Racing Writer Audax Minor Won the Marathon
Want to win a quick bar bet? Ask the guy or gal sitting next to you to name the most prolific contributor to The New Yorker. Too tough? Just ask them to name the sport to which the magazine saw fit to devote a recurring column — or in New Yorker speak, “department” — for more than half of its existence. Unless you happen to be sitting next to David Remnick, you’ll likely be drinking for free.
The answer to the last question is, as you might have guessed, horse racing, a tradition that came to an end in the pages of The New Yorker on December 18, 1978, when Audax Minor penned his final dispatch to the magazine, with the serendipitous title “Going Out on Top.”
By that time, George F.T. Ryall, writing under the diminutive pseudonym he had adopted from a British writer who signed his pieces Audax, had contributed more than 2,200 columns to The New Yorker. At age 90, he had set the record not just for being the oldest writer on staff, but for mind-boggling longevity. He’d been hired by Harold Ross in just the second year of The New Yorker’s existence, filing his first piece in the July 10, 1926, issue under the department of Paddock and Post. For the next 52 years, Ryall’s tidbits from the track were as reliable a presence in The New Yorker as the “Talk of the Town.”
His longtime colleague Brendan Gill wrote of Ryall years later, “In his late 80’s, he was still indefatigably writing away, but it had become apparent not only to us on the staff but to our readers as well that George had succeeded in outliving his wits. By means of some kindly subterfuge, he was urged into retirement, and such was the mercy of his condition that he believed himself to be still writing his weekly column.”
A streak that long meant that a lot of Audax Minor pieces had a back-in-my-day authority peppered with a cantankerous impatience for poorly named 2-year-olds and innovations witnessed, like the demise of on-track bookmakers. Describing in 1977 the notoriously sweaty pre-race appearance of Seattle Slew, he reminded readers that Ben Jones held Whirlaway back in the paddock for as long as possible because he got nervous, too. When he wrote of his admiration for Ruffian (one of his favorite horses), describing her as “not merely a supremely efficient racing machine, she is big and beautifully made, with a fine head, an imperious carriage, a long effortless stride, and that priceless quality — the ability to accelerate instantly,” you had to take his opinion seriously. Here was a writer who had actually witnessed the filly Regret winning the 1915 Derby.
Dipping in and out of The New Yorker archives today, you’re struck by how consistent Ryall’s style remained. He eventually ceased referring to jockeys as “boys” but reflexively called them by their last name only (“Maple moved him smartly”) while sparing no space in giving out, say, the two-generation bloodline of the winner of a minor stake at Bowie.
Trainers got the same un-New Yorker-ish breezy informality. His last column dilates on the suspension down in Maryland of “Dickie Dutrow.”
“The only thing that distinguished one column from another was the names of the horses,” The New Yorker editor Gardner Botsford wrote in his memoir of his tenure at the magazine. “You could edit him in your sleep.”
Yet reading Audax Minor’s columns today give an unparalleled moment-by-moment history of the sport over the course of the century. This includes not only seemingly every race of even middling significance but the changing face of racetracks over his 50-year reign. As writer Reg Lansberry recounted a few years back in a lovely Mid-Atlantic Thoroughbred profile (PDF), his column touched on the introduction of the starting gate in 1929, commented on the colony of “stoopers” in 1943, and took note of the novel concept of pre-race testing in 1946.
Most of Ryall’s columns, though, were dedicated to the week-by-week, column-by-column reports of who won what. Written in the moment, for a readership who already expected that the big sports story of the week would involve Equipoise or Assault or even Secretariat, they don’t lend themselves easily to republishing.
They weren’t glories of long-form journalism, just charming, jaunty, frequently irascible, yet always familiar dispatches issued in virtually every fresh issue of The New Yorker by a jocular correspondent who seemed never to have missed a race.
A lot of great sportswriting in the 20th century was just that, and Audax Minor did it in his own dry, inimitable way for longer than most of us can imagine. We can only marvel that The New Yorker kept its racing coverage going as long as it did. It’s not intended as any dismissal of Audax Minor’s artistry to recall Samuel Johnson’ quip about the dancing dog: It’s not so much that the dog dances well as that he dances at all.