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Friday, May 3, 2013

Billy Reed: It’s possible to justify eliminating Churchill pressbox, but it still seems wrong

The trademark twin spires still are in place at Louisville’s Churchill Downs, home of the Kentucky Derby, but when America’s most famous thoroughbred race is run for the 139th time on Saturday, there will be no pressbox high atop the grandstand. Up in Inkstained Wretch Heaven, the ghosts of Grantland Rice, Damon Runyon, Red Smith and other iconic sports columnists surely are pounding out words of outrage and disbelief.

The former pressbox overlooking the finish line, which was named in honor of the late Daily Racing Form columnist Joe Hirsch, has been converted into “The Mansion,” a sort of super-luxury suite where the filthy rich can watch the race for a mere minimum of $7,000 per patron. The media has been relocated to a windowless, ground-level room deep in the track’s bowels. The only way to see the Derby from there is to watch the NBC telecast on a bank of TV sets – which, to be honest, is how many golf writers have covered major events for years.

For the crusty old-timers who still insist on seeing a Derby horse in the flesh, the track is providing a few seats in Section 322, just across from the eighth pole (the marker which lets jockeys know the finish line is an eighth of a mile away). From those seats, however, the view of the backstretch is obstructed by the tents and temporary grandstands set up in the infield. And it’s impossible to see what happens in the race’s final 100 yards, where many Derbies have been decided.

It’s not likely that Churchill’s decision will be the beginning of a trend. Despite the decline of newspapers and their influence, pressboxes will remain a fixture at baseball parks, football stadiums and NASCAR tracks. In basketball, however, it’s a different story. At the recent NCAA Final Four in Atlanta, the courtside seats assigned to the media were reduced from more than 200 to 70 to make way for students and high rollers. It makes for better TV to have cheering bodies in those seats instead of placid sportswriters.

Industry organizations such as the National Turf Writers Association and the U.S. Basketball Writers Association have argued that diminished press facilities and access will damage the quality of their reporting. That may be true, but the fact is that Churchill Downs and the NCAA don’t really care about newspapers or magazines or even Internet bloggers. They care only about the TV partners who pay exorbitant fees for the rights to their events – and that seems to be just fine with the general public. That leaves only sentimentalists and romantics to defend old-fashioned journalism.

What’s most interesting about the demise of the Churchill Downs pressbox is that journalists played an integral role in building the Derby. Back in the 1920s, when the Derby was struggling to carve out its niche on the American sports landscape, the most influential opinion-makers in the nation were the syndicated sports columnists based in New York. (One of them, Bill Corum, invented the phrase “Run for the Roses” and later served a term as president of Churchill Downs).

Understanding this reality, Col. Matt Winn, the erstwhile haberdasher who ran Churchill Downs from 1902 until his death in 1949, decided the best way to hype his event was to wine and dine the likes of Rice, Runyon, Corum, Smith, and the others. So in the winter, Winn would go to New York, set up shop in a suite at the Waldorf-Astoria, and proceed to ply the big-name columnists with whatever their hearts desired.

His strategy proved to be an unqualified success. The Derby joined the World Series, heavyweight championship boxing matches and college football bowl games as a “must” event for every columnist worth his weight in mint juleps. Over the years, as the sports world expanded, so did the Derby press corps. The stars from New York were joined by the likes of Jim Murray of the Los Angeles Times, Blackie Sherrod of the Dallas Times-Herald, Edwin Pope of The Miami Herald, Whitney Tower of Sports Illustrated and Shirley Povich of The Washington Post.

The writers loved to cover the Derby because they had much more access to the participants than they did in other sports, because horse racing is a gold mine of human-interest stories, and, of course, because of the good times provided by management. In 1955, Sports Illustrated even hired the immortal novelist William Faulkner to do an essay on the Derby. Today his piece and another by Louisville native Hunter S. Thompson (“The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and Depraved”) are considered literary classics.

This cozy relationship between Churchill Downs and the nation’s media continued into the 1970s. But soon after Affirmed became the sport’s 11th – and most recent – Triple Crown winner in 1978, it became obvious that horse racing’s popularity had been damaged severely by competition from other forms of legalized gambling and the rise of the NFL, NBA, NASCAR and other sports entities. The heirs to Rice, Runyon and Smith began skipping the Derby in favor of NBA playoff games. And when newspapers began shriveling and dying, the first cut in the sports department often was the turf writer. Today only four or five papers in the nation still have reporters who cover racing fulltime.

From a strictly business standpoint, then, it’s possible to justify Churchill’s decision to eliminate the pressbox. If there is little or no press, in the traditional sense, why not use that space to enhance the bottom line? Still, it seems fundamentally wrong that serious journalists no longer will be able to watch the entire event with their naked eyes or through binoculars. As long as newspapers still exist, readers should be entitled to first-hand accounts unfiltered by the TV lens.

But that horse seems to be out of the barn, so to speak, and an equally significant change may be on the horizon. A few years ago Churchill Downs erected lighting stanchions around the track and began night racing on an experimental basis. The experiment has been greeted so warmly by the public that it seems only a matter of time before the Derby will be run in prime time.

Which, of course, begs the question of whether the lyrics of Stephens Collins Foster’s haunting anthem will be changed to, ‘Oh, the moon shines bright on my old Kentucky home.”

Billy Reed is a member of the U.S. Basketball Writers Hall of Fame, the Kentucky Journalism Hall of Fame, the Kentucky Athletic Hall of Fame and the Transylvania University Hall of Fame. He has been named Kentucky Sports Writer of the Year eight times and has won the Eclipse Award twice. Reed has written about a multitude of sports events for over four decades, but he is perhaps one of media’s most knowledgeable writers on the Kentucky Derby, Kentucky’s spectacular annual event.



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