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.
I 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. She 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.