On Native Ground: DECONSTRUCTING THE KENTUCKY DERBY
by Randolph T. Holhut
American Reporter Correspondent
DUMMERSTON, Vt. -- Maybe I think this because I love newspapers but it's=
my firm belief that when comes to covering a event, you may get the feel o= f what happened from television but you have to turn to newspapers to find = out what actually happened, how and why it happened and what it all means.=
The fact that television is shallow and frequently dishonest and uninfor= mative isn't exactly a news flash. But when you're not used to seeing telev= ision on regular basis, it does take you aback when you see it in action.
In my case, it was watching the Kentucky Derby broadcast on May 5 on NBC= . It was that network's first effort at the race after 26 years of solid = coverage by ABC. However, this wasn't the network's first brush with the Sp= ort of Kings. NBC has a little experience with thoroughbred racing with the= ir annual broadcast of the Breeders Cup. I just didn't expect they bring th= e same style of coverage that has made the Olympics unwatchable to the Kent= ucky Derby.
I know that most people who tune into the Derby know little about horse = racing. But instead of educating the novices and providing solid analysis f= or the fans, what we got instead was the same schmaltz we saw at the Atlant= a and Sydney Olympics. They chose to carefully craft storylines to conform = to their view of what the average viewer wants, and ignore the real stories= staring them in the face.
Take the piece they did on jockey Laffit Pincay, a slump that stemmed fr= om his ability to keep his weight down to ride. NBC neglected to talk about= the eating disorders that had plagued him for years, until he found an 850= -calorie-a-day, fruit-based diet that would allow him to make weight and st= ill have enough stamina to compete. Since many jockeys have eating disorder= s, this might have been an angle worth pursuing.
There was the touching tale of Invisible Ink, a horse that was so sick t= hat the insurance company gave the go-ahead to euthanize him until an old-f= ashioned treatment by a vet saved his life. NBC said it was an infection th= at almost killed him. You had to read the New York Daily News to lea= rn it was a bad reaction to the analgesic phenylbutazone (commonly known as= "Bute") that was the real cause of the near-death experience. Perhaps NBC = didn't want dwell on the reality that an alarming number of thoroughbreds n= eed Bute and Lasix (which controls pulmonary bleeding) to run.
They talked about jockey Gary Stevens' comeback after a nearly one-year = retirement, but neglected to mention it was because he has no cartilage lef= t in his knees and that Prince Ahmed offered to pay $1 million to do a proc= edure that involved breaking his leg and reconfiguring his knee. Stevens tu= rned down the operation and is using anti-inflamatories to get back into th= e saddle.
There were a lot of other little things NBC missed. They neglected to me= ntion that no horse had won the Derby from the No. 17 post, where Point Giv= en was starting, in 29 tries. They waited until post time to tell us that P= oint Given was owned by Prince Ahmed of the Saudi royal family. They mentio= ned the fast track conditions at Churchill Downs, but didn't mention how tr= ack workers rolled it down to make it so firm and fast that three track rec= ords were set in the four races on the undercard.
Perhaps it was fitting that Monarchos, a big gray colt that was virtuall= y ignored in the pre-race buildup, ran the second-fastest Derby ever to win= the 1 1/4-mile race by nearly five lengths in 1.59 4/5 -- second only to t= he legendary Secretariat.
And right behind him was Invisible Ink, who was looked at as just a fee= l-good story, and at 55-1,wasn't supposed to be in the money. Congaree, my = choice to win, was third.
NBC partially redeemed itself with some aggressive reporting on thedispu= te at the end of the race on a claim by Invisible Ink's jockey JohnVelazque= z that Monarchos' jockey Jorge Chavez cut him off in making hisfinal move o= n the stretch run.
But it waited far too long to show the final order of finish after the = track steward ruled in Monarchos' favor to replay the race to show how Mona= rchos won. In general, race strategy was ignored by NBC and by the time the= y switched to the Dallas-San Antonio NBA playoff game at 6:35 p.m., all the= viewer really knew was that a 10-1 shot had won the Derby and not much mor= e.
