Allure Horse racing is my game, has been ever since I was a kid. It doesn't matter if I'm standing railside with a Hall of Fame trainer or watching the next equine superstar; I'm still amazed and know I'm lucky. I get paid to do what I love.
"To love this sport is to embrace imperfection, sticking with it in spite of long odds and longer hours. Sometimes, from unbelievable circumstances, we wind up with highly improbable results… Sometimes, when we're lucky, we watch what we hoped and thought would happen as it actually does happen. And in that moment, we're completely satisfied." Allure of the Game is Enough, ESPN (June 5, 2009)
Birds May, Churchill Downs. I've just interviewed this guy, Chip Woolley. No one knows much about him, no one expects his little gelding, Mine That Bird, to win the Kentucky Derby. A breathtaking chestnut stands on the other side of the barn, ears pricked. "Who's that?!" I ask a colleague. Hmmm… Summer Bird. The connections of those runners proved accommodating, refreshing, and invigorating on the Triple Crown trail. I have a soft spot in my heart for both of them.
"This is what our admiration comes down to -- the horses that…give their all. It's what we live for. And the soft, crisp sound of colts cropping up lush emerald grass. The sunlight rippling along their burnished muscles. The camaraderie of an early-morning press conference. The questions levied and answers gleaned. The figures we've come to know and respect. The feeling of calm and quiet that descends upon us through the dappled shadows..." Birds of a Feather, ESPN (June 7, 2009)
Collaboration When Garrett Gomez and I launched his Triple Crown blog on NTRA.com this spring, the response from fans was overwhelming. We brought the blog back at ESPN.com for Breeders' Cup and enjoyed continued success. Working with Garrett is a flawless and fascinating collaboration; his unique perspective is perfect for the project, and he's as down-to-earth as they come.
"A friend of mine once asked me, "Man, how do you do that, going here, going there, and taking time to do the interviews and autographs and appearances and stuff?" But I remember when I was sitting in a jail cell and no one wanted my autograph, so if I ever get to the point where I refuse an interview or act like a jerk to the fans, someone better slap me." Gomez Blog, NTRA (May 4, 2009)
Douglas Interviewing Rene Douglas two months after his racing accident at Arlington Park was the toughest experience of my career. But in the middle of that tragic and terrifying conversation, something incredible happened; Rene and his wife Natalia opened their hearts and connected with mine. There was nothing I wanted more than to portray Rene's legacy and fighting spirit, which inspires me to this day.
"Many parallels have been drawn between horse racing and boxing, two now-lagging sports that once shared glory days. And in many ways, the riders are like boxers, determined to stay on top of the game until something profound forces them out. For Douglas, the subject is an emotional one, because he always gave 110 percent of his effort when he rode, and he won races, and it shouldn't have ended this way. " Rene Douglas: Two Months Later, ESPN (July 23, 2009)
Einstein There's nothing like the bond between a woman and her horse. Watching Helen Pitts-Blasi with top older runner Einstein this season proved that point. Pitts-Blasi, galloping the big black horse in the mornings, would reach down to touch his shoulder, and he would turn his neck to touch her hand. The pure joy on her face said everything.
"She touched down in Florida after a whirlwind weekend that had her loading up the big horse in California, then settling a stable at Churchill Downs in Kentucky. By the time Helen Pitts-Blasi got back to Palm Meadows Training Center in Boynton Beach on Wednesday afternoon, she was facing a case of cross-country jet lag. Her horse, on the other hand, was feeling just fine. And as any trainer will tell you, that's all that matters." Pitts-Blasi the Brains Behind Einstein, ESPN (March 13, 2009)
Facebook Has become the binding network that joins members of the racing industry from coast to coast. Writers. Trainers. Owners. Jockeys. Exercise riders. Fans. I love it.
Gentleman Jockey Writing about Ramon Dominguez's first Saratoga riding title was a pleasure for many Turf writers in the upstate press box this season. You can't help but wish the best for the guy; hard-working, a consummate professional, pleasant to deal with and to be around. His career-best season in 2009 was much-deserved.
"Ramon Dominguez is a solemn and slender man who made his living riding horses on the lesser circuits but never broke into the big-time until this year, when he suddenly found his talents displayed in glory on the ovals of the New York Racing Association." Gentleman Jockey, ESPN (Sept. 7, 2009)
Home Tracks Arlington and Hawthorne are my home tracks and I wrote profiles on both this year. It's funny how each place has a particular feel. I'm always content and settled when I go to the races at either track. The horsemen and riders on the Illinois racing circuit are the most down-to-earth people I've ever met, and I'm proud to be a part of the community.
"The walls at Hawthorne are covered with black-and-white photos of great runners, owners, trainers, and jockeys recognizable from racing history. Sun Beau. Ben Jones. William Hartack. Players of that caliber no longer frequent the races here…" Anatomy of a Race Course, ESPN (Oct. 13, 2009)
Ian Wilkes Reporters are supposed to remain objective. Not to play favorites. Right. Ian Wilkes and his wife, Tracy, make this a difficult task. I love that Wilkes is a straight-shooter. I love that his barn is warm and welcoming. I love that his horses are happy and healthy and well-cared for, and that his door is always open to those of us who want to talk about and admire them.
