Something Special

How two brothers who just loved horse racing started the newspaper that became a staple in Saratoga Springs

SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. -- The first year, it was this thin little eight-pager, more like a pamphlet than a newspaper. They drove the proofs from Saratoga Race Course to the printer in Clifton Park and slept there while it came off the presses, then loaded the finished copies into the car and drove back to the track as soon as they were done.

In the 10 years that have passed since the first edition of The Saratoga Special made its debut, brothers Joe and Sean Clancy have collected more than a decade of memories and printed more than 311 editions of a paper that beat the odds. They've also become part of the fabric of Saratoga, a historic oval where the best horses come to run and the next great victory is just around the corner.

* * *

Saturday morning on the Saratoga backside, Preakness winner Shackleford was about to turn in his first work in preparation for the Aug. 27 Travers Stakes. Along the turn of the old dirt oval, photographers and turf writers and a few racing fans were gathered to watch the big chestnut go through his paces. Sean Clancy left his golf cart, stocked with a stack of his newspaper's latest edition, to stand by the rail. He was enthralled by another contender altogether.

"Look at that horse," he said. "Just watch how he moves. Isn't that perfect? Isn't that beautiful?"

The copy is crisp and clean, turned out by eager young journalists and the brothers themselves.

The runner in question was Mr. Hot Stuff, a full brother to WinStar Farm stallion Colonel John. The son of Tiznow who ran in the 2009 Kentucky Derby after finishing third in the 2009 Santa Anita Derby has been retired to a steeplechasing career and will race this Thursday. Clancy was the one who initiated the transition.

"He's 2-for2, his last two," he said, speaking of the gelding's recent victories over hurdles.

This is Clancy's world, a swirling combination of flat racing, jumpers and, most importantly, The Saratoga Special. Since 2001, the former steeplechase jockey and his older brother have published what many in town would call a horseman's paper. Sons of a trainer who conditioned flat and steeplechase horses and instilled in his children a love for racing, they were raised with a fondness for Saratoga, for early workouts and hot cups of coffee and afternoon trips to the paddock and the winner's circle. Now, every morning in shed rows and tack rooms and barn offices and golf carts around the racetrack, grooms, exercise riders, owners, jockeys and trainers can be found with copies of their publication in hand. But the Special also carries over to the front side, where fans and horseplayers are happy to pick up a complimentary copy in the clubhouse or grandstand or out by the picnic area.

They work with a skeleton crew: four staff writers, one designer, a handful of handicappers, and a distribution team led by Joe's older sons, Ryan and Jack, trainer Graham Motion's daughter, Jane, and sometimes Joe's younger son, Nolan. The copy is crisp and clean, turned out by eager young journalists and the brothers themselves. The idea is simple: "To be original, to be unique, to come up with stuff you can't get elsewhere," Joe Clancy said. "And most of all, to put in the legwork, go to the barns. If it's one of us or a college kid we hire, you know, we want the trainer to know who you are, not just another microphone in the crowd. The idea that an interview we have is an interview only we have adds to the readability of the paper."

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Remember those old black-and-white movies in which Mickey Rooney would turn to Judy Garland and say, "Let's put on a show!"

It happened like that.

"Why can't we start a paper?" Sean asked Joe. "How hard is it?"

It was spring 1993. Sean had graduated from the University of Delaware with a history degree the year before, and was galloping runners and riding races -- as he describes it, "Doing nothing with my brain except falling on it." He won three times and was pretty proud of himself, but the magazine that featured his success -- the only one that covered steeplechase racing at all -- wrote everything but the facts, he said.

"They got my age wrong, the injury I'd come back from wrong and used a quote I'd absolutely never said -- it wasn't even close," he recalled. "It was so bad, I got so mad, I called my brother and said, 'Why can't we start a paper on this sport? This is crazy! No one's covering this!'"

Joe, who already had his communications degree from the same school, was working full time writing for the Cecil Whig, a liberalist newspaper in Elkton, Md. He was freelancing a little as well, doing some work for Mid-Atlantic Thoroughbred and The Blood-Horse. It was the beginning of the desktop publishing era, and he could almost see it. Seven issues in the spring, printed every two weeks, 16 pages, four pages of color. He called Sean back with the numbers.

"You know, this could really work," he said.

"I was kind of taken aback, like, 'Oh, I was just spouting off,'" Sean remembered.

But he was game. They took $5,000 he'd made from riding and put it in a bank account, bought a used computer, put a door on milk crates in Joe's basement to make a big desk, and started writing a paper that covered steeplechasing -- the Steeplechase Times. It was 1994. Joe was 29; Sean was 24.

"We'd done the math and figured we could do seven issues of the paper in the spring, and if we didn't sell any advertising, if we didn't make a cent, that five grand would cover those seven issues," Sean said. "And if they didn't work, we'd fold it up and say, 'Ah, we tried.'"

