Reporters cover the Kentucky Oaks from the new press room at Churchill Downs. Eric Crawford/WDRB photo
NOTE: I write this with the knowledge that the only people who may find interest are a few fellow journalists. It's a personal reflection, meant more to share a perspective than to influence action. Thanks.
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- The first time I walked into the Churchill Downs press box, I thought I was walking into history. I suppose it sounds a bit corny to use the word "reverence," but that's what I felt.
Red Smith, they said, used to walk up those very press box steps after a morning back at the barns, holding his notebook in the air and saying, "I'm rich, I'm rich."
It's probably a sign of the times that I ought to explain that Red Smith was the greatest sportswriter who ever lived -- unless it was Jim Murray. Either way, it was a photo-finish. Murray wrote from that press box too. Cawood Ledford worked from there.
If Red Smith was richer than most in terms of what he could put into a notebook and get out of it, he certainly wasn't the only one who luxuriated in the Derby's wealth of words. The Kentucky Derby has always been a writer's event. At the Derby, bloodlines come first, but story lines are a close second. Great writers, some of the best, William Faulkner, John Steinbeck, Hunter Thompson, took their turns penning descriptions of the great spectacle.
It might well have been in that press box that Murray wrote of the Derby: "for one day Louisville gets a tiara in the hair, and it smells of perfume and mink instead of bourbon and sweat. It's the most uniquely American event of all. It is redolent of Stephen Foster, who died in a waterfront flophouse, and who left America his bittersweet airs of magnolia and losers."
When that press box was replaced with a new, modern complex as part of Churchill Downs' new suites, I remember thinking two things: It was the end of an era, and that the writers and reporters would not be in that new home forever. It was, to put it bluntly, too nice. With its view of the finish line from high above and balconies overlooking the Twin Spires, there was too much revenue opportunity to allow it to go to the media.
Last year, Churchill Downs announced that it was relocating reporters to make room for "The Mansion," billed as one of the most luxurious suite experiences in sports. The Mansion opened its doors for this Derby. Photos revealed it to be an upscale type of affair, in a three-star-hotel-lobby kind of way. If you could afford to be in the Mansion for the Derby, you certainly had much better of everything at home.
Reporters were moved to the first floor, seated at carrels like you might find in a library, with no view of the racetrack. The room doubles as a simulcast betting facility when not in use at Derby time, with the name, "The Parlay." In contrast with The Mansion, I liked to refer to it as "The Condo."
This is not, reader, a plea for sympathy. But I am a writer. My job is to go to the race and write what I see. What I saw this year was a study hall. The Kentucky Derby is a vibrant event that looks great on television and for one day a year and two glorious minutes captivates a nation that has long since left its sport behind.
But the soul of the event? From where I sit, it is waning. It has been for a while. And not just because of the move of a single press box. That's the least of it. I used to be reluctant to take on this subject because more than one person noted to me that I could often substitute for the words "Churchill Downs" the name of the paper I wrote for and make the same criticisms. The disregard for the loyal little guy. The cutting of corners. The slashing of traditional strongholds for budget purposes. If Churchill was turning its back on small-time owners and horseplayers, I wrote for a paper that had abandoned decades-long subscribers and readers in small towns who showed up to buy the Sunday paper only to find one day that there was none, that the owners had decided those readers weren't worth the cost to deliver the newspaper to them. Many of them, in fact, were my own family members.
I am under no such restriction any longer. As writers, we gravitate toward the best stories, whether it be those that can be told the best or those that will reach the most readers. Increasingly in American sports, those of us who write are being pushed to the periphery, and soon, will be out of it altogether, except for a select few, perhaps those whose outlets have paid for the privilege. An image that came to mind from Derby week -- when Rick Pitino arrived to watch his horse, two track officials shouted at the gathered reporters as if they were school children. They botched a story that had national appeal so badly that I was embarrassed for the place.
WHAS Radio originated the first broadcast of any kind of the Kentucky Derby in 1925, its race announcer calling the action from one of the windows of the Twin Spires. On Derby Day, 2013, WHAS Radio broadcast from a downstairs corner with a view of a wall in front of its position.
For a race that draws so much from its tradition, Churchill Downs shows an impressive disregard for it. It set a track record this year for not giving a damn, about a great many things, (insert your experience here). Now, I know there are a great many people there who do care. But sometimes, I've learned, it takes more than that. It takes the people at the very top to set the priorities.
Still, the race endures. It delivers, often. It is compelling in spite of everything. After Orb's stirring victory, owner and breeder Dinny Phipps sat in the post race news conference and the first thing he did was pay tribute to a reporter who had been nice to him as a young man attending his first Derby -- Furman Bisher of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Bisher died a little more than a year ago.
In the old press box, there were a series of framed photos of writers who had covered the race but passed away. Some of them I'd worked with. If the frames had still been hanging, Bisher's picture would've been on one this year, along with the greats, like Murray and Red Smith. But those are gone, probably in a closet somewhere, and certainly not on display where anyone who would appreciate them could see them.
In the end, none of this amounts to much. This isn't an angry rant, but a resigned description of the way things are. I have always watched the Derby on television. I needed to be down near the track when the race was over. I watched Louisville win its NCAA championship from a television in an Atlanta Convention Center press room a half-mile from the court, because the media seating was so high up I had trouble distinguishing players from each other. You deal with it. You do the best you can. All that matters is the finished story, and the obstacles are for you to deal with, not for the reader to deal with.
But just this once, less for myself than for others who have been covering these events for decades, I wanted to write about this.
At the Derby I thought about Bill Dwyre of the Los Angeles Times, in town to cover the race, as he always is. He was Murray's editor at the Times for many years. He doesn't have to come to Louisville. He has done it out of respect for the event. I thought about the whole state of things as he worked a couple of seats down from me in the study hall, watching on television. Money is the currency of choice. But it's not the signatures on checks that fill the history books about the race, nor the signature statements about the event that you'll find on the walls of The Kentucky Derby Museum, which thankfully safeguards and preserves all such things, and still respects their contribution to the race.
The Derby will go on. I am a Kentuckian by birth and rearing. The Derby will always be special. I know the vast majority of people don't care whether national writers come or not. The habits of news readers are changing, and it's less about the craft of telling the story than about how quickly you can get it posted and what kind of slant you bring to it. As access dwindles, everybody is writing the same things -- the stories that the event organizers want to present. Those of us who get tired of writing those things will seek out other avenues or events or topics to write about. And life and sports will go on.
But they will lose something in the transition. The Derby wouldn't be the Derby without the lore, the pageantry and yes, if you want to call it that, the poetic description the race has received over the years. Without that, the Derby will certainly move forward as an iconic event in American sports. It may well even make more money. But it will not, if it continues its current course, be richer.