"They are cream of the crop, a small stable of runners hand-picked for promise and purpose. Just 13 horses tucked back in a cozy barn in the middle of Saratoga's Clare Court, but they hit at this elite oval with lethal accuracy and there's a reason they wind up in the winner's circle. That reason is Ian Wilkes." Ian Wilkes: Good at Being Lucky, ESPN (Aug. 2, 2009)
Jockeys The buzz generated from a piece I wrote during the Breeders' Cup was surprisingly strong. You can draw your own conclusions as to whether this tongue-in-cheek writing was ethically wrong. Currently taking a vote as to whether the list shall return for 2010… Mike Smith would undoubtedly answer with a resounding yes!
"Then Joe gets an idea."You should write Claire Novak's top 10 list of cutest active jockeys," he suggests. "It would be a riot!" From there, the idea morphs to "sexiest jockeys," then to "sexiest Breeders' Cup jockeys," because that kind of ties in with the season and location. So here they are, the sexiest jockeys riding in the 2009 edition of the Breeders' Cup." These Cup Jocks are Looking Good, ESPN (Nov. 4, 2009)
Kiaran McLaughlin I broke the story of this trainer's 30-day suspension, and without any conspiracy theories. The explanation for the positives was solid; an honest mistake had been made. Then I started thinking about drug testing in the racing industry. Racing's Tarnished Image was born.
"And what is the conclusion in all of this? That racing authorities must consider the applications of science in the review of positive calls and the determination of ensuing consequences. That states must adopt universal medication rules and band together, egos aside, to make it work. That trainers must support the media in efforts to educate fans about the practices and policies surrounding the industry's top horses. That there is much work to be done." Racing's Tarnished Image, ESPN (Dec. 20, 2009)
Losing It happens. And we write about it.
"In a Hall of Fame career that's spanned four decades, Nick Zito has pretty much seen it all. But the dead-last finish of 2008 Belmont Stakes winner Da' Tara had the trainer shaking his head in disbelief after Monday's Albert The Great Stakes at Saratoga." Bust-out Race is a Bust, Albany Times Union (Aug. 11, 2009)
Media I am so honored to work among some of the finest people in the sportswriting business. These writers love this game, and they love their craft. I consider it a privilege to walk among them, to learn from them, and to count myself among them.
New York New York is my second home. That circuit, from Belmont to Saratoga to Aqueduct, is one I could work fulltime.
Opinions Oh, you shared them. From personal remarks to comments on issues like Zenyatta and Rachel Alexandra's Horse of the Year campaigns and synthetic surfaces and the reopening of Hialeah, you let your voices be heard. And regardless of the topics, it's the dialogue that counts. So keep the comments coming!
Preakness The vast emptiness of Pimlico on the Thursday before the Preakness hit me harder than countless similar scenes at similar tracks. I don't know if it's because the magnitude of the race provided such contrast to the obvious disregard for the sport among attendees (or lack of attendees) just two days before, or if the condition of the entire racing industry in Maryland added a particularly somber note.
"On any other afternoon, in this sprawling monstrosity made to house 100,000 people, you can sit in the middle of the grandstand seats and look far, far, away -- to the pane-glass wall that makes up the left side and to the clubhouse doors on the right -- without seeing a single racegoer. And you can spend the entire day that way, completely and utterly alone, in a sea of nothingness, where the yellow seats are chipped, cracked, and fading. Like the face of Maryland racing itself." Preakness Pumps a Little Life into State's Withering Industry, ESPN (May 15, 2009)
Quality Road Watching his panic attack at the Breeders' Cup Classic on video a few days after it happened, everyone was thankful for the actions of assistant starter Junior Hungerford, who held onto the bridle as the colt spun in circles until the blindfold was removed from his eyes. A massive disaster was avoided that day. Here's hoping this one comes back strong and with better luck in 2010.
Rachel Alexandra is not my favorite filly. Rachel Alexandra, in fact, ranks beneath Summer Bird, Mine That Bird, and Zenyatta on my list of sentimental favorites for the season. But I will tell you one thing. When she won the Oaks, I cried. When she won the Preakness, I got goosebumps. And when she won the Woodward, I screamed "Come on, Rachel!" along with everybody else. She might not be my favorite. But I do know she's amazing.
"She was tired in the winner's circle, flanks heaving, nostrils flaring, coat drenched in sweat and water from the buckets of her jubilant grooms... They walked her down the track in a wild celebration, couldn't stop patting her shoulder, her neck, couldn't stop reliving the magic. And we relived it too, as we reveled in her performance for the ages. Because we knew we had just witnessed a great Thoroughbred, with the heart and determination of a champion, born to run. And it doesn't get any better than that." Rachel's Performance for the Ages, ESPN (Sept 5, 2009)
Saratoga There's something special about Saratoga. Horses run better there and writers write better there and everyone feels better there and we all hate to leave. But here's the best thing about Saratoga… most things remain the same. And you can always come back again.
