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.

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