Writing at the Kentucky Derby: Senses Working Overtime
Count Turf, 1951 Kentucky Derby winner. “… out of the pack… unregarded, ignored, unbacked… pure Hollywood.” – Joe Palmer (Photo courtesy Churchill Downs)
“My notes and recollections from Derby Day are somewhat scrambled. But now, looking at the big red notebook I carried all through that scene, I see more or less what happened. The book itself is somewhat mangled and bent; some of the pages are torn, others are shriveled and stained by what appears to be whiskey, but taken as a whole, with sporadic memory flashes, the notes seem to tell the story.” – Hunter S. Thompson, The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved
It was the feature that made his career, a breakout piece based not upon horses or connections, but on a chaotic crush of debauchery and personal entanglement.
Before the Kentucky Derby of 1970, Hunter S. Thompson was a rising star whose work was beginning to gain recognition. After, hung over and desperately scrambling together text off pages of drunken scrawl as deadline loomed, he created the definitive work of immersion journalism that would take his writing to the next level.
It is said that “Gonzo” — a method by which reporters become central figures in their own pieces — was invented by the author through his lines. But Thompson did not make that style.
The Derby did.
It is a race that breeds great writing, has done so for generations. Every year, literary giants and cub reporters alike converge upon Churchill Downs to take their swing at a smorgasbord of story lines and figures straight out of central casting. Not much more has been written of firsthand debauchery since Hunter’s epic missive — although certain members of the modern press are not above such antics. Most pieces these days are about which horses are likely to win the thing, which contenders look the best, and the various and sundry paths these horses and their humans take to the race of a lifetime on the first Saturday in May.
The mechanics of conveying a story may have changed through the decades, from pens and pencils and telegraphed results to typewriters to laptops and copy sent through cyberspace, but several factors remain the same. Here at Churchill the sun still rises on an old dirt track, and one horse who will win the garland of roses goes galloping merrily along, and those who spin tales of racetracks and runners know the Derby never fails good writers.
Yet how much good writing about racing remains?
“For now we approach the event about which no one can write quite truthfully. The legends are too strong.” – Joe Palmer, “This Was Racing”
He was associate editor for The Blood-Horse, racing editor for the New York Herald Tribune, and a turf analyst for CBS back in the days when the network was still referred to by its full moniker, the Columbia Broadcasting System. From February 1946, the year he joined the paper, until he died from a heart attack in 1952 with an unfinished column in his typewriter at age 48, Joe Palmer captured horse racing’s glory days on the beat with graceful, witty, charming prose.
In an era before television, turf writing and radio broadcasts provided the only portrayal of the action most fans ever would receive. This responsibility required heightened powers of observation and vivid descriptions from writers and broadcasters alike. Both skills were perfected by Palmer and his peers — men such as Grantland Rice, who penned for Colliers in a May 15, 1929 piece entitled “The Long, Lean Count,” “The Hertzes of Chicago bought $15,000 worth of ugly duckling — and a Kentucky Derby winner. Not long on looks, personality or spectacular form, Reigh Count proves that the artist can be gentle and placid as well as temperamental.”
Palmer took things to another level. A horseman was “a thorough individualist;” one particular owner “a man to whom odd things happen anyway;” jockey Ted Atkinson “an imported article from Toronto, Canada.” A thoroughbred was never just a thoroughbred to his readers — oh, no, he was Man o’ War, “as near to a living flame as horses ever get,” or Stymie, “a curious horse, this obscurely bred Texas product,” or Count Turf, “out of the pack… unregarded, ignored, unbacked… pure Hollywood.” Turf writers of Palmer’s era were a reflection of the general sportswriting voice of the time — and many of them wrote similarly of baseball and boxing, the most popular sports of the time. Theirs was a more innocent approach, with columns focusing on the action and the personalities on the field and track and in the ring, less on controversies and the numbers. Sportswriting today has a different tone, a harder feel, a weathered, jaded, seen-it-all skepticism. Much of the lyricism is gone.
“A band was playing ‘My Old Kentucky Home’ with intense feeling and a trumpet which was a half-tone flat,” Palmer wrote in a column eventually compiled posthumously with others in This Was Racing. “A hundred thousand people, give or take a half dozen, were straining for a glimpse of the Derby parade. There were flashes of crimson and gold and purple silk under a watery May sunshine, as a dozen or so jockeys tried to ride to the post with what they hoped was nonchalance. At the moment a dozen or so horses held the nation’s sporting interest, the pick of a crop of perhaps 8,000 foals … the winner might be 5 to 2 in the mutuels, but he was 8,000 to 1 on a spring night three years earlier, when his dam heaved up from a straw-filled stall and had a look at him.”
Sportswriters and racing men weren’t the only ones to tackle the Derby Day scene. Four years after publishing “East of Eden,” novelist John Steinbeck was invited to write a 1956 guest piece for the Courier-Journal:
“By the time this is written, there will be few people in the nation who will not have seen the race on television or heard it on radio, and they will all have felt to some extent the bursting emotion at Churchill Downs. Every step of the great Needles will have been discussed — how he dawdled along trailing the field for two-thirds of the course, then fired himself like a torpedo past the screaming stands and the straining horses to win while the balloon of tension swelled and burst and it was all over.
“Now there is a languor … I am fulfilled and weary. This Kentucky Derby, whatever it is — a race, an emotion, a turbulence, an explosion–is one of the most beautiful and violent and satisfying things I have ever experienced. And I suspect that, as with other wonders, the people one by one have taken from it exactly as much good or evil as they brought to it… I am glad I have seen and felt it at last.”
