Art of Turf Writing - by Eric Mitchell

True enough, covering Thoroughbred racing was only part of Art Grace’s beat as a sportswriter working for the now defunct Miami News.

But it was the sport closest to his heart.

Grace, who passed away April 17 at 88 in Tallahassee, Fla., worked for the News, beginning in the early 1950s when Thoroughbred racing and boxing dominated the South Florida sporting landscape; a time when the eyes of the nation were glued upon the premier winter stakes at Hialeah Park and Gulfstream Park.

The veteran columnist was also a longtime contributing writer to The Blood-Horse. His tenure likely holds a record in the magazine’s 98-year history, as he covered Florida racing for more than 30 consecutive years from December 1956 through early 1988. Grace very much adhered to a rhythm all his own.

“He stayed at the racetracks all the time,” said Howard Kleinberg, the former editor of the News, who began working alongside Grace in the 1950s as a sportswriter. “He would sit at his desk in the press box every day listening to rock music, smoking cigarettes, and betting on the races. Even when the Miami News folded, he never stopped going to the track.”

The one time Kleinberg convinced Grace to set foot in the newspaper office was in 1988 when the publisher had called a meeting of the entire staff.

“They were gathering the staff to tell us the paper was going down,” Kleinberg said. “I told Art, ‘Look, you have to come down.’ He came; it was the first time in about seven years. When the meeting was over, he came into my office and said: ‘You called me down for this!?’ ”

Grace was never mean in his prose, but he also never minced words. Kleinberg described his writing as 
“artistically sarcastic.”

A May 7 article by the Miami Herald’s Howard Cohen recalled a Dec. 30, 1987, column by Grace about Zonker Harris, a gelding at Hialeah named after a “Doonesbury” comic strip character. Grace was reportedly a serious fan of “Doonesbury” and approved of the winning horse’s name.

“After all,” Grace wrote, “most people who name horses have the imagination of a flea.”

In The Blood-Horse, Grace’s articles were rich in dialogue. He regularly gave readers a front-row seat to his conversations with the nation’s leading trainers, owners, and jockeys.

“He was always professional and keenly aware of being the conduit  of the information,” said Ed Bowen, who was managing editor of The Blood-Horse in 1970-87 and later the editor-in-chief. In the Feb. 13, 1960, issue, Grace shared a scene at the Hialeah barn of future Hall of Fame trainer Elliott Burch whose stakes winner Sword Dancer had just finished off the board at 1-5 in his first start of the year.

_______________________

Elliott Burch was deeply disturbed by Sword Dancer’s race, but it was not the end of the world.
“The wheels came off,” he said, shaking his head. “If you remember, his first race last year was just fair. But he had trouble this time. It wasn’t this bad.
“You have to lose sometime, but we ran to win today. Will the race help him? Let’s hope it does.”
He shuddered slightly as a contingent of newspapermen bore down on him.
“Tell them to go see Petare’s trainer,” he said.
“He doesn’t speak English too good,” someone said.
“Today I don’t speak English too good, either.”

[Read the full article below]

_______________________

Kleinberg said Grace wrote one of the best sports story ledes he’s ever read after Johnny Sellers won the 1961 Florida Derby with Carry Back. That winter Sellers got a quick start to what would be a remarkable year; the jockey would win the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes and end the year with the most wins (328) of all other riders. Sellers won the prestigious $100,000 Widener Handicap with Calumet Farm’s Yorky at Hialeah and then took the Everglades Stakes and Flamingo Stakes, also at Hialeah, with Carry Back prior to taking the Florida Derby at Gulfstream Park.

“The name of the game is Johnny Sellers,” Grace wrote to open his Florida Derby story for the News.

“I loved that lede because it summed up the whole winter in Florida,” said Kleinberg, who had been editor of the News for a dozen years.
And so we mark the passing of a Turf writing legend who helped chronicle Thoroughbred racing in its heyday, giving texture and color to the most important races and people of the day.

For three decades of Thoroughbred racing in South Florida, the name of the game was Art Grace.

 *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *

The following is the full text of Art Grace's article that appeared in the Feb. 13, 1960, edition of The Blood-Horse

MIAMI—The bridge jumpers at Hialeah Park suffered a stunning setback on February 1 when the mighty Sword Dancer, 1 to 5, finished a dismal fourth in a 7-furlong overnight.

The horse looked wonderful when he stepped on the track, and Eddie Arcaro had been flown from California to ride him. To clinch matters, Brookmeade's stakes-winning mare Big Effort was coupled with Sword Dancer. Only 4 other horses were in the race, and the management permitted win and place betting.

