Racing needs to find a way back to the front page

was thinking of Kent Hollingsworth, one of the most thoughtful – and thought-provoking – turf writers ever, over the weekend. I think of him often, as a contemporary and close friend, although he left us 12 years ago at the age of 70. For sheer racing entertainment, his “Archjockey of Canterbury,” published in the mid-1980s, still ranks high, and his “What’s Going on Here?” column in Blood-Horse in the 1970s and 1980s was a weekly magnet for Thoroughbred racing fans.

One of Hollingsworth’s ardent admirers and disciples was Barry Irwin, whose Animal Kingdom slipped from Triple Crown eligibility at Pimlico on Saturday as he came from right field but could not catch the pacesetting Shackleford. He will, as he did in the Kentucky Derby, in the 1 1/2-mile Belmont.

Hollingsworth’s question – What’s going on here? – came to mind as I looked for the Preakness coverage in the sports section of The New York Times over the weekend.

At the top of the page in my edition was a line reading “Shackleford Holds On,” with a subhead reading “Animal Kingdom’s late charge falls short in Preakness, Page 3.” There was a small head-on picture of the finish.

The rest of the first page of the sports section, on the day after the second jewel of Thoroughbred racing’s Triple Crown, was a huge fawning feature called “Boy Genius,” which turned out to be about Lionel Messi, who was a boy a few years ago – he is now 23 – and is a hero in European soccer, where he plays for Barcelona in Spain. That coverage was followed by two full center section pages, with nine color photos, seven smaller color shots, and 17 color diagrams of the Boy Genius’ doings as soccer’s current Pele. A superstar.

As a long-suffering racing reader of the Times sports section, I could not recall any previous subject receiving basically three full pages, but the Times seems to be pushing soccer hard these days.

I found the Preakness story, as promised, on page 3, with another large full-page-width head-on shot of the finish, and two features, one a sidebar story on Pimlico’s new mythical promotional boozing figure Kegasus, and the other a nice feature on Kevin Plank, owner and renovator of Alfred G. Vanderbilt’s legendary Sagamore Farm.

Not bad, but it was strange relative coverage and placement of an American horse racing classic and a young European soccer hero. It recalled Hollingsworth’s resounding and repeated question.

Newspaper coverage of racing, other than the classic events, has eroded precipitously in the last two or three decades, and it should be a paramount expenditure of all racing interests to try to restore it with sports editors brought up on television.

That brings us to Irwin.

He was criticized in various racing circles for washing the industry’s dirty clothes in public, in the glare of national television, swept away in the exuberant belief that it was one of the few chances – perhaps the only one he will ever get – to help get the laundry clean before a nationwide audience.

I have long admired his consistent stand on integrity, from the days he absorbed Hollingsworth’s philosophy as one of his mentored young men. Part of that belief was a strong awareness of the dangers of illegal medication, a major contributor to the lack of public confidence in racing today.

Irwin is not the only one being lied to by trainers as he complained impulsively as an owner from the lofty platform provided by NBC, so are countless other owners, the sport, and the betting public, by the very small crew of cheating chemists who are cashing in big time on secrets locked in their tack trunks or their refrigerators, or in a few cases the back ends of the mobile caches of careless but noncaring vets.

Publicizing the minuscule number of positive tests, as racing organizations love to do, is indicative of nothing. If you can’t detect and identify the designer drugs some of these guys are using, of course there won’t be meaningful positives. That should be the thrust of racing’s effort to regain support, financial and moral, from the general public and great majority of honest horsemen and the owners of the horses they train, ride, and drive. Draconian rules on suspension and exclusion should be the start, and some glimmering beginnings are encouraging.

After two jewels of the Triple Crown, a word on NBC’s television coverage, seemingly based on that network’s belief that the more background noise the better. They also should catch up with available video technology – in current use at a number of tracks – that lets the viewing public in on what’s happening. Racing is a visual event, not an auditory one. NBC’s producers continue to utilize a paint-by-the-numbers approach, filling in the blanks from one year to the next. They should try for a little innovation. We’ve seen enough of the “walk over” with the same trite questions, and the vacuous Bob Neumeier-Mike Battaglia chats. They have a real talent in Gary Stevens, and it is wasted watching him responding briefly to Tom Hammond’s pleasant observations, rather than playing a starring role.