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On the Backside: Social media, sexual revolution transformed women turfwriters from pariahs to stars

by Mark Coomes

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The backside of a racetrack is the sanctum sanctorum of horse racing, and it was for ages a fraternity through and through – the equine equivalent of The Little Rascals’ infamous fellowship:

The He-Man Woman Hater’s Club.

The only fillies permitted to tread the hallowed ground owned four legs and weighed a thousand pounds.

Women were about as welcome as ticks and horseflies, especially if they practiced freedom of the press.

To wit, a brief history of distaff turfwriting:

• 1960s: Male horse trainer drives into the barn area of a Louisiana racetrack, makes daughters stay in the car. Same thing in Kentucky, Massachusetts and Illinois.

• 1970s: Pioneering journalist needs chivalrous male colleague to watch the door as she uses the men’s restroom. Because there is no women’s restroom in the press box at Keeneland Race Course.

• 1980s: Pioneering journalist No. 2 gets her car locked in a parking lot at Suffolk Downs near Boston. She’s not allowed to retrieve it. Her husband is.

• 2013: Only four metropolitan American newspapers employ full-time turfwriters. Half of them are women. And they don’t lack for company these days.

Molly Jo Rosen

“It’s a really cool time to be a woman in this business,” said Molly Jo Rosen, one of the few women clockers in the U.S.

You’ve come a long way, baby.

Yesterday at Churchill Downs, six days before the signature event in American racing, it was girls gone wild. Think Panama Beach with notepads and riding crops.

Women, women everywhere, as far as the eye can see, riding horses, clocking horses, training horses and most definitely reporting on horses.

Gloria Steinem would be proud.

“You couldn’t have a backside today without women,” said Jennie Rees, dean of the distaff set.

Rees, 56, has been the lead horse racing writer for The (Louisville) Courier-Journal since 1984. Back then, her only female colleague was a professional rival, Maryjean Wall of the Lexington Herald-Leader.

Wall was the Jackie Robinson of turfwriting, breaking the gender line in an informal but emphatic way. She’s the one who lacked a pot to pee in at Keeneland.

Rees was Larry Doby. She’s the one who couldn’t extract her own car.

Reporting from the heart of horse country, Rees and Wall showed a male-dominated industry that fillies could keep up with any colt in the Fourth Estate, each winning multiple Eclipse Awards for their writing and reporting.

Times changed. The backside still teems with gray-headed men, but these days there is a prominent pod of twenty- and thirtysomething women roaming the barn area during Derby week.

They are almost too numerous to name.

Alicia Wincze Hughes

Rees’ new rival at the Lexington newspaper is Alicia Wincze Hughes, 36. Rees’ new colleague is J.J. Hysell, a handicapper and reporter whose blog, In The Money, is a comprehensive, quick-read digest of the stakes-racing scene

Then there’s Claire Novak (The Blood Horse magazine), Amanda Duckworth (ESPN.com), Nicole Russo (Daily Racing Form), Dana Byerly (Raceday 360), Jessica Chapel (The Railbird blog) and Penelope Miller (The Jockey Club and American’s Best Racing).

On the TV side, there’s Donna Barton Brothers (NBC), Jeanine Edwards (ESPN), Maggie Wolfendale (New York Racing Association) and Horse Racing TV hosts Christina Olivares Blacker and Jill Byrne (also of Churchill Downs).

Claire Novak

Apologies to those who were overlooked. Please consider it a left-handed compliment to your sex and your cause. Women have become so plentiful in turf reporting that their presence is no longer an anomaly.

Or window dressing.

It’s fairly amazing that horse racing, an anachronism is so many ways, is on the leading edge of this genderfication trend. Women reporters on the Derby backstretch are still outnumbered by men at least 3 to 1, but the percentage of female reporters at Churchill Downs this week is larger than that which covered the Final Four three weeks ago.

It’s said that the arc of the universe bends toward justice, and the sexual composition of the turf media crowd is trending that way, too. But there’s still a ways to go.

One woman, I’m told, was recently offered a writing job for less money than her departing male colleague. Another woman left a TV racing network because her bosses refused bring her salary in line with male co-workers.

Progress is incremental but at least it’s being made. Equal opportunity does exist – if not always equal pay.

“If you’re good at what you do and demonstrate a strong work ethic and a passion for the job, you’ll be on equal footing as far as applying for a job,” Novak said.

The blogosphere and social media have provided a platform for racing aficionadas to make their voice heard. Rosen was a relatively obscure young clocker until her Focused Filly blog was linked in The New York Times’ racing blog, called The Rail.

“Social media have given new voice to this group of women who always liked the game and always loved the animal,” Rosen said. “It’s given us a venue to show our expertise.”

This just in: Men and women are different. Turf writing is no exception.

The leading male turfwriters – Andrew Beyer, Steven Crist and the like – view the sport through the lucre-tinted glasses of parimutuel wagering. Who’s going to win and how much are they going to pay?

They appreciate the game’s history and romance but write from an unsentimental, even mercenary, point of view.

