In Praise of Ephemera

unknown What makes this a great Sports Illustrated cover is not that it’s “collectible”, but, rather, that it could just as easily have been a great cover for Psychology Today. That’s probably what it takes for a sports magazine to cut through today’s media clutter: show a great image that tells us as much about ourselves as it does about the Triple Crown result. Anyway, it’s nice to see the venerable weekly get some attention for something other than the depilatory habits of the modern day swimsuit model.

This cover also helped me to resolve something. A couple of days after American Pharoah’s Belmont, two numbers still seemed to me to be slightly out of whack; $3.50 and 90,237.

The first number, of course, is what American Pharoah paid on a $2 win ticket. $3.50 seemed on the high side. Eventually, I chalked it up to the betting public finally coming to the understanding that taking odds-on for a horse to win the Triple Crown was a lousy bet, which, for the last 36 years, anyway, it had been.

The second figure – the 90,000 or so $2 tickets to win on the 5 that remained uncashed two days after the race – seemed wrong, but in the opposite direction. It felt low. Sure, 180 grand in paper souvenirs is not chump change, but considering the possibilities on the resale market and the 90,000-odd people in attendance at Belmont and Aqueduct who were there to witness history and perhaps take home a souvenir or five, it just seemed short. But who can say? With 37 years since a horse last completed the sweep, there had not been any recent points of reference as to how many win tickets on Triple Crown aspirants might typically be purchased as potential souvenirs.

It was seeing that Sports Illustrated cover that finally helped to make sense of the 90,000. Ephemera, or at least the hobby of collecting it, is dead or at least seriously unwell. Sure, a dinner menu from the Titanic or a JFK campaign poster still holds some residual value to somebody somewhere. But if Antiques Roadshow is to be believed, the market value of such things has been in steep decline for quite a few years. The pet theory here is that technology – aka, the Internet – has made such things less valuable because digital images of them are so easily obtainable. Why spend money on the real thing, when a perfectly nice digital representation of the thing is just one free click away?

wa199801A22_00 Of course, the individual selling $2 win tickets on American Pharoah for $29.90 on ebay hopes I’m wrong. This is thoroughly understandable, as getting a 14-1 payoff on a 3/4 probability is the stuff that dreams are made of. Who knows? Maybe 90,000 of these things is a proper inventory in today’s ephemera market. But – and here’s where that Psychology Today bit comes in – I wonder if the current obsession with documenting on our smartphones and on Facebook everything that we do has somehow become a stand-in for the things that we actually used to do.

As part of a generation that entered adulthood without pocket cameras and VCRs – let alone smartphones and YouTube – I suppose that boomers like me are more susceptible to pleasant reveries brought on by yellowed ticket stubs than our millennial juniors. (Of course, even if a millennial had a ticket stub stashed somewhere, it wouldn’t be all that yellowed.) Will a millennial ever dust off his iPhone 6, chuckle at its early-21st-century crudeness, and fondly recall those simpler days of 2015? Maybe living in an era when you actually had to remember something in order to recall it helped make boomers better observers. Millennials can just go right to the digital video, where most of their existence has already been catalogued.

Perhaps the smartphone has simply outrun ephemera. Maybe that ticket stub or program that once proved “I was there!” has been improved upon with “I was there, and this is what it looked and sounded like from where I was standing”. Who needs a shoebox full of ticket stubs and programs tucked away in a closet when you can carry around a digital newsreel of your personal history in your own pocket?

But is more always more? After all, Marcel Proust got quite a bit of mileage out of one small cookie. While living in Paris, James Joyce remembered more of Dublin than Google Earth could ever locate. Maybe absence is the highest form of presence. I dug out my shoebox from the back of the “clubhouse closet”, to put some of my personal ephemera to the test.

Does this one have any meaning to you?