“… Many of the race goers look as though they’d stepped off the stage from Guys and Dolls. There is, for instance, the totally implausible Diamond Jim Moran of New Orleans. He has diamond fillings in his teeth, diamond-encrusted eye glasses and diamonds for buttons. And some of the stories a Blue Grass tourist hears sound suspiciously as though Damon Runyon wrote them.” – Arthur Daley, The New York Times, May 8, 1955
There’s something for everyone at the Derby and, even today, characters galore. Although the most famous line Damon Runyon ever penned was likely “all horseplayers die broke,” his Bloodhounds on Broadway was also a classic piece that referenced the 1915 renewal:
“… I am standing in front of Mindy’s restaurant on Broadway with a guy by the name of Regret, who has this name because it seems he wins a very large bet the year the Whitney filly, Regret, grabs the Kentucky Derby, and can never forget it, which is maybe because it is the only very large bet he ever wins in his life.”
Fly-on-the-wall observations form the soul of Derby coverage. Little moments that could have been lost forever — simple gestures like the movement of a trainer’s hand over a colt’s shoulder or the swish of a contender’s tail, side conversations and quiet remarks — make writing come alive.
“Zito’s honors included a telephone call from President Clinton, who offered his congratulations partly because the president’s late mother, Virginia Kelley, had been such a racing fan,” Maryjean Wall and Christy McIntyre wrote in “Go For Gin Bursts as Favorite Holy Bull Fades” for the Lexington Herald-Leader on May 8, 1994. “She attended the Derby last year. ‘I think your mom was smiling down at us today,’ Zito told the president. ‘She was a great lady.’ When the president mentioned the rain in Louisville, Zito chirped, ‘Yes, Mr. President, but the sun is shining now.'”
Observations extend beyond the grounds of the racetrack. It was at a steak house in Louisville on Derby Eve in 1951 that author Herb Goldstein gathered the nuggets of conversation that became “Jack Amiel’s Big Day” in a 1967 edition of the Turf and Sport Digest. Recently rediscovered by Kevin Martin of Colin’s Ghost.org, the snapshot of Amiel, owner of that year’s Derby winner, Count Turf, and of his jockey Conn McCreaery, and famed jockey Eddie Arcaro’s emphatic but misguided certainty they would not find victory, is the stuff writers live to record:
“… Arcaro was battling a steak in Louisville’s Old House when he was joined by Jack Amiel, Conn McCreary, and a sports writer,” Goldstein wrote. “Arcaro, who was to handle Cain Hoy’s favored Battle Morn in the Run for the Roses the next afternoon, asked candidly, ‘Who do you like?’
“‘Are you kidding? I like my horse,’ Amiel cracked. ‘I’m going to win it.’
“‘You’re nuts,’ Arcaro said.
“McCreary, who had ridden only four winners that season after having retired from the saddle the previous year, gave his opinion.
“‘He’s right Eddie,’ declared Conn. ‘We are going to win.’
“‘You’re both nuts,’ Arcaro stated emphatically, and went back to his beef.”
“The homestretch is 1,234 feet of heartbreak. Trainers swear it’s uphill.” – Jim Murray, the Los Angeles Times
Even with 137 years of stories in the archives, with descriptions such as this one from an unknown New York Times reporter in 1919 — “Sir Barton is superbly muscled, with quarters that indicate strength, and strong, straight legs that taper to the fine point desirable in a horse bred for speed. There is class in every line of his body …” — there’s always a twist, unique ledes or paragraphs of originality to be coined like Murray’s homestretch measurement.
“The Kentucky Derby isn’t just a horse race, any more than Elizabeth Taylor is just a woman,” Murray wrote on May 5 in 1988. “… It’s America’s race. Everything else is a copy. You win Indianapolis, you’re a race driver. You win the Derby, you’re a horse rider. Or trainer. Everything else is Bridgeport. Everything else is just the seventh at Bay Meadows.”
Yet the modern reporter faces a greater challenge than last-minute defectors, surly human connections, misbehaving equine stars, unpredictable weather and the search for original story ideas.
Writing has changed. Racing has changed. Sports have changed. Everything is big business and billion-dollar contracts and steroids in baseball and Tiger Woods in golf and drugs in racing. Controversies and corruptions abound, and these are the things that fill the headlines. Good writing, and its reading, have become afterthoughts.
In a world that demands instant information, with news breaking on Twitter and fans clamoring for Facebook pictures, the focus is on page views, all about the clicks, and getting the facts and stats out to the public before the next guy does. Many readers don’t have the attention span to finish long-form features, and most writers don’t have the time to write them. In many cases, the people who cover the Derby this year will be too harried, too soft, or too nice to do more but skim the surface.
All, however, is not lost. There are still some people who read the paper and enjoy the feeling of newsprint between their hands, the smell of ink on the page. There are still some journalists for whom the story itself is not about solitary analysis or rapid-fire relay of information, who make a conscious effort to dig a little deeper, to think outside the box, to capture those behind-the-scenes stories for their readers. There are still some turf writers who roll in to the press box on Derby Day with their senses afire, pushed into high alert by the overwhelming abundance of potential and, of course, contenders; the magnificent creatures who go galloping into the history books with necks bowed and nostrils flaring — their essence preserved by our very words.
“Mine That Bird won the Kentucky Derby Saturday. That’s hard to even type with a straight face…. The sight of a 51-1 shot — especially this 51-1 shot — charging along the rail in the homestretch has to rank as the craziest, flukiest thing anyone has ever seen beneath the Twin Spires on the first Saturday in May. Not a single sane individual saw this coming. Not even the people with a vested interest in the horse… Surprised? How about astonished? Dumbfounded? Speechless? There were 153,563 people at Churchill Downs on Saturday, and virtually all of them had to be saying the same thing as Mine That Bird kidnapped the race in the stretch: ‘Who’s that???'” – Pat Forde, “This Kentucky Derby offers chills, thrills,” ESPN.com, May 5, 2009.