Defining Moments

Last Thursday night, Gelf Magazine celebrated the fifth anniversary of its Varsity Letters series. Monthly, the magazine hosts an evening of readings by sports writers of all stripes, boasting such alums as Joe Drape of The New York Times, Will Leitch of New York magazine and founder of Deadspin, and Amy Nelson of ESPN.  The anniversary evening gathered 14 writers who had appeared at past events to speak/read for three minutes about their “defining moment” in sports.

The stories were a mix of the personal and the professional: Jeff Pearlman of told of run-ins with Will Clark of the San Francisco Giants, and a sense of schadenfreude at seeing an older, fatter, largely irrelevant Clark in training camp some years later; Dan Shanoff, the founder of the Varsity Letters series whose work has appeared in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and on, related how he came to found and the day that he first met his hero; freelance writer/editor Emma Span of ESPN, author of 90% of the Game is Half Mental, by turns amused and repelled the audience with tales of baseball “fan fiction” and imagined sex between the sport’s superstars.

Baseball memories and experiences featured prominently; I heard stories of college football and coaching children and professional basketball.  No one mentioned horse racing.

Michael Weinreb, author of Bigger Than the Game and a contributor to,, and the New York Times, talked about Joe Paterno, in an awed, almost elegiac way, in a piece that ultimately identified Joe Pa’s anachronistic idiosyncrasies as the very stuff of his legend, the reasons that we should idolize, and not gently, indulgently consider him a vestige of a time gone by.

It was exactly the sort of thing that I might write about Allen Jerkens.

And as I listened, often mesmerized, for several wonderful hours, to the series of speakers, I thought to myself, “How great would it to hear _______ [fill in the blank with the name of your favorite turf writers] read here? How great would it be to hear their stories, their ‘defining moments’?”

The audience, as enthralled as I, reveled in the writing and the personalities and the stories; they reacted most powerfully, though at the mention of the familiar: a particular game, a player (favored or detested), a team. Those moments built the bridge between reader and listener, those moments of identification and connection.

And I realized that I could never stand up there and talk about Allen Jerkens, because no one in that room would have any idea who I was talking about.

And it wouldn’t be just me: Steven Crist, Maryjean Wall, Bill Nack – name a turf writer. Oh, a few people might get Secretariat, and maybe a few would get Zenyatta. But given the 20-something vibe of the crowd, you could forget Easy Goer, Sunday Silence, Affirmed, Alydar, Ruffian. I doubt that even the relatively recent Smarty Jones would have evoked more than a look of puzzlement.

Racing, no less than other sports, has its share of stories and storytellers; I’d like to think, given the sport’s history, that it’s got more. But on Thursday night, I realized something that I suppose I already knew: that the audience for those stories is frighteningly small, the core group of storytellers even smaller, and that we speak a language that’s dying. We seldom get to feel that camaraderie so beautifully present that night. Maybe that’s why we love the track so much: it’s the only time we get to be around people who understand our “defining moments.”

Thanks to Gelf for carrying on this series for five years, and I hope those of you in the area will consider coming to the next Varsity Letters event, on March 3; that evening will feature Sports Illustrated’s tennis writer Jon Wertheim and former Baltimore Sun writer John Eisenberg, author of four books about racing, including two I recommend enthusiastically: Native Dancer: The Grey Ghost: Hero of A Golden Age and The Great Match Race.

11 thoughts on “Defining Moments

  1. this is probably more Apples to Oranges than anything else, but when you say,”and that we speak a language that’s dying” it reminds me that both my daughters study Latin in school. That’s a language that has been considered a dead one more many years, yet it’s still taught at the MS and HS levels. And it’s always great when some of the great sports writers of our time are asked to recall some of their favorite events that they have covered and it almost always includes the coverage of a particular Kentucy Derby or a special prize fight from MSG. There is still a thread of horseracing in the American fiber, although your point about how small our community has become and why we do enjoy sharing time together with like minded souls at the track, and now on Twitter, is such an accurate one.

  2. This one really hits home Teresa. The old guys in my neighborhood bar that knew and loved racing are mostly gone. (So’s the bar, actually). That’s why I always look forward to Belmont weekend. For the last 10-12 years, on the Friday before the big day, I’ve spent full afternoons with the likes of Haskin, Shulman, Hammonds, Nack, Paulick, Volponi, Liebman, and so many others who speak that dying language. It’s only 4 months away! You MUST be there. If necessary, I’ll send a limo for you.

    And Will Clark will NEVER be irrelevant to this demented Giant fan.

  3. Great point, BrooklynSaint, about the popularity of Twitter among racing fans and the community it provides. I was talking to people about that just recently.

    DJLoo: I’m always at the Belmont. I started going with my brother in 2004, and I’ve worked it for the last couple of years. One of my favorite days, no matter who’s racing.

  4. Wow! Teresa, a lot to digest from your article today. First, I believe very strongly that we are in a very select area of the sporting world. That doesn’t mean that our sport is not relevant or important. Not everyone has been exposed to/educated about our sport. Nonetheless, we recognize what a great sport it is. I consider you a great communicator. You have an incredible talent for both, describing and detailing horseracing stories, to inspire and awe those of us, who enjoy the sport as much as you do. I have the utmost faith, that you would be a wonderful presenter at the Varsity Letters series, doing what you love to do and, something that you do incredibly well. Others can only benefit from listening to a great presenter/communicator like yourself. We know it, others will too. The sport of horseracing cannot help but benefit.

    Two articles that awed me and, left me shaking my head, including one that involved the great H. Allen Jerkens. I don’t know if you read or saw them? Two great trainers and two great stories. How could anyone, even those not entirely familiar with the sport of horseracing, not be impressed?


  5. If you really want to feel like an alien, try talking harness racing sometime. My cousin thought Carmine Abbatiello was the mob guy they whacked in the barber’s chair.

  6. August Song, The Unbeatable Horse is terrific story. We don’t have great old stories like in Haskin’s article anymore. Why, horse racing today in this country is a different sport from those days. The training and racing feats those great old horses displayed are gone forever. Most of todays horses and trainers are pretenders. 5 races in 5 weeks and current horses would be toast. Just think of the damage Prove Out would have done in Saturdays G1 Donn.

  7. Teresa, There is something you oould have written about Allen Jerkins if he had been the trainer of Big Brown. The horse would have won the Triple Crown. When Big Brown needed a trainer to help him through a bad patch, the Giant Killer would have made it happen.

  8. As always, August, thanks for the resources that you always take the time to track down. A great read indeed.

    Having grown up around the harness track, DJLoo, I’d have to agree with you there.

    Bob, it would certainly be welcome to see Allen Jerkens with another Big Horse.

  9. Teresa, You know what is a really nifty sight while watching hockey. When all the skaters are swarming in one location and there are gloves strewn all over the ice.

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