Joe Drape describes himself on his Twitter page as “New York Times reporter, author, horseplayer.”
“My dad taught me how to read the Form when I was a kid. I’m from Kansas City, and once or twice a year, I’d go with him to Ak-sar-ben or Oaklawn. I went to college in Dallas, and I’d get to Oaklawn a couple of times of year. When I was the national correspondent for the Atlanta Constitution, I was on the road a lot. Some people play golf; I went to the track. I’ve been to over 100.
“Handicapping for me is like doing the crossword puzzle for some people. It’s an incredibly cerebral exercise. I get totally relaxed, totally immersed in the Form. I love the game.”
What Drape’s brief Twitter profile doesn’t convey is the depth of his enthusiasm and affection for racing. He’s a horseplayer and he’s a journalist, and he’s also a fan, of the horses and the history and the stories at the track; each of these elements of Drape’s involvement with racing was evident in a recent conversation with him. Following a Brooklyn reading for his latest book, Our Boys: A Perfect Season on the Plains with the Smith Center Redmen, Drape agreed to talk about racing, the state of the game, and his coverage of it.
Drape has covered racing for the Times since 2000; while no longer a daily beat, racing continues to appear regularly in the paper’s pages, and in April of 2008, Drape and his Times colleagues launched The Rail, a website that is active during the Triple Crown season and that publishes several pieces daily from a variety of contributors. (Full disclosure: shortly after the site was launched, Drape invited me to be one of those contributors.)
Both Drape and the Times have been criticized in recent months for what some racing fans see as prejudiced coverage of the sport and a tendency to highlight what is wrong with racing while ignoring the sport’s more celebrated moments. Days before this year’s Belmont Stakes, the Times ran a piece in which Drape explored the lack of necropsies done in New York on horses that have died on the state’s racetracks, and criticism, particularly on the Internet, came fast and furious.
Drape stands by the decision to write it, the decision to publish it, and the timing. “It’s astounding that the NTRA is out there accrediting the tracks for safety and no one’s done a necropsy in New York for decades. They’ve been mandatory in California since the mid-90’s.
“Why did I do the story then? Because it was relevant, and because that’s the only time of year that people are paying attention to racing, the only time that there’s a wider audience.”
He is quick to point out that the story was only one of many in the Times that week about racing and about the Belmont. “I had stories all week about the race. To say that we didn’t cover the race isn’t true. There was plenty of coverage of the race itself.” (A list of Times stories about the Belmont follows.)
Now the Times’ primary racing writer, Drape didn’t begin his career as a sports journalist at the track; his original beat was college sports. Freelancing for the Times in Dallas in 1997, he did a story on the bush tracks of Louisiana; a year later he moved to New York to cover the college beat full-time.
“Joe Durso was the racing writer and he was getting ready to retire. There’s a steep learning curve in writing about racing; you can’t just toss somebody in who doesn’t know anything about the sport. So I did second chair for the Charismatic story, and by 2000 the beat was mine.
“I never thought I’d be a turf writer; I never aspired to it. I got lucky.”
Even while racing was not a major part of Drape’s professional life, it still played an important role for him personally. Drape’s father, who is from the Hudson Valley, went to Saratoga frequently when he was growing up. As his father once brought Drape to the races, now Drape took his father to weekend excursions to the Spa. “I’d come up on Sundays and I’d take him to the track. We always had a great time there,” Drape recalled.
“In 1997, we were on the roof of the press box, watching a turf race. My dad was going in for surgery in a few days. He looked at me and said, ‘I didn’t raise any bums.’ He had five kids, and he died 12 days later. It was his ‘ready to go’ moment.
And Drape’s doing his bit to instill in his own son a love for racing. “Saratoga’s always been special to me. My five-year-old son has been to Saratoga every meet of his life. He was born in February, and my wife deferred her maternity leave until the summer so that we could be in Saratoga. When parents start bringing their kids to race, it’s all over. Some of the issues give people ammunition to not bring their kids, but when they do, it’s all over.”
As for Saratoga: “It’s my favorite place in the world.”
Talk of a favorite track leads to talk of favorite racing moments. “I love seeing the races,” he says energetically. “Look at my Derby lede. I was deeply moved by Mine That Bird’s Race. Zenyatta. I thought Rachel Alexandra was hands down Horse of the Year. Then I see Zenyatta, and she’s spectacular. She beat as deep a field as has been assembled this year.”
Discussion of the 2009 Horse of the Year reminds Drape of Invasor, 2006 Horse of the Year. “Before this year, Invasor was the best horse I had ever seen up close, the best horse I ever covered. I still think he’s under-appreciated. I always had the sense that he’d win, he was so professional.