The uniqueness of the product caught on because, "There's nobody," Joe said. "We're the only guy interviewing people, most of the time."

They published seven issues and got the five grand back, and, "We've been rolling it up the hill ever since," Sean said. "No investors, no backing, you know. Just the two of us."

* * *

Sean rode races all the way up to 2000, the same year his "Saratoga Days," a book about the 1999 season at the upstate oval, was published. At the beginning of the following meet, he broke his ankle. He had been tailing off, knew he wasn't going to ride much longer, had been thinking about it already, thought about it years before that. He retired after 13 years with a total of 152 victories and a national championship earned in 1998, the 10th-highest winner of all time.

Now, the freedom was there. They'd been kicking around the idea of a Saratoga paper for a few years before they did anything. It was one of those things they kept talking about, like, "Hey, wouldn't it be cool if … "

I'm kind of the one always dreaming up crazy ideas, and he's the one that tempers those. We balance each other out very well.

-- Sean Clancy

In 2001, The Saratoga Special was born. It wasn't particularly named after the race that will be run Monday -- the $150,000 Saratoga Special for 2-year-olds -- but more because of the idea that a paper based in Saratoga, focusing only on racing, would be special.

"We got an office downtown and tried to go six days a week the first year," Joe said. "The computers were slow, nobody could email you an ad, you were getting FedEx stuff, and if it was FedExed to you on a disk, then wow, that was big time. It was a nightmare, an absolute nightmare."

They tried to sell it. Nobody knew what it was. For all their connections, they really didn't know people in the flat racing world. It was like the beginning of anything -- somewhat shaky, not perfect by a long shot. But they learned that the stories were there, they just needed to figure out how to make it work -- and together, that's exactly what they did.

"We get along; we actually complement each other pretty well," Joe said. "It's a decent mix of skills."

"My brother is very steady, easygoing," Sean said. "I'm kind of the one always dreaming up crazy ideas, and he's the one that tempers those. We balance each other out very well. We've had a lot of fun doing it beyond the business aspect -- a great time doing it with his kids, our families, everybody doing it together working at something."

* * *

And gradually, things got better. They got smart enough to publish only five days per week. The technology changed. People accepted it. Advertisers caught on to the fact that horsemen, reading features on their winners, scanning for mentions of their names in the "Worth Repeating" section of quotes overheard at the racetrack, would take note of a stallion ad or a partnership ad or a real estate ad. The revenue came in. The paper survived.

"I think they do a fabulous job," said trainer Kiaran McLaughlin, collared by reporters on the same day as Shackleford's work after sending his own Travers contender, Rattlesnake Bridge, through a breeze as well. "They're witty and come out with great comments; they know everybody on the jumping side and the flat racing side. It is a horseman's paper and as one I look forward to reading everything; I love it all."

The brothers have grown up, grown into their positions, from this is something that might work to this is what we do. Now Sean is 41, owns a 30-acre farm in Middleburg, Md., is married to wife Anne with a son, Miles, about to turn 3, and this is his life: sell a horse, write a story, sell an ad, do a radio show. Joe, who lives in Elkton, Md., near the Delaware border, is 46, and running the business -- Steeplechase Publishing -- is his full-time job. He and his wife, Sam, are about to send their oldest off to the University of Maryland.

"That's not the way it started. It was part time doing everything, but then it got to the point where we were able to take on enough projects for the business to sustain itself and it turned into a full-time job," Joe said.

"Somehow you've got enough money to work for yourself," Sean said. "I've never really had a full-time job working for anybody else. I mean, I galloped horses, but I never had a full-time job. I don't even know what that's like. I've always been doing this."

And here they are again, combining their passions with a way to make a living in their favorite place on earth.

"It always gives you a sense of time to come back to Saratoga," Sean said. "You think, 'Wow, I'm a year older. Wow, I made it back here again. We're still doing this, our company's still going.' It's part of the joy, the majesty of Saratoga, and yeah, I'm pretty proud of what we've accomplished."

"I think the workload and the effort it all takes sometimes make you lose sight of how lucky you are," Joe said. "But in the end, you feel privileged, sort of amazed that you've pulled it off. Are we a part of Saratoga? I guess we are. It's just been gradual. I still get blown away by the amount of people reading it -- from an owner or trainer to a guy in a backyard. Like, really? Ten years ago we were begging people to read it, and here we are today."

They have an office downtown in the Roohan building near the Sunoco station, across from the City Center, and a rental right on Union Avenue just a few yards from the track's main gate. Sometimes they write their columns -- tales of horsemen and runners and victories and losses -- sitting on the porch of that house in the summer evenings while a world that revolves around racing passes by. It's kind of nice, actually, two brothers making a living with a business of their own creation.

You might even call it special.

Claire Novak is an award-winning journalist whose coverage of the Thoroughbred industry appears in a variety of outlets. You can reach her via her website.