Words on a Page - by Claire Novak

Had you told me at the start of the last season that I would begin this one as a free agent, I would never have believed you. I expected to work in Lexington, fulfilling my aspirations to make it big as a Turf writer, for the next 25 years or so. How does the saying go? “If you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans.”

The past year was not kind to members of my profession as a whole. I will miss Neil Milbert, veteran Turf writer for the now-bankrupt Chicago Tribune, who faithfully covered races at Arlington Park even when it was just him and track publicists hunting down quotes. The Los Angeles Times’ infamous decision to slice the talented Bob Mieszerski and Larry Stewart from their staff, the Philadelphia Inquirer’s termination of their racing coverage in late summer, the Washington Post’s purging of longtime Turf writer John Scheinman (which marks the end of 130 years of race reporting for the Post)—these cuts do not bode well for an industry already struggling to obtain free media coverage. And there’s no use denying the fact that industry trades are slicing their coverage, from staff writers to correspondents—also a disheartening sign.

So, I was victim of the early layoffs, a sign of things to come, now viewed as fortunate by my peers because the axing offered a chance to escape the industry altogether. But I am too young, perhaps too foolish, or perhaps too much in love with the career I have chosen to let a stumble from the starting gate ruin my race. I have found my feet, and my stride, and I am better for it. I only wish the same could be said for my fellow Turf writers, many of whom were turning for home or galloping along somewhere down the backstretch when their legs were knocked from under them.

Early in the season, the Lexington Herald-Leader’s Eclipse Award-winning Maryjean Wall accepted a buyout and turned her efforts to blogging at www.maryjeanwall.com. On Dec. 16 she credited fellow blogger Teresa Genaro of The Brooklyn Backstretch blog with the following quote:

“I watched reporters, disturbed, work to find out answers; they go to the jocks’ room, they call the vet, they talk to agents. And I think: this is why bloggers are no substitute for reporters, who know their beat, who have done this for a long time, who have credibility based on experience and who can be trusted to take in information and write about it responsibly, especially sensitive information like this…we cannot, and we should not, be seen as a replacement for the reporters that one by one are disappearing from the racing world.”

I read this quote and wonder if we realize what we have lost. I have never met a Turf writer—a truly talented, respected Turf writer—who did not love this game. One great cliché is that horse racing, in spite of its foibles and follies, has a remarkable way of getting into your blood. No matter what the cynics tell you, I know this is true.

Say not to me that I have stars in my eyes, for horse racing has broken even my young heart on more than one occasion.

Still, we carry on. We present the game we love in all its glory, with all its heartaches. We do not hide its failures but write of them to inspire resolutions. We attend morning works at ungodly hours; we chase trainers’ quotes in the pouring rain; we come in when others take weekends and holidays; we bang out our columns long after the last reveling racegoer has wandered from the track.

Then, somehow, between the developing of sources and the investigating of rumors and the following of top runners and the covering of great tragedies, the undeniable happens. We become part of the story.  

Perhaps someday our profession will go the way of those things once valued, now extinct—like binocular rentals at Saratoga or the old grandstand at Gulfstream. But at least we will have chronicled our gradual disappearance, faithful denizens of a fading society. When all that is left of these horses, these trainers, are words on a page, we’ll look back and remember that these were our words, this industry was our life—if not forever, at least for a little while.

CLAIRE NOVAK is a Lexington-based freelance writer.


Leave a Comment:

John McEvoy

Great column, Claire. Keep on keeping on.

06 Jan 2009 11:48 AM

Thank you for writing this heartfelt piece.  You have always had a wonderful way with words and you have been missed in this venue.

06 Jan 2009 1:12 PM
Joanne Kraft

For those of us race fans who love to read the Mary Jean Wall and Jenny Rees columns about the horses, trainers, and days at the stables and tracks, thank you for persevering.  You do have an audience.

