by Randolph T. Holhut
American Reporter Correspondent
May 12-13, 2001
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).