Racing is losing a lot of its good beat writers, as, alas, so many newspapers are falling by the wayside, and those that remain are not enamored with horse racing, the New York Times, being the worst. It barely covers racing, and seems almost to have a vendetta against the sport. I thought Joe Drape, as good as he is, recently presented racing's struggle to right its medication woes in a rather unfair manner.
But racing has had some elegant writers that were besotted with the subject. It still does. In older times, Joe Palmer, a hard living Kentuckian, was legendary as the dean of turf writers. He flourished in the middle of the last century, and he knew his stuff, but I never thought he was fascinating. On the other hand, David Alexander from that era could make the goose bumps suddenly appear. He was flowery, a little affected, pompous perhaps, but man, he could turn it on! This is typical verbiage he wrote about the great speedster Silent Screen: "To say that Silent Screen had speed was as if to say Cellini was clever with his hands." He wrote often about Secretariat, as did plenty of others, of course.
Kent Hollingsworth, editor of The Blood Horse, was delightful. He was a lawyer and sometimes got bogged down in lawyerese, but when he was moved by a racing horse - and he often was-he was fun to read. Kent had a slight craziness about him that made him compelling.
Who could not appreciate the work of Joe Hirsch, far more than a turf writer? He had the respect of everyone, and had a major influence on the workings of the sport and industry. He wrote endearingly on racing, and he wrote accurately and with a gentle manner. He was noted for listening patiently to the most convoluted, detail-filled training explanation, while peering through the darkest of dark glasses at the speaker, then making one little stroke on his tiny note pad, and having it all verbatim when his story came out. Joe always got it right, and he was fair and kind. His immortal line was, "Once upon a time there was a horse named Kelso…but only once."
The man who is surely today's uncrowned historian of racing is Ed Bowen. Ed can write about the most complicated, prickly subject, cover every nuance with unerring accuracy and remarkably not ruffle any feathers in the process. He is inspired more than any by the tradition of racing, and he is most considerate of the sport's establishment.
A turf writer's turf writer is Steve Haskin. No one works as hard, analyzes a race as well, studies breeding more, or understands where more "bodies are buried." Steve can dissect a race as accurately as any writer in the history of the sport. He seems to be part veterinarian-jockey-trainer-fan.
Steve Crist, publisher of the Daily Racing Form. Here is a brilliant mind, a good writer, with a burr under his saddle cloth. He pulls no punches and writes in a cynical but matter-of-fact manner. You'll never find "the bluebird of happiness" in Steve Crist's work. But he is not to be ignored.
Andy Beyer --never warm and fuzzy-- writes as if he knows the identity of the Unknown Soldier-and he may! He does not suffer fools gladly, and he does seem to encounter a great many, devastatingly disposing of them. His columns in the Washington Post and the Daily Racing Form are potent indeed. People who say they never read him, do. Gambling is his game, but he addresses every aspect of racing.
Perhaps the most entertaining writer in racing today is Jay Hovdey. Whatever horse, person or issue he confronts, his column will be creative, sprightly and clearly targeted. He will make his point; do his criticizing in a relatively palatable, definitely witty and outwardly pleasant way. Oddly enough, on an issue on which he may feel strongly, he can be more restrained on paper than he might be face to face. Jay says what he thinks.
The other Jay is Privman, who may win the award as best all around. He is a wise, solid citizen, as respected and liked as much as any turf writer. No fancy footwork here, but he knows his stuff and lays it out in an easy manner. Also on camera, he is one of the best.
"Mr. Controversial," at the moment, at least, is Ray Paulick. And he needs to be, because he has launched a new blog, The Paulick Report, which entertainingly takes on sacred cows fearlessly. As a former editor of The Blood Horse, it follows that he is a fine writer and reporter. His depth of knowledge and understanding of every aspect of the industry/sport, while at the same time being a sharp handicapper, is noteworthy.
Writers - especially turf writers, it seems -are quite territorial, so omissions from this piece will infuriate many, and no one I have covered will be completely pleased with my summaries. There are other hot shots - some even bigger names than some I have selected - that will be saved for another time. That is, if I don't catch too much hell for this one.
This is Cot Campbell and this is my view.