06 Jan 2009 2:20 PM

You are a talented writer and I hope that you are very successful with the free lancing. I love to read and am an avid book collector and I despair of the disappearance of actual newspapers and magazines. The internet is great for some things but it can't replace the pleasure of flipping through a good book.

06 Jan 2009 2:55 PM
John Hernandez


Well, you've got a good head on your shoulders, a million-dollar smile, AND youth on your side! The game will be better off if it finds a place for you!



06 Jan 2009 3:30 PM

Keep writing Claire!

06 Jan 2009 3:35 PM
Melaina Balbo Phipps

As a fellow freelancer I share your optimism: don't let an early stumble determine your finish!

06 Jan 2009 4:14 PM


06 Jan 2009 6:47 PM

Claire, I had the fortune of reading Jim Murrary every day and especially after a big  racing event, when he would devote his entire column to the greats that performed at Sanita Anita and Hollywood Park. I loved horses and racing long before I could read his column but in doing so it enabled me to relive the moment and savor my experiences. I saw Silky Sullivan, Swaps, Round Table, CougarII, John Henry, Native Diver but reading about the events in his column was just as thrilling.  I miss reading a racing column and have for many a year now. Good luck in your new adventure and please remember to let the greats of the past look over your shoulder every once in a while.

06 Jan 2009 7:09 PM
Mom and Pop

Welcome to the real world of the horse business.  Where nothing lasts forever.  You're on top one year and every body writes about you and the phone never stops ringing. A year latter and there is a good chance no one remembers your name and the phone has been shut off due to lack of payment.  How do you think the vast majority of horsemen and I mean real horsemen feel right now.  Not the rich hobby breeders of Kentucky, Save a few.  But the mom and pop, family run farms. where it is feast or famine year in year out.  There are no government subsidies to the horse farmer when there is no rain and the grass goes brown. No subsidies when the yearling market tanks and you take nice horses to the ring with more then two years of hard work and lots of money and be lucky to get half of your money back and have worked for free.  No subsidies when your mare slips, or lose half of your foal crop due to some sort of virus.  There are a lot of us out there who know no other life who have put up with all of this and have some how scratched out a living year in year out.  Seven days a week, 12 to 14 hour days.  Breaking ice in the winter, breaking yearlings in the cold winter wind. Galloping short 2 year olds in sleet.  Putting up 150,000 pounds of hay on 100 degree days for what works out to be around 50 cents an hour.  We do this because this is what we do.  But for a lot of us our life's work looks to be all of naught. And a lot of us horsemen may have to end our days working at Wal-Mart.  And they don't even have a horse section.  So, say a pray for us, the horsemen, when you are pounding out your free lance column in the warm comfort of your house. Because I guarantee there is a horsemen somewhere as I write who is doing what we had to do last week early New Years day morning.  Arms deep inside a suffering mare who had just "red bagged".  Trying in vane to save what we both knew would be a dead foal. For an unappreciative owner at $25 a day.

06 Jan 2009 8:33 PM
Marg in Maine


I have always appreciated your style and your stories. Rest assured I'll be searching for your by-line!

07 Jan 2009 8:05 AM
Teresa Genaro

Terrific piece, Claire; I regularly read racing accounts from the 19th and early 20th centuries, and am also saddened that such poetic, detailed, daily accounts of racing are no more.  If things keep going the way they are, no accounts will exist, poetic or not--so thanks to you for adding to the diminishing library of memorable racing writing.  

07 Jan 2009 8:48 AM
John Scheinman

Lovely words...

Yours in worry about the future. Drop  me an email sometime.

07 Jan 2009 11:52 AM

Kudos Claire.  I have always enjoyed your stories so much and loved your voice.  I let the former Editor at TBH know how impressed I was with you.  Alas, penny wise, pound foolish to let your talent go.  But you will do fine freelance.