But Sword Dancer turned in a dull effort. He ran fifth down the backstretch, climbing much of the way, and when Arcaro rapped him 3 times at the eighth­ pole the colt did not respond. Master Palynch led from the break until Petare nailed him for a nose victory. It was 2 1/4 lengths back to Big Effort, with Sword Dancer 3 3/4 lengths behind the winner.

Arcaro was unperturbed by the loss. He grinned as he came back, shrugged off the boos and catcalls that bombarded him as he walked back to the jockeys' room.

"I rode him as hard as I could, considering he hadn't been out in 3 months," Eddie said. "I held him a little the first quarter, but not too much. I got into him some the last eighth, but the other horses had something left. The slow first quarter fouled us up."

Did he agree that Sword Dancer's loss would make the Widener, Sword Dancer's next start; a more interesting race?

Eddie looked up. "Not for me, it doesn't."

Elliott Burch, trainer of Sword Dancer, was deeply disturbed by Sword Dancer's race, but it was not the end of the world.

"The wheels came off," he said, shaking his head. "If you remember, his first race last year was just fair. But he had trouble that time. It wasn't this bad.

"You have to lose sometime, but we ran to win today. Will the race help him? Let's hope it does. That first quarter cooked us. They ran in :23, and they should have run in :22 and 2.

"Eddie said the mare (Big Effort ) bothered him a little bit the first part, but not enough to make that much difference."

Burch stood by as Sword Dancer was washed off.

"He's not exhausted, that's for sure," Burch said. "He'll run better next time."

He shuddered slightly as a contingent of newspapermen bore down on him. "Tell them to go see Petare's trainer," he said.

"He doesn't speak English too good," someone said. "Today I don't speak English too good, either."

When Arcaro and Burch parted company, Burch asked the rider if there was anything he could do for him.

"Yeah," Eddie said, "you can put me on a winner."

On the morning after the race, Burch was pretty much recovered.

"The race will help him," he said. "It never helps a horse to get beat, but having a race over the track should help. No, there isn't time to get another race into him before the Widener. I'll have to bring him up to the race with works. And he'll work, too. I'm not going to knock him out, but he'll be busy. I've got plenty of horses to work him with."

Going back to Sword Dancer's race, Elliott felt Arcaro was right in not hustling Sword Dancer the first quarter.

"He was throwing him down, but he felt there wasn't much point in making a sprinter out of a horse pointing for a mile and a quarter race. Big Effort was supposed to press Palynch, but  she  couldn't. The whole strategy went haywire­ if you can call it strategy."

Burch had been uneasy for several days before the race; Sword Dancer had not gone as expected in 2 works before his defeat.

"He was supposed to go in :17; he went in :19. Then he was supposed to work in :59—or around a minute, anyway—and he went in 1:01 and 2. I fully expect to run in the Widener. But if he doesn't work right for it, he won't be in it."   —  A. G.

4 Comments

Leave a Comment:

Lynne Snierson

Art was a friend and mentor and a master of his craft. Thank you, Eric, for a fitting tribute to him.

13 May 2014 4:50 PM
christymc2000

Nice job Eric. Art would be pleased. Art has been my dear friend and mentor for nearly 40 years. In 1976 he took me, a green publicist, along to interviews on the backstretch: While asking questions, Art had such a disarming affect.  Horsemen recognized his honesty and trusted him.  All of his subjects wound up sharing more than they expected.

Art introduced me to everybody from the toothless grooms he loved in the barn area to the kings and queens of the game.  New York Times columnist Red Smith bowed down to Art Grace at the 1978 Kentucky Derby we attended together.

Today, as a reporter for the Tampa Bay Times, I've adopted his demeanor and ear for dialogue. He is responsible for my development into a decent human interest story writer.

Over the years and the miles we've kept in touch.  He was my champion professionally and personally--especially during my stormy marriage to a surgeon. On his birthday last March 11 we laughed when he expressed gratitude for living to see the birth of socialized medicine.

Despite his sometimes gruff exterior and tongue in cheek sarcasm, he was the kindest and most generous man I've ever known.  My biggest regret in life is that I didn't marry him.

Christy Callaghan McLaughlin

He had few friends

13 May 2014 9:17 PM
lisa123

I've found a handful of his articles archived online. Too bad every newspaper doesn't have a writer like Mr. Grace to show such dedication to the sport.

14 May 2014 9:26 PM
SJ

I was fortunate enough to know Mr. Grace during winter racing at Hialeah & Gulfstream. Always enjoyed his columns and appreciated when he showed up during training hours. His talent is summed up in his name.

15 May 2014 10:31 AM

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