IMG_1139 Not much to go on, I know. Here are some hints. It was the first game of an early-season series against the California Angels, who had a new right fielder obtained via free agency in the off season. In the seventh inning this new Angel hit a home run off of Ron Guidry. New York fans typically would have been averse to such things. Not this time. The 35,458 in attendance burst into wild applause and soon followed that up with a lusty, minutes-long, two-word chant expressing extreme displeasure with Yankee ownership’s off-season decision not to re-sign one Reginald Martinez Jackson. Afterwards, Guidry said that listening to the chant provided just about the only fun he had all night.

What’s amazing today about that long ago night is that the two word chant – “Steinbrenner sucks!” – was considered vulgar or obscene, and would not be repeated the following day in newspapers across the country. As we’ve lately been reminded, times do change, sometimes for the better. But more than 33 years later, this little scrap of paper still manages to bring a smile.

This stroll down a Memory Lane of ticket stubs to baseball games and racing programs soon left me with one distinct observation. Just like other vast social networks, racing also has a long tail, and what you might witness on any given Saturday is often far from the end of the story. Racing does not end when the teletimer stops.IMG_1115_2

My first piece of racing ephemera is a good one. I was on an extended business trip to Tokyo in the fall of 1988 and needed something to do on the weekend. The Japan Cup beckoned. Unable to speak or read Japanese, I spent the day wandering around the crowded race track, making a few bets, watching the races, getting lost in amazement, and falling in love. That day I learned two things: That I knew close to nothing about racing, and that I needed to know much more.

There were two American-trained horses in the Japan Cup that year, and I bet on the wrong one. I eventually came to understand that – while there were many things to know about horse racing – some things could be gleaned only over a longer period of time. While I could have known in 1988 that Robert (Bobby) Frankel was a brilliant trainer, capable of taking an indifferent European grass runner like Pay the ButlerIMG_1119_2 and turning him into a graded stakes winner, who could have ever guessed at what was to follow? That a distant admirer – Khalid Abdullah of Juddmonte Farms – would take further note of this, Frankel’s greatest victory to date, and that these two would go on to form one of the great owner/trainer partnerships in the history of thoroughbred racing.

Late last winter I was in a sentimental mood and went rummaging through my carton full of old race programs. You don’t need to buy a program at the NYRA tracks any more, so the one carton should continue to hold things for a while. I flipped slowly through the pages of one from a Saturday at Longchamp in September of 1992. It was a card with several preps for Arc weekend, and there were some good horses in there, such as Subotica (who would win the Arc three weeks later) and Jolypha (who won the Prix Vermeille that day and would finish third to AP Indy and Pleasant Tap in that year’s Breeders’ Cup Classic). As I scanned through the remainder of the Prix Vermeille field the name of the 10 horse stopped me cold.

It was Urban Sea. IMG_1126 Somehow the name did not stick with me that day (she finished 3rd). When she won the Arc the following year, other than it being an upset, it didn’t mean a thing (I was back in New York, where you could not bet or watch the race). It also didn’t mean much when she sired her first Epsom Derby winner (Galileo). Or even her second (Sea the Stars, making her only the second mare to throw two Epsom Derby winners). Sea the Stars would subsequently win the Arc, making the two of them only the second mother/son combination to win that race. And Urban Sea is, of course, the great Frankel’s paternal grandmother.

Finding out that cold winter night that in fact perhaps the greatest race filly turned broodmare who ever looked through a bridle had once been paraded before me provided a strangely satisfying feeling. Sure, I had not noticed anything special about her back then (I had been fortunate in getting shut out trying to bet Dermot Weld’s Market Booster), but that is entirely the point.

Such is the grandeur and scope of racing that much of the time you don’t really know what you have right in front of you. But if you are patient, and pay attention, in due course you will find out. That 3-year-old filly who seemed to be a few lengths shy of being the best of her generation may just surprise you later on down the line. That nice colt the Saudi prince named for his late trainer from Brooklyn might just turn out to be something special. This Pharoah fellow might finally be the one. The only thing worth holding onto during a race like this year’s Belmont is a pair of binoculars. We have YouTube now. Put down the phone so that everyone can see. All you have to do is watch, and remember.