The testosteronic perspective sees race horses as abstractions whose relative abilities are best expressed in the hieroglyphs of a past performance chart. The estrogen crowd relishes the living, breathing animals – their distinctive quirks, markings and mannerisms.

When Novak or Wincze Hughes needs a pick-me-up, they drive to the residence of Wise Dan, reigning horse of the year, and pet his nose for a while.

Rosen not only notices exercise ponies, she has crushes on a few. Male turfwriters are scarcely aware those critters exist.

Then again, most male turfwriters have never ridden a horse and don’t care to try. Most women, however, started riding as children and still ride today.

Novak, Wincze Hughes and Rosen rode show horses, and it taught them to understand that race horses aren’t mere running machines.

Which is not to say they are immune to making a buck off the beasts they cover.

“I like to make money through the windows as much as anyone,” Rosen said. “But when that alarm goes at four in the morning and I look at my watch and scream ‘Why?’ I grab this list I keep of the really cool horses that are waiting out there. That’s what makes me get out of bed in the morning.”

Wincze Hughes learned the game from her dad, growing up in the Connecticut suburbs of New York City and attending the Belmont and Travers Stakes every year. She could handicap a whole card at Yonkers Raceway, a harness track, at age 10.

But as years passed, she grew less interested in numbers and more interested in physical subtleties, such as the way horses respond to the way a rider holds his hands.

“It’s more interesting,” she said, “than judging a race by looking at the Sheets figures.”

Her colleagues agree. The female ones anyway.

Beyer, whose eponymous speed figures changed the way Americans handicap horses races, epitomizes the male turfwriter who scribbles from an unapologetically subjective point of view. It’s all about who to bet, how much to bet and whether that bet paid off.

Take for example the famously bitter and hysterically hyperbolic lead Beyer wrote for his column on a 1991 race at Pimlico:

When historians are chronicling examples of the folly and perversity of mankind during the 20th century, they will start with this list:

1. Vietnam.

2. Keith Allen’s ride on Sintra in the Black-Eyed Susan Stakes.

Beyer lost his bet. Can you tell?

You won’t read that kind of copy from the estrogen posse.

They are a tight-knit group who shout out to each other on Twitter with the notation #racinggirls.

Their motto:

Readin’ Charts and Breakin’ Hearts.

They fight for scoops like a man but make no bones about their femininity.

“Sometimes between races,” Wincze Hughes said, “we’ll talk about where we got our Derby dresses and, ‘Hey, where’d you get your shoes?’ ”

Being a distaff turfwriter has its challenges. A big one looms Wednesday, a long day’s journey into night that begins with a pre-dawn reveille to gather quotes on the backside, followed by the post position draw in the afternoon, followed by the media party that evening.

“You really have to plan,” Novak said. “You need shoes that can get dirty for the backside, then a dress and heels for the post draw then another dress and a different pair of heels for the press party.”

Novak interrupted the interview to correct her manicurist. This was a first. When Beyer talks Derby to me, he’s never getting his nails done.

The #racinggirls are a new breed and proud of it: smart young women who could work fewer hours and make more money if they chose.

But there’s really no choice at all. It’s Derby week and they are spinning at the center of the only universe they care to occupy.

“None of us are doing this for the glamour and the paycheck,” Wincze Hughes said. “We are doing this because we love it. If you don’t love it, you are not going to last.”

Wincze Hughes softly exhaled, a semi-sigh. It was only 9:30 a.m. and she’d been on the clock for hours.

It was only Monday – it is Monday, right? – and a megaton of work stands between now and the singing of “My Old Kentucky Home.”

Sleep no more, my lady.

“There are many times you have to remind yourself why you do this,” she said.

“This right here, this week, this is why.”

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  • Jean Chodkowski

    As the first female to write a book on handicapping, I can only say that my experience shows there are certain areas of racing media shunned to women, handicapping being one of them. Yes, there are more women reporting on the sport; however, keeping this status quo is not achieving gender equality. We need to advance further upon the base that has formed.

  • Jean Chodkowski

    As the first female to write a book on handicapping, I can only say that my experience shows there are certain areas of racing media shunned to women, handicapping being one of them. Yes, there are more women reporting on the sport; however, keeping this status quo is not achieving gender equality. We need to advance further upon the base that has formed.

  • Guest

    One of the very FEW actors of the modern era that was truly great. Sopranos was not a show I watched but I did watch the movie “The Last Castle” in which he starred with Robert Redford. Great performance from both actors in that one and they both fed off the good guy/bad buy conflict very well. Too bad he wasn’t in more good films like that as he had that special talent to make you suspend reality for awhile.

  • Moira

    “…It was girls gone wild. Think Panama Beach with notepads and riding crops. Women, women everywhere, as far as the eye can see..”

    Seriously? Why does the strong female PROFESSIONAL presence have to conjure up an image of pornography?

    And, “you’ve come a long way, baby.” Why can’t we just recognize women’s accomplishments without throwing in “baby” at the end of the sentence? Whether or not it is intended to be endearing, it’s patronizing, especially in the context of this article.

    I appreciate the sentiments, but it may be time for you to reevaluate your language.