. They must be written so that anyone can understand them. They must also appeal to a wide audience – people who might not otherwise ever read a story about horses. How does a writer pull this off? By finding an unusual topic, one that has wide appeal across the lines of horse racing into daily life. These stories are out there. I made a career of finding them. But then, I made it a practice to be in the barns looking for these types of stories. I was fortunate that the Lexington Herald-Leader allowed me to work barn time into my work day.

I find it unfortunate that nearly every race track publicity department fails to produce leads on these types of stories and to “sell” them to the sports departments at their local newspapers. We rarely ever heard from a race track with a good story idea. The tracks pump out reams of promotional copy about their upcoming stakes races or who won these races. But they don’t alert reporters to the types of stories that titillate editors and readers. It’s one more example of horse racing shooting itself in the foot.

Lexington, KY:
Hi Maryjean, Do you favor legalizing gambling in Kentucky to help support the Kentucky racing industry?

Wall:
On the one hand, horse racing is Kentucky's signature agricultural industry, a key tourist industry, and a major pillar of Central Kentucky's economy. I think it's unfortunate that the average person in Central Kentucky fails to realize how much money the horse industry puts into the local and state economy in tax dollars, trickle-down spending, etc., etc. On the other hand, I am a traditionalist. I love to see the sport run purely for the sport. But if there must be legalized casino gambling, I think Kentucky should look to Woodbine Entertainment to see how this can be done tastefully.

Nicholasville, KY:
Who is the greatest horse you have personally seen run?

Wall:
The greatest horse I saw was Secretariat. I liked him a lot. I also liked John Henry, Easy Goer, Sunday Silence, Alydar, Conquistador Cielo, and so many others. My favorite was Spectacular Bid. But the greatest I saw was Secretariat. Man o’ War died before I was born.

Portland, OR:
Can you please tell us a couple of your favorite Thoroughbreds and why? Thanks, Jim

Wall:
I’ve already discussed why I liked Spectacular Bid so well. I also liked Dave’s Friend, because, like John Henry, he was around for so long. I really, really liked John Henry. What a talented, game horse he was.

Portland, OR:
Hi, Maryjean, congratulations on a storied career; one that could have been easier, I'm sure. I thought Phil Georgeff made a good case for Citation being the greatest ever -- had he not been run in the ground, raced on cement, etc. Who would you put in your top 5, 1900 - 2008?

Wall:
This question would also make for a good article at some time on Maryjeanwall.com! Why? Because you invite debate any time you try to pick 5 or 10 of the top horses. No one ever agrees who should be No. 1 – whether it should be Secretariat, Citation, or Man o’ War. And no one ever agrees on who should follow and in what order.

My personal preference has always been for Man o’ War to be No. 1. My other top four, in order, are Secretariat, Citation, Kelso, and Forego.

Grants Pass, OR:
So much talk these days about who may have been the greatest of all time. So many varying opinions, so many eras of racing to consider. I look at the great ones who could carry the weight, run at many different distances and race tracks and look another horse in the eye and break his heart. One such horse that comes to mind is the legendary Dr. Fager. This amazing animal gets very little pub. Mainly I think is because he never raced in the Triple Crown races. We all know that America is in love with the Triple Crown. Braulio Baeza, the Doctor’s regular rider has said that he was hands down the best race horse he ever road or saw. We all know that Baeza rode some great ones. I am interested in your thoughts on this.

Wall:
Dr. Fager certainly was a fabulous race horse who probably does not get as much credit for greatness from racing fans as he should. You are correct: when a horse does not win Triple Crown races, particularly the Derby, the public usually does not become familiar with that horse. But Dr. Fager deserves a high place in history. I think it was Steve Haskin who once wrote that the hole Dr. Fager ran in the wind will never be filled. Too bad the general public never knew him for the great horse he was.

Lexington, KY:
With so many newspapers cutting their budget for racing coverage, how has the Herald-Leaders' racing budget changed over the years?