To Our Absent Backyard Friends (Swiped from Kilmer)

No guest experience will ever be

As fair and lovely as a tree

A tree whose hungry mouth once prest

Against Saratoga’s backyard breast

Now lies lifeless on its side

Slain by NYRA’s arborcide

A tree that would in summer wear

A cloak of green that cooled the air

Breathes no more yet inflicts pain

On we who would not stir champagne

This doggerel barks at fools like he

Vain to think could improve a tree


The Wayward Racing Press

1-1. 1960s

Le Poisson Rouge – the old Village Gate to you longtime New Yorkers – has a reputation for successfully catering to eclectic tastes. The Times has called it “an epicenter for adventurous music” and noted its “earnest disregard for genre boundaries”. So it was oddly apt that last Monday evening the club turned over its gallery/bar space to Gelf Magazine for its The Sport of Kings panel of racing reporters; a freshly-minted session in the zine’s Varsity Letters gabfests dedicated to reading and writing about sports.


Walking over to the club from the Spring Street stop on the IND line, it seemed somehow right and proper that – on the day when Steve Haskin and the Blood-Horse parted company after 17 years – a “webzine” (Gelf uses the archaic term as an ironic mash note to the late 1990s) should sponsor a panel discussion at an old Greenwich Village jazz club with the racing reporters from the Times and the Journal mixing it up with a schoolteacher who doubles as a blogger/journalist and a young freelance writer who punches parimutuel tickets at Saratoga as a summertime job. Media companies have been undergoing a constant and thorough rejiggering ever since webzines gave way to weblogs, which begat plain old blogs, which was right around the time when print advertising started to tank. The decline of traditional media’s influence and the subsequent rise of the citizen journalist and social media are intertwined like live oaks cloaked in Spanish moss. The racing press is no exception.

With the Daily News now seeming to be at death’s door roughly a year after having given Jerry Bossert the heave-ho, it’s become quite clear that the job of full time racing reporter has become a luxury item that only a few papers can justify. The Wall Street Journal’s Pia Catton covers the ponies as a side gig. Her main beat is New York’s art and culture worlds, notably in her “Culture City” column that appears on Mondays.

OB-WP721_pia_A_20130307172147I could be wrong but you would probably not look to Ms. Catton for an opinion as to whether or not the main track at Belmont is currently exhibiting a speed bias (though if you needed an excuse in a hurry there are probably worse ones). While her enthusiasm for the circus that is the Triple Crown season is undeniable, it’s unlikely she has ever had the time or the inclination to dig as deeply into racing’s muck as the fellow who sat directly to her right. This conjecture is based on the number of questions from moderator Teresa Genaro (Brooklyn Backstretch) that Catton imploringly punted over to Joe Drape of the Times, who was generally happy to oblige. To be fair, based on his reporting over the past five years, including his recent interview with Ahmed Zayat, quite a few of the evening’s questions effectively had Mr. Drape as the sole intended recipient, often turning Ms. Catton into a spectator.

The same could be said for Elizabeth Minkel – who has a regular column at the New Statesman and is the aforementioned Saratoga ticket puncher – but she compensated nicely with her tales from the other side of the betting window. picture-121655-1406802853She works the Saratoga meeting and also spent a recent Saturday punching out hundreds of $2 tickets to win on the number 5 in the 11th at Belmont. She has seen the best and the worst of what the racetrack has to offer (and the roughly corresponding range in daily income from tips) and somehow keeps coming back for more, as evidenced by her more than ten years as a mutuel clerk. Look for her across a Saratoga window this summer. She claims to actually like horseplayers, or at least the non-creepy ones.

If there were morning lines for panel discussions, it would have been odds-on that the most contentious exchanges of the evening would be between Drape, who apparently is never wrong and could also give Scott Blasi a strong run in an F-bomb-dropping contest, and Ms. Genaro, a high school English teacher from Brooklyn with a strong hold on both the facts and the room. And just like in the 2015 Triple Crown races, the chalk paid out. That two smart and accomplished people with access to the same information should have such completely different points of view tells you why – if given half a chance – horse racing will always be a great game. There is so much upon which to disagree.

