Love of the game

January, 22, 2011
01/22/11
9:50
PM ET
"Just curious -- when was the last time you placed a bet? How much money did you push through the pari-mutuel windows in 2010? How much longer do you think you'll work as a freelance Turf writer when racetracks are dying due to lack of wagering, alternative gaming funds being re-routed to cover government budget deficits and expiring government subsidies? I'd like to see you tackle those issues in a column. In fact, I dare you." -- Tom De Martini, horseplayer

Dear Tom,

Once there was a girl who never went to the racetrack. She didn't have a horseplaying uncle, a parent in the business, a friend to bring her along. She learned of the game by reading great writing, books and articles that made her feel like she was already there. This same girl was grounded from watching the Preakness one year because she was spending too much time on racing and not enough time on school. She snuck out to a neighbor's house and watched it anyway.

Finally, when she was old enough, the girl drove herself out to Arlington Park, paid $3 admission, and stood down by the rail. The runners, thundering down off the turn of the old dirt track, were honest and game and hard-trying and beautiful, and it didn't matter that they were maiden claimers going six furlongs for a purse of $28,000. In that moment, horse racing, with all its ups and downs, captured her heart. She was young and naive, but she knew this was something she wanted to be a part of.

The girl became a writer. Her parents told her this sport was not a place for a young girl to make a successful career. She ignored them. She approached through the human interest angle, because that's what she knew. She had a lot to learn. She never let that stop her.

This girl was -- and still is -- very passionate about recording the stories of people in the game and portraying their connection with the horses they run. Her heroes were -- and still are -- people like Red Smith, Joe Hirsch, W.C. Heinz, men who captured the exact essence of historic moments in racing and immortalized those figures and thoroughbreds for generations. To this day, it amazes her to pick up a piece written by Smith in 1939 and feel the very essence of the horses he was following, to grasp the nature of trainers, jockeys and owners now long gone. This, she believes, is not a writing method to be disregarded. It was a gift to the sport back then -- it is a gift to the sport right now.

So she didn't pretend to have an interest in wagering. She still learned to read The Form so she could write an advance or recap, so she could ask accurate questions of horsemen and understand their responses. She studied the sport and became a part of it because it was where she felt she belonged, because writing about Thoroughbreds and their connections was her passion and she wanted to do it well. She admired the devoted horseplayers, men and women whose money fueled the purses and operations of the tracks she covered, for their research and vast knowledge and understanding of the various factors that go into making successful wagers. But she was not one of them, nor did she ever want to be.

You see, this girl understood -- and still understands -- the diverse nature of the racetrack. She met many people from many different backgrounds, millionaires whose fortunes went to purchase the high-level contenders, blue-collar trainers whose hard-earned dollars kept small strings in business, jockeys from South America who learned to speak English as they rode to phenomenal victories, assistant trainers working their way up the ladder with hopes of starting a stable of their own. There were horseplayers who came to the track once each weekend, horseplayers who came to the track every afternoon, racing fans who showed up for the big stakes races, racing fans who took pictures of the horses on the backside in the mornings. There were hard-hitting beat men who covered their circuits with more integrity and passion than their paychecks deserved, and lazy reporters who didn't really care about good writing or good opinions.

She learned that there were wonderful sides to the game and that there were terrible sides as well, that there were phenomenally good people and terribly despicable people involved, that for every passionate opinion in favor of one topic, there was an equally passionate opinion against. She knew that each person, every aspect, combined to make the sport exactly what it was. There were many things she would have changed. But there were also many things she would have left the same.

She would never tell a bettor, in spite of his knowledge of how to construct a Pick 3 or a winning Superfecta, to keep racing alive by hopping aboard Uncle Mo and taking him out for a morning spin. She wouldn't ask a hot walker who didn't speak English to "do his part" by hosting the New York Racing Association's televised handicapping show. She wouldn't tell a track manager that he should go out and put new shoes on a racehorse's hooves. And she certainly wouldn't tell a turf writer whose job description did not include handicapping that he or she should start pushing money through the windows in order to fulfill some imaginary, non-existent obligation.

Obviously, I'm that girl, Tom. I don't know how much longer my sole employment will come from covering racing, but I do know one thing. As long as there is an opportunity for me to write about the sport, I'll continue do so in a fair, honest, upright manner. That's my job, my contribution to the sport I now know and love. I leave the horseplaying in your extremely capable hands.

"Racing is not just about betting. The beauty, the pageantry and the flair are what separate our sport from any other. As we look to the future, we must also pass on the passion and excitement of the sport to the next generation. It is our obligation." -- Eclipse Award winner Marylou Whitney

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