Wall:
I was the writer; other people controlled the news and financial budgets. So, I’m not able to speak to this. I think any questions about this should be directed to Tim Kelley, publisher of the Herald-Leader.

Billings, MT:
Any omen to your last day being Big Brown's Belmont bust?

Wall:
Well, I don’t plan to come off my steroids, if that’s what you mean.

Sonoma, CA:
Is it still possible to have a career as a racing journalist?

Wall:
Another tough question to answer but a good one. Racing journalists have been asking this question among themselves ' just as newspaper reporters have asked the same question about careers for young people in journalism. All we know is that the media world is changing fast and that no one can foresee the future. I would say that if someone really wants to become a racing journalist, that person will find a way just as I did when the road seemed blocked with a high wall. No other women newspaper journalists were working daily in the race track press boxes. I had no idea how I was going to get a job in that arena but I persevered and made a way. Someone who really wants to do this type of work will find a creative way to get in the game, though it probably won't be in the traditional way that saw racing journalists hired as such by print media. On-line outlets do present unlimited opportunities for the future, however.

Hillsdale, MI:
Can you tell us more about the subject for your dissertation?

Wall:
All I will say at this point is that it will be about Kentucky after the Civil War.

Phoenixville, PA:
Maryjean, What do trainers do to fillies and mares to race them when they are in "season?" Are they treated in some way to impact their hormonal levels?

Wall:
A lot of fillies and mares are not treated because they don’t need it. Those who need some help might receive Regu-Mate, which in laymen’s terms, has the effect of birth control pills. That’s all I remember from my years of working with horses.

Lexington, KY:
Thanks for all your years of covering racing. It seems even though the horse industry is so important, the Herald-Leader gives less and less coverage. Why?

Wall:
Again, this is a question I wouldn’t know how to respond to. My job was to write and report, not to decide the allotment of space. Please contact Tim Kelley, the publisher.

Waddy, KY:
Why can't we get a Triple Crown winner lately? We've been so close.

Wall:
Everyone ponders this same question. People asked themselves the same question during those 25 years between Citation and Secretariat. But I do think horses are different now than they were during that last time span. Will we ever see another Triple Crown winner under conditions as they are now? I’m not sure. My crystal ball loses its HD-TV signal on this one.

Jackson Hole, WY:
What person was the best interview you ever conducted?

Wall:
Over 35 years on the racing beat and 41 years in newspaper journalism, I have encountered so many good “interviewees” that it’s almost impossible to remember all of them. In recent years, I would have to say that Chris McCarron has always been a top choice for an interview. He’s articulate, has a good grasp on what’s going on, and knows his racing history, too. I also like interviewing Carl Nafzger because he puts much thought into what he says – and what he says makes so much sense. The late Woody Stephens was fun and entertaining during interviews. Jerry Bailey is always a good interview, or at least he always has been for me. The late Bill Hartack was a great person to interview, in my experience. I know I’m leaving some people out.

Topeka, KS:
What are the biggest changes you have seen on the backsides of racetracks?

Wall:
The influx of Hispanic workers was the greatest change I have seen. I came into racing on the tail-end of African Americans dominating the numbers of backstretch workers. After that I saw women begin to work in great numbers in the barn areas. Women are still a major part of the work force, though these women are Spanish-speaking. I have seen efforts to provide more housing in some barn areas, in the form of dormitories. But racing has not gone far enough to provide decent housing for the barn help.

Little Texas, KY:
Maryjean: Throughout the years, we've often read about all the colorful characters in the newspaper business and in the press box. From your experience, who were some of the better writers and editors that you worked with?

Wall:
Without doubt the best editor I worked with, on a free-lance basis, was Sports Illustrated’s Andre Laguerre. Among his many talents, he had that knack of condensing your copy so seamlessly that you had no idea where it had been cut. The only other editor I’ve worked with who has this talent is Mat Graf, assistant sports editor at the Lexington Herald-Leader. I have seen some very talented writers take an interest in horse racing. I’m not going to name names here because I don’t want to leave anyone out.