To take him at his comments, Drape believes that Aqueduct is an equine killing field that should be closed up. That the trainers who race their slow New York-breds and cheap claimers through the winter for racino-inflated purses are welfare queens who should be kicked off the dole. He doesn’t think there will be any real change in horse racing until guys like Bob Baffert and Todd Pletcher get perp-walked. And he apparently has lots of juicy stuff about Ahmed Zayat that the lawyers at the Times would prefer he not share in public. And it all gets very tiring.

Towards the end of the evening Genaro challenged her panel to come up with something positive to say about racing, particularly in light of all the American Pharoah hullabaloo. The panel was stumped. They either couldn’t, or wouldn’t, throw a positive bone and make for a happy ending. Genaro called them on it. How, she asked, can you do it? How do you keep wallowing in this muck if it is all so distasteful? Drape allowed that he had endured quite enough of the hay, oats and water diet, and seemed to be earnestly considering taking a leap across the paddock fence. Moderator Genaro turned to the audience and slyly noted the potential job opening. But regardless of Drape’s immediate future, we imagine Melissa Hoppert may have already staked a claim to “next”.

It’s not Joe Drape’s place, of course, to come up with happy endings for American racing. And it’s also understandable that being its scourge can get a little tiring. Just as it must be tiring at times for Teresa Genaro to be reliably sympathetic towards certain owners and trainers and NYRA suits who just don’t get it, as Albany fiddles while Rome burns. The public relations burden for racing is that the Times still has reach and influence extending far beyond its net earnings, while industry stalwarts like the Racing Form and the Blood-Horse (where Genaro often contributes) preach only to the choir.

The degraded mainstream media offers no comfort to racing, even with all its afflictions.  Many years ago the industry could rely on journalist poets like Red Smith and Jim Murray to regularly display their deep affection for the racetrack and thereby help keep a somewhat shady operation within the good graces of the American public. There are no big voices today capable of shaming and prodding the powers that be into taking effective action. Where have you gone, Howard Cosell?

What racing needs more than anything else is a motivated and outspoken customer base. If Around2Turns had not already spouted off plenty during the evening (the Sixpoint Sweet Action on draft was delicious) we would have been happy to volunteer a recent positive outcome. We were quite impressed that nearly 12,000 horseplayers and other interested parties took the time to petition the federal government for relief from the ridiculous burden imposed by the current and outdated tax rules on parimutuel wagering. If horseplayers can actually wrangle a victory from Congress, perhaps they will become emboldened enough to demand more, at the faint but playable risk of perhaps getting it.

Otherwise, horseplayers should expect their victories to be occasional, small, and virtually meaningless. Like NYRA now being able to take bets and run races on Palm Sunday (just what NYRA needs – another race date). Or like our new Triple Crown winner. Meaningful change will come only when racing’s true constituents forcefully demand it. In all the jazz joints in all the world, there’s not a big-time newspaper guy or small-fry blogger who will tell you that it happens any other way.

Welcome to Next Year

What 1994 meant to New York Rangers hockey fans (54 years), or 2004 to the Red Sox Nation (86 years): this is what 2015 means to my people. For the long-suffering pilgrims of American thoroughbred racing, there is no more waiting in vain. 1978 is put to bed and the ghosts of Affirmed and Alydar may now rest easy. Lafayette, we are here.

It is a wonderful curiosity, this American fascination with the Triple Crown. While the country may pause for a couple of minutes on the first Saturday of every May to chug-a-lug a mint julep, the souvenir glasses tell us there will always be a Derby winner; some more memorable than others. For every Spectacular Bid or Silver Charm – great horses who could not quite complete the crown – there are two or three Lil E. Tees and Super Savers. Winning the Triple Crown is truly exceptional. It happens rarely enough to be generally recognized as historic, and just often enough that it is neither an anachronism (as it is in England, with only one Triple Crown winner in the last 80 years) nor forgotten.

