Commentary: Beatdown

The sentence was clearly spoken and went directly from the ear to a neuron in the brain responsible for the far reaches of disbelief.

“Racing is no longer a full-time beat.”

That opinion came from the sports editor at the newspaper at which I had first been employed more than 22 years before to cover racing as a full-time beat.

Six months later, Rags to Riches’ historic victory in the Belmont Stakes (gr. I) a fortnight-old and the summer meeting at Saratoga on the horizon, the same person said: “All the big races are over.”

In a completely involuntary reaction, my jaw dropped.

In retrospect, recognition of the inevitable was a more appropriate reaction than surprise. I have occupied a front-row seat from which to witness the erosion of racing’s presence in the nation’s mainstream newspapers to the point at which it is scant even in the largest markets…and I remember with great fondness a more robust era.

As a young writer who had found the job of his dreams, I met Red Smith and Jim Murray at Churchill Downs, and Pete Axthelm at Hialeah Park. When I moved from Florida to New York, Bill Leggett looked up from the corner seat of the bar at Esposito’s, almost a pilgrimage on a new guy’s first night in the big city, and said: “You’re in the right place.”

Though many immortals of racing journalism had departed before my arrival, I have enjoyed and benefited from the counsel and friendship of Joe Hirsch. I’ve shared adult beverages with Sam McCracken, Ed Schuyler, Billy Reed, Dale Austin, Jack Mann, Bob Harding, Bill Christine, and about anyone else who has covered racing for print media in the last 30 years; been a member of the pack that covered Seattle Slew, Affirmed and Alydar, and Spectacular Bid; and spent winters in Florida, summers at Saratoga, and made the odd sojourn to California, Chicago, or almost anywhere a big-time horse showed up to race.

Not so long ago, every large newspaper with a racetrack within its marketplace employed a Turf writer. Now, digest this: Five people in the whole of the United States cover racing full-time for mainstream daily newspapers. Two, Jennie Rees and Maryjean Wall, are based in Kentucky; the others are at the Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, and New York Post.

The decline of racing’s presence in the nation’s newspapers follows in lockstep the absence of editors from the decision-making structure who were interested in the sport at a time when racing was considered a part of the culture—something that no longer exists outside Kentucky. In my early days in New York, the paper’s publisher was an owner of horses who was regularly in attendance at the races. Four people were involved in covering racing and we were part of a large fraternity found daily in the press boxes of Aqueduct, Belmont Park, and Saratoga. Every paper in the metropolitan market was represented, the largest by more than one writer.

If the sports editor of a major newspaper in New York believes that all the big races are over in June, it is no wonder that press boxes are routinely almost vacant. A rare horse can break out of the niche and into the general media consciousness, but unless the story comes to life during the Triple Crown, it does not illuminate the radar screens in the majority of American newsrooms.

Consider the low mainstream profile of Invasor, arguably the best older horse to race in this country since Spectacular Bid, in the print media, which last took note of an older horse about 12 races into Cigar’s remarkable streak of 16 more than a decade ago.

Uninterested in responding to the changed structure of the racing marketplace, newspaper executives point to declining attendance as a measure of public indifference without taking into consideration the real size of an audience that has migrated to places off-track or online. Inevitably, the void in the mainstream has given rise to a new racing media.

The industry, in the Internet age, has already begun telling its own story on Web sites owned by National Thoroughbred Racing Association, the Breeders’ Cup, the trade media, and individual racetracks. News portals have come online to service a neglected niche. A community of bloggers has emerged and the growth of a new digital racing media remains yet in infancy.

If there is a market, it will be served.

Paul Moran, now retired from Newsday, writes for the Breeders’ Cup Web site.