Sydney, Australia:
G'Day Maryjean, I am fascinated by the history of horseracing as well. Do you think that with the advent of track betting and more television coverage of the sport that racing is in danger of becoming 'Keno On Legs'? If so what role can a print journalism play in trying to turn it around?

Wall:
Why would this be the responsibility of print journalism?  Newspapers do not take sides in issues. They report and reflect on them.

Cooperstown, NY:
How come baseball retains its popular press coverage in the 'drug era' of its sport while cycling, track & field, and horse racing doesn't? What allows baseball to thrive with the same degree of guilt? Can horse racing acquire that same intangible?

Wall:
Consider this: why should racing want to thrive within a degree of guilt? If racing really is as dirty as the perception goes, clean it up. If it’s not as dirty as people think, then get the message out there. Period. End of story.

Northridge, CA:
Hey MJ: We go back a long way, and I'm glad I have an opportunity to ask you a question here. In all your coverage of racing, I'd like to know which story was the most heart-warming for you to cover, and which story was the most heart-breaking for you to cover? Best to you, Nick Capurro.

Wall:
Nick, I am so glad to hear from you. Be sure to send me your email address later. As for the most heart-warming story I’ve covered, where should I begin? There have been so many stories I’ve come across of people or horses trying to overcoming all obstacles to persevere and even succeed in some cases. One thing I do know: readers love these stories. And racing should be disseminating every such story that can be found.   One story that stands out in my memory is that of Genuine Risk finally foaling a live offspring, and raising her colt so lovingly. Tony Leonard’s timeless photograph of Genuine Risk looking down fondly at her baby as they were traveling along is priceless and brings back memories every time I look at it.

Spokane, WA:
What can the industry do to promote itself as a spectator sport? How can we attract the attention of sports fans?

Wall:
The issue is not only one of attracting sports fans but of attracting fans, period. And guess what? Racing has looked the other way for so long that it has missed, possibly forever, the opportunity of bringing in new generations of fans. And please don’t blame the media for this. It’s not the media’s responsibility to lasso the fans.

Racing missed the boat generations ago, when it let the new TV era slip by. The muckety-mucks who held all the influence in the sport didn’t give a hoot about the public; nor did they believe the sport would ever decline in popularity, since it was the only betting game in town. They saw the sport as only for themselves and their private stables. Any leadership they gave to the sport was largely for themselves.

Look at the mess racing is in now. Lack of leadership. No centralized rules or authority. The belief that drugs are used with abandon. Not a single spokesperson that the public recognizes as the man in charge, the one who cares and the one who has credibility. The highest-profile persons are in trouble with authorities. Issues abound over humane treatment of animals. Why would any progressive-thinking, animal-loving person want to become a fan of this sport the way it appears at this moment? The PETA activists are not the only persons disgusted with racing; they’re simply the vocal ones.

Everyone in this sport has a stake in racing’s future. Yet I don’t see all persons in this sport taking ownership of that concept. There seems to be a lack of will to stimulate the people in racing into pulling together, into owning the sport and doing something to make it more palatable to the public. Most people in this sport seem to be focused on their self-interests, whether these persons are the leading trainers, track management, or even persons employed in track publicity departments. They all know how to talk the talk but they don’t walk the walk. Believe me, I’ve watched this downward spiral for years. And it has become worse over time.

People on the outside simply are no longer willing to abide a “sport” where animals appear to be given drugs, whipped, and run to their deaths. I’m not saying this is what actually occurs in racing. I’m saying this is what the public sees. Wake up, folks. The public is disgusted with the way this sport appears to be going.