Mom and Pop - I would not board my mare with someone as sour as you in the first place.  I know first hand it is a tough biz, but if you really think that most of Kentucky is made up of hobby breeders, I would say you have fallen off of one too many 2 yr olds that you decided to gallop in sleet.  You need to buck up and be grateful for the life you chose, even with great hardship, or go work at Walmart now.  Because if you think the rest of the world is getting along so well and you are the only one to suffer...maybe you need to get out more.

07 Jan 2009 12:51 PM
Nick Kling

Mom and Pop,

I believe I can offer a unique perspective on your comments.  

I used to be a farmer in upstate New York, where the 12-14 hour days, seven days a week, were also par for the course.  I've taken care of baby calves in below zero temperatures in February, and harvested green peas, snap beans, and field corn, around the clock for 48-72 hours in the summer and fall.

We sold our farm 20 years ago, and about five years after that I got a job working for a newspaper covering horse racing.  That's what I do today, handicapping races and writing several columns per week.

The bottom line is this.  My turf writing job takes a similar commitment as did farming.  The hours may be a little better, but not that much.  The research required is just as demanding, and the pressure to produce is always there.  Any turf writer or reporter who is worth his or her salt cares every bit as much about their job as you care about your farm and animals.

07 Jan 2009 5:23 PM
Bruce Greene


As you know, this game features the highest highs and the lowest lows.  You have ability, it will serve you well.  For now freelance seems the way to go. I know it's not the same, but can be fulfilling at times.  Seems to me that a re-alignment of all journalism is in progress.  Because people like you have strong values and an even stronger sense of ethics, you'll be fine.  It keeps people like me reading and supporting your work.  

07 Jan 2009 7:19 PM
Mom and Pop

Barbara, you are quite right we do need to get off the farm more. And after re-reading my post it does come off a bit sour. My jab at KY was out of line for the most part having spent more then 20 years there I should know better.  My apologies to my fellow KY Mom & Pop horsemen. But in my defense Ms Novak's whining struck a nerve.  She states she has 25 years in front of her, she's lucky.  I know plenty who do not.  And will not be able to survive what is going on.  Friends that are loosing their farms and lively hood and will have to work at Wal-Mart.  It upsets me not to no end.  And I can do nothing to help.  Her frustration and all of ours should perhaps be pointed at the mismanagement of our industry.  I don't blame the media by in large for dropping racing coverage.  When is the last time you saw an advertisement by a race track, the Breeders' Cup, the NTRA, the breeding and racing industry at large committing to monthly advertising?  I can tell you first hand that if a business calls the advertising department of any paper and say we will commit X amount of dollars if you commit X amount of copy they will keep excellent turf writers on the payroll.  Who is more important, a good turf writer making $40-50,000 a year.  Or the head of the Breeder's Cup making more then $600.000? But I see very few up in arms.  Again, say a prayer for all. For what is going on now has not been seen before.  And when the dust settles a lot of us will be left in it.

07 Jan 2009 7:38 PM
Claire Novak

Dear Mom and Pop,

First of all, I have the utmost respect for you and anyone who handles horses, whether small-time breeder or trainer or groom. I came into turf writing from the hands-on side of the equine industry, currently supplement my income with more hands-on work at the Keeneland sales, and pride myself on the fact that I can handle a Thoroughbred with the same amount of confidence with which I write.

In fact, my introduction to horse racing came through a mom-and-pop operation such as yours - the Maryland farm that belonged to my great uncle Nick, who inspired me to determinedly pursue my goals and never to give up, no matter how hard things become.

Second, I believe you mistook my tone - I am definitely not "whining." I am grateful for every opportunity that has been given to me and as long as I am able to find an outlet for my coverage of the racing industry, I will be a happy woman. If a note of sadness may be detected in my column, it is due to the heartbreaking passing of an entire society. If you took every single talented turf writer who remains in this industry and brought each one to Aqueduct for an assembly, you would still not be able to fill up the entire press box. And that is a shame for many reasons, not the least of which is a loss of passionate, knowledgeable coverage of the game - one more step in this sport's decline to the pay-per-view ranks, where its' once-revered fellow, boxing, now languishes.

