In the Paddock

Sad news out of Central Kentucky this week with the passing of Denise Steffanus.

One of the most gifted, accurate, insightful and thorough writers in the Thoroughbred industry, Denise battled health issues over the years but never lost her sharp wit, edge, passion or direct approach. We worked together for several years at Thoroughbred Times, including the last few before the doors were closed when Denise wrote about everything from deworming and horse haircuts to fixing fences and spreading manure.

The latter topic produced the best two-word lead I’d ever seen and probably will ever see.

Denise being Denise summed up the topic as succinct as only she could.

“Manure happens.”

Truly one of a kind and an unapologetic original, Denise didn’t think twice about showing up do some writing or proofreading at Thoroughbred Times with t-shirts that read “My body isn’t a temple; it’s an amusement park” or “Relax! It’s just sex.”

We kept in touch since those Thoroughbred Times bankruptcy days, and Denise was one of the first to congratulate me on landing here at ST Publishing. Scrolling through old messages the other day before she passed and then again after I uncovered some gems to cherish forever.

“Congrats on the new job. I hope you’re happy about moving home, although we’ll miss you in Lexington. Now for the commercial: Please remember me when you’re making freelance assignments. I’m trying to claw my way out of the hole Norman dug for me. Peace, Denise.”

Our correspondence stayed fairly consistent the next few years, once or twice a year. She helped organize a reunion at Crestwood Farm in the fall of 2016 and, being someone who always followed up and paid attention to details, made sure my RSVP was included.

“Tom, you’re not on the TTimes reunion attendee list. I hope you’re still coming.”

Thankfully the event went off without a hitch and I was able to attend, and if memory serves right the last time I spoke to Denise in person.

Fast-forward two years and Denise earned the Eclipse Award for News/Enterprise Writing for a 2017 piece in Trainer magazine about drug contamination.  

“Hey, hey, congrats on winning the Eclipse Award! So happy for you, awesome to see such a pro be rewarded for fine work. It’s an honor to call you a colleague,” I wrote.

“Ahhhh, Tom. I’ve been waiting to hear from you, little brother. Weren’t we an awesome team?!! This Eclipse has just blown my mind. …I miss working with all of you. We were the best in the business. There will be more Eclipses from our family, I’m sure.”

We continued to chat back and forth that day, mostly me responding that it was a pleasure to work with her and thankful to count on accuracy, thoroughness, depth and multiple voices in her work. And a concession that “I didn’t always know what they were about but I knew they were useful and dependable.”

A bourbon toast was promised. Sadly we never got to it.

“I work well when people trust me and just turn me loose. I appreciated that confidence from you.”

Later that year Denise got word she’d been nominated for the Bill Mooney Award for displaying courage in the face of tremendous adversity from the National Turf Writers And Broadcasters. She didn’t win, acknowledged being a longshot and gave credit to the yet unnamed winner, Martine Bellocq, who was badly burned in a California barn fire.

“The trainer burned in the San Luis Rey fire is the most deserving,” she wrote. “I hope she was named the winner.”

Denise continued to write last year during the pandemic and into this year, while living and working on her farm in Cynthiana. She was a regular contributor to the Paulick Report and other publications, writing about veterinary and horse management topics that first sparked her interest as a pre-teen growing up in Pennsylvania.  In addition to her Eclipse Award, Denise earned the Michael E. DeBakey Journalism Award in 2011 from the Foundation for Biomedical Research and the 2002 Award for Media Excellence given by the predecessor of the U.S. Equestrian Federation.

Rest in peace my friend.

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