Woodbine, ON Canada:
You have observed many changes over the years you have covered horseracing. (You are also a horsewoman, which I assume makes you a minority in the field of horseracing journalism.) I would be interested to hear one or two positive changes you could highlight, and perhaps one or two negative changes over the years of your tenure.

Wall:
Positive changes (in no specific order) since I entered the game 35 years ago: quick veterinary response to on-track breakdowns; the Kimsey track ambulance; allowing people to make telephone calls during the racing program; 48-hour and longer entries; much more turf racing; Polytrack; increased role that women are playing in racing; Internet access to past performances, charts, entries, etc.; simulcasting; Trakus “chicklets” that track horses at Keeneland during the running of races. Negative changes (again, in no specific order): The trend towards large stables becoming corporate-type enterprises, while getting away from the folksy operations they once were; the decline of the American public’s interest in racing.

Lexington, KY:
Have become quite a fan of the sport since moving to Lexington 6 years ago. Been to several tracks outside of KY since. Are there any tracks (outside of the normal "glory" tracks) that you feel to be underrated? That is, are there tracks outside of the Belmont/Churchill/Arlington/Keeneland scene that people should plan as part of a trip someplace? Why?

Wall:
One track I absolutely love is River Downs, near Cincinnati. You sit in an open-air grandstand, you have a view of the Ohio River, you can see the horses circle a beautiful little walking ring, and feel relaxed on a summer’s afternoon.

I’ve also long been a fan of Tampa Bay Downs. This is another pleasant place to watch horses run.

Marietta, Ga:
Why don't we run the Triple Crown with 4-year olds?

Wall:
Because it’s a series for 3-year-olds.

Newark, DE:
Hope you have a great retirement. What do you think is the main reason for the decline in racing coverage?

Wall:
American culture has changed so that the horse does not occupy the No. 1 place in the national consciousness that it once did. Simple answer to a complex situation.

Sonoma, CA:
Pete Axhelm was just great to watch on the TV show Thoroughbred Digest. Did you ever interview him and what are your recollections?

Wall:
I didn’t interview him but I knew him well. He was a friend. He was an amazingly talented writer who loved the sport.

Bill Madden Co Limerick Ireland:
I am from Ireland where the Arc is held in very high regard, but I can’t understand why Curlin would want to try and win an Egg and Spoon race on what will most probably be soft ground. I think the Irish champion stakes or the Juddmonte international would be much more important all age races and are run over Curlin’s normal distance. I myself have a share in a leading grass colt in Europe and would find it more prestigious to win a Breeders’ Cup Turf than an Arc.

Wall:
It sounds like you should direct your comment to Curlin’s ownership.

Hoover AL:
On visits to Woodbine or Ft.Erie tracks and their catering to slots, the way things are done now can you blame the people for leaving the Sport of Kings?

Wall:
I’m not an expert on the relationship between racing and slots. I do think that Woodbine converted its facility to slots and racing in the most tasteful manner in which this could be accomplished.

Versailles, KY:
Hi Maryjean, Now that you have retired, who will take over the Thoroughbred beat at the Herald-Leader?

Wall:
I think you will have to contact the Herald-Leader on this one.

Lexington, KY:
What will you miss most about covering horse racing, and what are your thoughts on the state of the industry?

Wall:
I will miss: watching the sun rise over race track barn areas; watching horses gallop and work on the tracks; reporting on the Triple Crown races and the Breeders' Cup. Then again, I'm not leaving the morning scenes behind because I live close to Keeneland and can go there any time.

I think I have already expounded on my impressions about the state of the industry.

Lexington, KY:
Why is your former employer, The Lexington Herald-Leader, so non-supportive of the Thoroughbred industry? It seems that anytime that Keeneland opens for racing, or the sales are ongoing, or around Derby time the paper always prints negative articles about our business.

Wall:
Sorry to disappoint you, but I have nothing negative to say about the Herald-Leader.

LAST UPDATED: 1:14 P.M. (ET)

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