American Pharoah’s brilliant performance in yesterday’s Belmont Stakes will ensure that the Triple Crown will remain exactly what it has been since it was first awarded retroactively to Sir Barton for his victories in 1919: an unsparingly difficult achievement worthy of the greatest possible levels of admiration and respect.

American Pharoah’s ruthlessly efficient yet seemingly effortless action, which lends to that appearance of him seeming to glide above the racetrack, was the basis of his early fame and almost certainly his armor against the rigors of the Triple Crown. That certain je ne sais quoi that first caught all the eyes at Clocker’s Corner, enabled him, at the end of three hard races in five weeks, to somehow run the last half mile of his Belmont faster than he ran his first. He is the very model of a modern Triple Crown winner.

While we have been sharply critical of Ahmad Zayat under this URL (just look one post below this one), this does not hold true for his horse. Despite our previous skepticism and that funny tail we can find absolutely no flies on American Pharoah. We congratulate the Zayat Stable family on their great accomplishment.

While there are always plenty of things to say about Bob Baffert, what must be acknowledged here and now is his absolute mastery at getting fast horses to run their best in all three Triple Crown races. Yes, other trainers might have been able to train American Pharoah to the same result, but Baffert’s the one who did it. This season should remove any remaining doubt that he is far and away the greatest Triple Crown trainer of the last twenty years. Attention must be paid.

The people who constitute the balance of the Baffert team – the assistants and the grooms and the exercise riders –  are used to toiling in relative obscurity. For these unheralded contributors, we are reminded of what Red Smith wrote in his forward to Joe Palmer’s This Was Racing: “Those who have had a part in this are well aware of it and have their own satisfaction in it, and would not want credit for what was a great privilege.” We imagine that these hard workers feel much the same way, but we salute them anyway.

Credit is also due to the horseplayers, and race fans, and hat-wearing millenials and all of their fellow travelers, who – against what most would consider good judgment – braved the Long Island Railroad and the Cross Island Parkway and the New York Racing Association’s recent history and came away winners, regardless of whatever bets they made. As morning showers gave way to a breezy midday and a gorgeous late afternoon, this 90,000 partnered with one special horse to produce a magic hour that was truly magical.

While the sun was getting lower out beyond the far turn as the clock neared seven, Victor Espinoza kept American Pharoah out alongside the westernmost outer rail, well away from the grandstand. While Frosted and Keen Ice could amble about the 1/8th pole in anticipation of the start without attracting attention, Espinoza wisely kept his star waiting in the wings. The glorious uncertainty – that palpable collective consciousness that fills the air before a race such as this – was the strongest I had ever sensed in this my ninth pilgrimage to Elmont’s gates of “History”.

To my right I exchanged “thumbs up” with John from Garden City, a serious bettor who had earlier hit the Pick 5 for $11,000, but was now just another anxious fan who had paid $400 on StubHub for a market rate view of history in the making. To my left was a kid fresh out of college whose name I never got, but who was part of a twenty-odd group of youngsters led by a wise old head from Manorville. Racing’s shaky present, sitting side by side with its uncertain future, both of them hoping to find in this 3-year-old colt some magic that could last another 37 years if necessary.

Unhappy Triple Crown endings tend to be unique. Some fizzle out early, like War Emblem stumbling out of the gate, or Funny Cide splashing rankly through the slop. Some come crashing down all at once, like Sunday Silence being left behind like Easy Goer’s lost luggage at the top of the stretch. The ones that had seemed the most inevitable going in – Smarty Jones and most certainly Big Brown – were the most painful to watch unravel. Even though I had a very modest sum on Frosted’s nose, after all these tales of woe, I was eager to find out what a happy Triple Crown ending felt like.

The college kid to my left asked – as Espinoza paraded American Pharoah before the grandstand to wild adulation – if the horse had any idea what was going on. “He knows he made his people happy,” I said, meaning Espinoza and Baffert mostly, but also all of us. He must know that now. Next year was here. Ninety thousand people ennobled by a horse. Even if it takes another 37 years to find another, I’m certain that nearly every last one of of those ninety thousand will tell you: it will have been worth the wait.