"Welcome to the Spa. That's what people call this place, a time-warped town where horse racing makes its annual getaway for six weeks in the middle of the summer season. From the adrenaline-pumped moments of opening day to the last sad sigh as the final start is made, we'll be caught up in a world like no other -- morning training, afternoon racing, with the thrill of high-powered competition, ‘the real soul of success, and the bitterness of attaining and the heartbreak of not attaining it,' ruling it all." Blog entry, ESPN (July 29, 2009)
Talamo This year at the Derby, retired Hall of Fame rider Jerry Bailey gave 19-year-old jockey Joe Talamo a lesson in the film room of the Kentucky Derby museum. They went over past races and talked about strategy and I was lucky enough to listen. Unfortunately, I Want Revenge scratched the day of the race and Talamo was left without a mount. But I'm still glad I captured the history of the moment.
"The legend schools the rookie on a cloudy day at Churchill Downs. Rain is falling and the temperature is dropping and the legend, 32 years the rookie's senior, is wearing a Kentucky Derby jacket befitting the season and the weather. The rookie does not have a Kentucky Derby jacket or a Kentucky Derby win, but this could change in less than 54 hours. ‘An option will open for you,' the legend tells the rookie, speaking with the insight of the Dalai Lama. ‘Wait for it. Wait for it to appear. If you move early, you'll pay the price.'" Old School, ESPN (May 1, 2009)
Underdogs It started back at 14, when a riding instructor laughed at my compassion for a banged-up old racehorse who had been shipped out to the farm for stall rest. "You know, Claire, you're the champion of the underdog…" Yeah, I love them.
"Get this. It's the 35th running of the Sword Dancer. A guy shows up with a horse. He thinks the horse has a shot…" blog entry, ESPN (Aug. 15, 2009)
Victory Winners can always be written about in new and exciting ways because every victory comes in a different manner, with different emotions.
"Ninth, the winner's circle. This the dream of owners everywhere, the goal of trainers, the hope of jockeys….Hands on a gleaming golden trophy. The horse is blowing, led by the outrider, and the mud is splattering up from his hooves, and here come the goosebumps as he is trotted down past the people proudly, eyeballing the crowd, unaware of what he just has done. And Calvin Borel is crying and those roses, the blessed roses, are being swept across his lap, and the picture goes down into history and the trophy is hoisted to the sky and we all stand beneath the cloudy skies and gaze with dropping jaws, yet somehow can't begrudge them anything." Kentucky Derby 135 Casts Fresh Memories, ESPN (May 5, 2009)
Words on a Page I started the year with an essay for The Blood-Horse, voicing my determination to make it in this industry no matter what. Looking back over the past 12 months, I know that choice was the right one to make.
"But I am too young, perhaps too foolish, or perhaps too much in love with the career I have chosen to let a stumble from the starting gate ruin my race. I have found my feet, and my stride, and I am better for it." Words on a Page, Blood-Horse Magazine (Jan 6, 2009)
X-Factor Turf writers deal with the racing industry's leading figures on a regular basis. It becomes just another part of the job. But there are people who have charisma, the presence that keeps us coming back for more. Horses have it too; star power and magnetism. Sometimes we just can't explain it. But we get to try.
"We watch horse racing because of this. Because it's something we can't control. Because each happy ending is a gift. Kissing, snapping, shouting, coaxing, we will our runners to the wire, powerless to influence their actual accomplishments. And this knowledge, that the results are out of our hands, is at once breathtaking and terrible." It's About Time, ESPN (May 16, 2009)
Ycaza A crazy idea popped into my mind in the months leading up to the Kentucky Derby. Why not write about Manny Ycaza, a man who is barely visible on the modern racing scene yet almost dominated the glory days? Over a series of phone conversations and through research at the Keeneland Library, I became engrossed in the story. The result is what I seek to achieve in my writing every day but I will only ever write one story like this one, because there is only one Manny Ycaza.
"He has begun to think the thoughts all old men think, hoping his legacy will be remembered… and even if he believes it would be fitting to be known by the young riders who so glibly enjoy the freedoms he first fought to earn, he is too much of a gentleman to say so. They may not realize everything he did to pave the way for them, but he does. It makes him feel proud." The Panic from Panama, KyDerby.com (April 16, 2009)
Zenyatta is a super star. She knows it. Her legacy reaches beyond year-end honors because she embodies greatness. And that's something we all must respect.
"It was what she did and how she did it that will have them talking for ages to come, for Zenyatta annihilated the Classic field. And she did it with such ease, in a manner so overpowering, that her brilliance could never be doubted… She won with her ears pricked. Galloping. Like she was out for a Sunday stroll." Zenyatta a Display of Greatness, ESPN (Nov. 7, 2009)
Claire Novak is an award-winning journalist whose coverage of the thoroughbred industry appears in a variety of outlets, including The Blood-Horse Magazine, The Albany Times Union and NTRA.com. She lives in Lexington, Ky.