As far as the entire industry is concerned, these are tough times. In fact, as far as the entire economy is concerned, these are tough times. But I have my chin up, and perhaps I do have youth on my side. Rest assured, the generation that is coming behind "mom and pop" will take up the reins and run with the same dedication and determination you've shown to the industry you chose.

I wish you the best. Good luck, whatever your future holds.                

07 Jan 2009 10:17 PM

Claire....you're a tremendous talent. everything happens for a reason!

07 Jan 2009 10:23 PM
Michael Cusortelli

As a writer who covers Quarter Horse racing, I too am disturbed by the recent laying off of journalists who know and respect the racing industry.

Now, when a newspaper does cover a major race, the editors will send out someone who doesn't know one end of a horse from another. That's not good for the paper -- and even worse for racing.

07 Jan 2009 11:11 PM

Mom and Pop - I see little difference between Ms. Novak's "whining" and the concerns you express in your comments. In fact, you even admit the parallels between your situations in that they share a common antagonist - the mismanagement of the industry.

Aside from trying to fault a talented writer for being young, you invalidate your own argument (which does come to some interesting points by the end) by accusing the author without offering a solution to the problems yourself except that we will all be left in the dust.

Now on to the subject at hand. As someone who is also trying to break into the turf writing game it is somewhat discouraging to see so many positions go up in smoke, likely to never return.

However, there are far too many good stories in the racing world for reporting to just keel over and die completely. It may not be in traditional print journalism, but somewhere out there, someone wants to read about this industry and someone has to be there to deliver the information to them.

Will turf writing jobs be as plentiful as they were in the past? Probably not. But as long as there are horses leaving the gates, someone will be there to write about it. It's all a matter of being that person and making enough money as that person to pay the bills. If only it were as easy as it sounds...

08 Jan 2009 12:59 AM
On The Lead

Bill Nack told me once there is no good writing without good reporting. This summer at Saratoga, Claire, you were out there every morning, doing what good turf writers do -- getting the story. Don't stop.

08 Jan 2009 9:39 AM

Claire, you forgot to mention all those so-called turf writers who were so wrapped up in the gambling aspect of the game that they had a hard time being objective when it came to writing the story. Just remember, there are pari-mutuel machines in every pressbox.

08 Jan 2009 10:44 AM

Claire was not whining.  She was lamenting an industry loss and a way of life that reaches much further than just a turfwriter's pocket or future.  I think she knows the she, personally, will be ok.  But without talents like Clair bringing racing to life in an appealing style that breaks into the mainstream (as opposed to some of the young hacks that still have "reporting" correspondent gigs for the trades - I guess you get what you pay for in this case..) then racing does not stand a chance of a turn around.

Mom and Pop - I did take your original post as whining.  But your follow up post is more than introspective and makes a good point as to why the collective whine is fast becoming a scream...into a soon to be silent night.