“The easy part is writing about the horses. There’s nothing better than writing about horses and a hell of a horse race.”
His enthusiasm does not, however, blind him to the issues that plague racing, issues on which he regularly sheds light in his reporting. “Is it hard to be a fan? It’s frustrating to see the same problems, the solutions discussed, the same lack of action come up over and over. We’ve been talking about drugs for decades; we’ve been talking about animal welfare for decades. Most people in the game do want what’s best for athletes, though that may not be as true as it always was.”
Drape acknowledges that one of racing’s fundamental challenges is being attractive and transparent to two widely disparate groups: the 30 million people identified as casual fans and the three million horseplayers who keep the game solvent.
“Transparency is needed with both groups. The casual fan is amazed and disturbed by the medications that horses need and take to get to track. Look at the case of I Want Revenge and his scratch in the Derby. Read the report: the vets involved didn’t think that the betting public should know what was going on, and that’s offensive to the core fan.”
Despite the criticism that he’s taken online, Drape is an outspoken fan of Internet racing writers. “I think bloggers are tremendous. I read them every day, we feature them on The Rail, and I learn from them. That said, I have the same standards for them that I have for myself: clarity, accuracy, fairness. You want to talk about what I’ve written and what I think? Get in touch. I’m on Twitter and e-mail; I’ve got a website. It’s not as though I’m not accessible.”
So what should racing do to address its problems? Drape offers two suggestions. “Less is more. We can’t race 365 days a year. I like the European model: festival meets for a few weeks or month; horses move around to different meets, then get turned out to be horses out for 3-4 months. And we should adopt international standards for drugs and medications.
“I understand that both of these are easier said than done; I know that horsemen rely on some of the winter meets, as do people in the corollary industries. But racing is a business like any other: if there’s no market for a product, you provide less of it. Nobody is guaranteed a living.”
This is Joe Drape the reporter, who can turn a critical and objective eye on the sport he loves, fully cognizant of his responsibility as a journalist. “My job is not to promote the sport; I’m a journalist, and my job is to report on issues that the industry and readers are talking about and are interested in. What I write about are issues that are discussed by vets and owners and others in the industry. This is not a one-man crusade.”
As the conversation winds down, Joe Drape the racing fan returns to his fascination with the sport. “Racing was America’s first sport, the only sport with a franchise run out of the White House. Andrew Jackson had a stable when he was president. It goes back to our roots as competitors, as simple as ‘My horse is faster than your horse.’
“Only four sportswriters have won Pulitzer Prizes, and all of them wrote, at some point, about horse racing. Horse racing was very much a part of their stable. Racing lends itself to pathos and beauty and humor and characters. You show up and everybody will talk to you. That doesn’t happen in other sports.”
And on this afternoon, Drape the fan gets the last word. His response when asked his opinion about the best sports venue? “Any track, any day.”
Joe Drape’s books on racing include
American Black Maestro: The Epic Life of an American Legend, a biography of jockey Jimmy Winkfield; and The Race for the Triple Crown: Horses, High Stakes, and Eternal Hope. He edited a collection of New York Times articles about racing, To The Swift: Triple Crown Horses and Their Race for Glory.
His most recent book is Our Boys: A Perfect Season on the Plains with the Smith Center Redmen. Glenn Altschuler reviewed the book for National Public Radio; you can also read an excerpt.
More information about Our Boys can be found at Drape’s website.
Coverage of racing in the New York Times from June 1st to June 7th, 2009:
“Mine That Bird Is a Favorite for the Belmont, but Charitable Man Is Drawing Attention,” Joe Drape
“Sports of the Times; Rest is More Important than Rivalry,” George Vescey
“Mine That Bird, Belmont Favorite, Still Has Doubters,” Joe Drape
“New York Lags in Exams for Dead Horses,” Joe Drape
“Validation and Celebrity Along the Triple Crown Path,” Joe Drape
“Mind That Bling,” Melissa Hoppert
“Sports Business; A Focus on Horses Keeps a Daily Paper from Online Anxiety,” Richard Sandomir
“At Belmont, Dunkirk Gets Second Chance to Prove His Worth,” Bill Finley
“Op-Ed Contributor, Horse Sense,” Sean Clancy
“Summer Bird Ends Borel’s Quest for a Sweep,” Joe Drape
“A Year Later, a Jockey Finds the Right Horse,” Bill Finley
“Next Up: Summer Blockbusters,” Joe Drape
“Cheering Section; Giving Racing More Exposure and Permanence,” Ryan Goldberg
“The Rail,” multiple contributors