Cup of Coffee: Writer Up

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Jay Hovdey walked into the Mt. Washington Tavern two days before the Preakness, ordered a Guinness and tossed me his book, Long Rein, Tales from the World of Horse Racing.

I’ve been reading it ever since. Never more than three pages at a time, drone strikes into the last 15 years of Thoroughbred racing. 

To his count, Hovdey has written more than 2,500 columns and a “bushel basket” of long-form pieces for Daily Racing Form. He and editor Frank Scatoni picked 81 to include in the book.

I’ve read most of them before, in the moment, when emotions were raw, memories still forming. Stealing 10 minutes between sets from Dad’s Form spread across the tack-room counter or from under a bowl of cereal in a rental on Lake Avenue or read aloud by a girlfriend as we drove to the races.

I’ll admit it, there were times when I wished I had written them. I don’t say that very often. Well, I don’t admit that very often. Of course Hemingway, man, I wish I could write like Hemingway. Red Smith and Gary Smith. And Kerouac…oh hell, nobody could write like Kerouac. When it comes to racing, I’ve said it most often when reading Hovdey, when he provided a semblance of order to a disorderly game.

Still, for the most part, Zenyatta’s impact has been that of a steadily rising tide, with no ebb in sight. Her fans have come to terms with the fact that there is no splashy Triple Crown appearance decorating her record, no daring trip to Dubai, no significant shifts in surface, distance, or, for that matter, weather. In some ways, Zenyatta’s career has been a controlled experiment, or at least as controlled an experiment as possible when dealing with the chaos inherent in the handling of a Thoroughbred racehorse.

For a writer, reading isn’t free. You can’t help but think about how a writer came up with that angle, how he mined that insight from an impenetrable subject, why the story went one direction instead of the other, how it was written so quickly but so accurately, how your best stuff measures up. Sometimes, indeed, you wish you wrote it. 

In his own manner, insistent and steady, the Thoroughbred known as John Henry has been every bit as important to his own constituency as are the great leaders of human civilization. He was a performer of unflinching honesty, generous in victory, gallant in defeat. Horse racing could count on John Henry, year after year, to put the game in headlines and people in the seats.

The first time was when Hovdey wrote about jockey Mark Johnston, involved in a tragic spill, every hard-chosen word showed the pain and strain of being a jockey. I wished I had written those words, I called up Rich Rosenbush, editor of the Form at the time, and asked him for a job. The Johnston story is not included in the collection and that’s as close to a brook critic as I’ll get. Hovdey did include the story on jockey J. C. Gonzalez, killed at Fairplex Park September 9, 1999, which sums up every fall, every injury, every death from horseback. Having hit the ground and wondered – in real time – if I was going to live or die, reading about 23-year-old jockey J. C. Gonzalez made me look at the sky.

On Friday at Fairplex Park, J. C. Gonzalez was named to ride Service Term in the first Thoroughbred race of the day. Iggy Puglisi filled in and rode Service Term to a two-length victory, then wiped a tear from his eye as he entered the winner’s circle and joined in the ceremony of a remembrance. In the fifth race Friday, Gonzalez would have ridden a horse named Ayer Hoy Manana. It means “yesterday today tomorrow.”

When Eddie Gregson died in 2000, I was struggling with what I thought were demons. Knowing the publishing schedule of the Form, I waited, preparing for Hovdey’s words. Hovdey somehow put eloquence and insight into Gregson’s suicide, I was glad I didn’t have to write those words. It was the first one I read, just to get it over with.

The Mercedes was clearly parked in a hurry. The wheels are still raked hard to the left where the driver made his turn into the lot. The interior of the car is practically empty, save for a bottle of water in the backseat, racetrack dust on the floor mats, and a black-and-white 5×7 photograph, propped on the console behind the gearshift knob, depicting a show-jump rider being pitched head over heels from the top of a reluctant horse.

“Eddie loved that picture,” said Trudy McCaffery, one of Eddie Gregson’s best friends. “Whenever he was having a bad day, he would look at the photo and be reminded that it was never going as bad as it was for the guy in the picture.”

Last Sunday, it got that bad.

Whether it’s the pain of Antley, Gonzalez and Gregson or the joy of Frankel (horse and man), Affirmed and Zenyatta, or the stories of Nerud, Jerkens and Shoemaker, Hovdey delivers with 81 jaunts through Thoroughbred racing. Most of them, I wish I wrote. I can’t give a higher compliment.