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My Revoked Credentials & The State of Racing Journalism

Following my recent article about the Kentucky Derby, which was critical of horse racing's failure to tackle problems of drugging and animal abuse, Churchill Downs head of communications John Asher tweeted, "So much for future #KYDerby credentials for the writer ..."

It was a sad clarification of something that many who are familiar with horse racing already know: that its journalists are generally dependent on the people they cover for access, and that publishing acceptable stories, for everyone except the most established few, is a career prerequisite.

"Racing media is very small; it's tight-knit," Jeremy Plonk, who's covered racing for a variety of outlets including ESPN, told me in an interview for my feature. "Most of your paycheck, if you work in the racing media, is paid by somebody involved in racing. They're paying to get their own coverage."

The outlets that are sufficiently independent, such as the New York Times, Plonk added, are greatly outnumbered by those that aren't.

"If you're writing about horse racing and you stick your neck out and make a statement about somebody or about a bad topic that kind of sheds bad light on the game, it can hurt your business," he said. "There aren’t very many mainstream outlets for horse racing coverage, so that's why a lot of that stuff doesn't get written about."

It's a depressing reality for a sport whose best writing has historically rivaled the best writing on anything. William Nack's reflections on Secretariat for Sports Illustrated serve as a reminder of the sheer power and magnificence horse racing can affect through the written word. In the present day, Joe Drape and Walt Bogdanich's New York Times series about drugs and death in racing is hard-nosed reporting at its best, and it reveals just how much, in this beautiful and beleaguered sport, there is to say.

Much of today's press corps, however, seems more concerned with access than what to do with it. When Asher tweeted about my credentials, more disappointing than his bravado were the beat writers who responded by circling the wagons. One of them, Rolly Hoyt, favorited Asher's tweet, apparently attempting to say, "You tell 'em, John!" — actually saying, "I'm in the bag."

"I'm not sure which is worse," says Bill Christine, who covered horse racing for 24 years at the Los Angeles Times, "the national turf writers or the tracks that have ignored the print turf writers to the point of near extinction."

The National Turf Writers' Association, which serves as the trade organization for racing journalists, has become "a toothless group" according to Christine, who used to head the society.

"When the late Joe Hirsch of the Daily Racing Form was active in the turf writers, he had such respect from the tracks that they listened when the organization as a whole had a complaint or suggestion that related to working conditions," Christine explains. "Example: In 1991, T.D. Thornton, a writer for the short-lived Racing Times, which was a competitor of Hirsch's Racing Form, was banned from the Rockingham Park press box because of something he wrote. In less than 24 hours, Hirsch called the president of the National Turf Writers' Association, asking that the organization go to bat for Thornton, who was reinstated. Sadly, the turf writers no longer have Hirsch, nor anyone close to his ballast."

The condition of turf writing has, unfortunately, come to mirror that of its sport.

"The truth is," Ray Paulick recently wrote on his influential racing website The Paulick Report, "there is not that much racing media left."

"Many press boxes that not so long ago were a beehive of activity are now pretty much empty," he continued, "with the exception of a track publicist and an Equibase chart crew."

The press box at Churchill Downs, when it moved into the renovated grandstand in 2003, was named the Joe Hirsch Media Center. "The naming of Churchill Downs' new media center in Joe's honor is a most fitting tribute as it symbolizes not only our gratitude for his impact on the Kentucky Derby and Churchill Downs, but also recognizes Joe's giant influence on all of the print and electronic journalists that cover our great race and our sport," said Churchill Downs CEO Thomas Meeker at the time.

Shortly after this year's Derby, it was announced that the Joe Hirsch Media Center would be converted into the track's most opulent luxury box. Its outstanding view was deemed too valuable to waste on the press, who will be relocated to a room on the ground floor. Racing writers like Ray Paulick heralded the decision as the end of an era. "The media used to have the best seat in the house for sporting contests at nearly every stadium and racetrack across the country," he wrote.

And so it was at Churchill Downs, for generations, both in the era of the Joe Hirsch Media Center and before. The press corps, of whose diminishing ranks I could briefly consider myself a part, watched as unassailable guardians over the field, and innumerable Kentucky Derbies proceeded beneath their noble gaze. I had been there for the last one.

Jamie Berk

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Postscript (December 24): John Asher called me earlier this week to explain the tweet mentioned in this article, in which he suggested that I would no longer be offered press credentials as a result of my story about last year's Kentucky Derby. Asher said that his comment was meant in jest, and that he didn't see an earlier request for clarification on Twitter. Responding to questions about the status of my press credentials, Asher said that though he left such decisions to his deputy Darren Rogers, he did not anticipate an issue.

This is part of a series, Dispatches from the Triple Crown. Read the initial feature, "Whispers in the Shade of Roses," hereFor additional columns and vignettes, click here

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