You had to read the papers on Sunday morning to find out whatreally ha= ppened. For those who follow racing closely, Monarchos' win wasn'ta shock. = Chavez is one of the top jockeys at Belmont in New York and iswell known fo= r getting a good performance out of just about anything withlegs. He won th= e Eclipse Award in 1999 as the top rider of the year.
Trainer John Wood, a native Kentuckian and third-generation horseman,han= dled Monarchos conservatively and focused on conserving the horse'senergy r= ather than posting great workout times for the press. And Monarchoswon the = Florida Derby and was second to Congaree in the Wood Memorial, sohe certain= ly was no schlub.
Chavez broke Monarchos cleanly from the No. 16 post, right next toPoint = Given, and stayed near the back of the pack until about thehalf-mile mark.= At that point, Monarchos started to hit his stride,bursting forward along = the rail. He effortlessly blew by five horses. By the one-mile pole, he was= in sixth place heading into the stretch run just two lengths behind Congar= ee, who took the lead when early leader Songandaprayer faded after running = the fastest opening half-mile in Derby history.
With the horses running five across heading into the final turn,Monarcho= s swept through the final turn and ran down Congaree. Chavez hadhis left ha= nd out and was flailing his whip to urge his horse on. PointGiven, the 9-5 = favorite, faded to fifth after expending his energy too soondue to the extr= emely fast pace of the race.
While NBC did a pre-race feature on Wood, th= e only Kentuckytrainer in the race, Point Given's and Congaree's trainer Bo= b Baffert, gotmost of the pre-race buildup. Baffert, loud and brash, does = make for goodcopy. But it turned out that the "old school" trainer and the = seasoned jockey who had never come close to winning a Derby were the ones w= ho'd be winners.
And perhaps the best story of all, at least from a newspaperman'spoint o= f view, was also never explored in depth by NBC. The breeder ofMonarchos wa= s James Squires, the former editor of the Chicago Tribune. He was th= e Trib's editor in the 1980s and led a staff that won several Pulitzers bef= ore he lost a power struggle with the Tribune Corp. over news values and pr= ofits.
That dispute became the foundation for Squires' braveand brillian= t 1993 book "Read All About It: The Corporate Takeover ofAmerica's Newspape= rs," one of the best accounts of the past decade of howbottom-line manageme= nt is ruining journalism. It's excerpted in the current issue of the Ameri= can Journalism Review.
Squires took his $1 million severance from the Trib and pursued hissecon= d love, horsebreeding. He bought a small farm in Kentucky and raisedhorses= with his wife, Mary Anne. He bought Monarchos' dam, Regal Band, for$14,000= at an auction. Monarchos' sire, Maria's Mon, came at abargain-basement $7,= 500 stud fee. From this humble lineage came a KentuckyDerby champion.
I know that given all the other things going on in the world, itseems li= ke I'm obsessing over a few little details of the coverage of onehorse race= . But in those 95 minutes, you saw all the sins of journalism inmicrocosm= -- the herd mentality of reporters, the unwillingness to digdeeper into co= ntroversial stories, and how emotional manipulation and glitzbecomes more i= mportant than providing facts.
The truth is out there, but it takes more work than the averagenews cons= umer wants to spend to find out what really happened. And that'swhy if you = are looking for facts and in-depth reporting, you're not goingto find it on= television.
In fact, tv was missing a gigantic story in the Derby's backyard,Louisvi= lle: Thoroughbred foals valued at tens of millions of dollars are dying in = the bluegress country, hundreds of them, of a mysterious disease no one has= identified. Perhaps that's an apt analogy for the ills that plague the pre= ss.
Randolph T. Holhut has been a journalist in New England for morethan 20 = years. He edited "The George Seldes Reader" (Barricade Books).