08 Jan 2009 1:38 PM
Mom and Pop

Ms. Novak

I suppose using the word whine was a poor choice and knew it as soon as I hit send. And when I have the time I am of the type that pounds something out and then goes back and massages.  If I had, I agree with Barbara on both points, lament would have been a better choice. Mibredclaimer, I certainly was not trying to fault the writer. At least I did not think I was.  But after re-reading my first post the point I was trying to make got lost in my diatribe.  Brought on by very long hours in very bad weather for a very long time.  Which I am used to.  And if your bills were paid, and the horses looked good, a couple of winning photos on the wall those hours are tangible and life is good.  But it is hard not to shake the feeling that there is a good chance I am loosing money every hour of the day.  Foals on the way. Will they even be worth the stud fee.  Am I just contributing to the over production problem? I am 50 years old and have been doing this all of my life as my family before me going back several generations.  From Maryland no less. I have worn just about every hat in the racing and breeding business.  My work in the horse business has taken me around the world.  I am on a first name bases with just about all of the who's who of the industry.  And was with many of those who are sadly no longer with us.  I am passionate about the TRADITION of the sport. Your point about the binocular rentals at Saratoga hit home.  And made me think of the great Joe Hirsch. Who one would always run into at the top of the club house stairs.  I am very fortunate to have been introduced to just about all of the legendary characters of the turf, trainers, owners, jockeys, grooms, hot walkers and writers.  And it all seems to be disappearing in such short order.  A few years back I moth balled my dinner jacket and the glam life of a bloodstock agent and went back to my routes.  Wished I had done it years ago.  I am much better with horses and dogs then I ever was with humans.  And though if we were to sell the farm and cash out I certainly will not have to work at Wal-Mart and life would be far less stressful unlike others I know. My life forever would be different.  Generations of tradition ended.  This is were my diatribe came from and yours too.  But far more eloquently.  I may lay down for a while and bleed.  But hay, I'm a horsemen we gotta be optimistic.  I got a couple of talented jumpers in the barn and the steeplechase season is only a few months away.  A couple of 2 year olds that should bring decent money even in this market.  And a pretty nice yearling colt by Tapit!

Personally I'd take Hialeah over the old Gulfstream.  But don't get me going on that topic!

08 Jan 2009 8:53 PM
needler in Virginia

Claire, while I love the internet for the access to information, the ease of finding the name of the actor who played the 4th speaking part in "Casey's Shadow", or how many earthquakes there were in North America yesterday, I HATE IT for the loss of language and the beauty of words. 'Netspeak is fast, mindless and filled with smileys, but the real words written by you and Maryjean and Bill Nack and Steve Haskin and all the other real journalists are the ones I always seek out first. Yours are the words I carry with me through the day; yours are the words that make  me see The Bid again, making his walkover seem like the BC Classic. Yours are the words that bring Dr Fager and Kelso and The Bart back to life. Yours are the words that make me cry over the loss of yet another Old Friend. Yours are the words that make me smile at the  antics of a foal meeting his first snowfall. Yours are the words that touch the heart with the story of Princess Rooney in her role as grandmother and babysitter extraordinaire.

PLEASE don't forget the words and those of us who love reading them. Your audience is here; we may not be as vocal as bloggers on a mission, but we ARE HERE, anxiously awaiting your next column.

And I'm looking forward to reading you for a LONG TIME to come...............

08 Jan 2009 11:40 PM

When did binocular rentals at Saratoga become extinct?

09 Jan 2009 6:52 PM

Palmer and Hirsch left large hoof prints for you to fill, I know you'll do it well.

Head up and heels down shayna meydele!

09 Jan 2009 7:36 PM

Claire- You are a star! Your writing has touched the core of so many of us who love the racing game. Don't stop. It would be our loss.

09 Jan 2009 8:34 PM
Andy Plattner

These other bloggers have it right. You are a good writer, Claire. You won't be on the sidelines for long.

12 Jan 2009 3:31 PM
Dolly from Albany

Ms Novak, over the years i have read your articles form Saratoga. They are excellent and i love reading them. You opened my eyes on horse racing. I am thankful for that. Keeep on writing dont ever stop it is your true passion to write especially about horses.

04 Jan 2011 9:55 PM

It's hard to believe.  Another year is done. Your words could have been written yesterday, they are still so fresh. So true.

You know, Claire, the fans of this sport will always be looking for you. Wherever you go.  

05 Jan 2011 6:35 PM

Every turf writer sees the sport from a different angle.  The focus may be on handicapping, state politics, safety issues, race stats, breeding, or many other issues.

But you, Claire, have brought us the stories that flesh out the bones of the industry.  You introduced us to the horses, jockeys, and owners, at a personal level not usually revealed.  You helped us to vicariously enjoy the atmosphere of tracks, from the wee hours of the morning through the winding down at twilight.

Remember, you have given happiness to so very many readers, including me.  "Thank you" just doesn't seem to say enough.

12 Jan 2011 4:01 PM

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