01/14/2016 3:14PM

Hovdey: Rees follows Pharoah out at top of the game


There is something to be said for going out on top. No danger of the dreary second novel, the tepid second season, the uninspired second album. Sure, every artist would love to have a career with long legs, like Dylan or Bowie, forever leaving fans with the anticipation of “what’s next?” But there is something to be said for the way artists like James Dean, Jimi Hendrix, or Hank Williams were gone at the peak of their powers, the way great athletes like Jim Brown, Sandy Koufax, or Secretariat left the stage on top.

This is a wordy way of confessing that maybe it’s not so bad that the racing game is saying goodbye to American Pharoah. After all, how do you improve on what he did in 2015? Answer: You don’t.

And what a grand goodbye it will be, with the American Pharoah theme permeating the atmosphere of the 45th Eclipse Awards dinner at Gulfstream Park on Saturday night. There is a good chance that American Pharoah’s people will wear a groove in the floor going back and forth to the podium to accept awards for owner, breeder, and trainer, a divisional championship, and Horse of the Year. American Pharoah will be the featured player in the NTRA’s Moment of the Year. He was the star of NBC’s Eclipse Award-winning broadcast of the Belmont Stakes, and he is the subject of both Eclipse Award-winning photographs, by Michael Clevenger and Scott Serio.

At the other end of the spectrum, far from being a one-year wonder, the Eclipse Awards will be honoring an individual whose remarkable staying power and sustained excellence over a significant span of racing history have been a hallmark of her profession.

Jennie Rees had been covering Thoroughbred racing for the Louisville Courier-Journal for barely five years when she won her first Eclipse Award in 1988. Thank goodness she kept going.

If she had stopped then and turned to one of her other true loves – football or basketball – the Kentucky native would not have won additional Eclipse Awards in 1993, 2008, 2011, or again in 2015 for her inspiring story about Eclipse Award-winning trainer Dale Romans and his battle with learning disabilities.

It will be a moving moment when Rees takes the stage Saturday night because 2015 marked the end of her career with the Courier-Journal. Along with several other members of the C-J’s staff, Rees took a buyout that guaranteed her a year’s pay, an offer that she could not in good conscience refuse.

“Being around the racetrack so much and around the barn with Pat, I just decided at this point in my life, being 58, I wanted to be more a part of the racetrack world than the journalism world,” Rees said. “I think of it as a great opportunity to try and reinvent myself.”

The “Pat” to which Rees referred is her husband of 25 years, Pat Dupuy, who trains a public stable based at Churchill Downs. At this time of year, Dupuy is in New Orleans, where Rees was reached this week before heading to Florida and the Eclipse Awards.

Rees looks upon this latest honor as the cherry on top of a recent flood of recognition by her peers. For 2013, the National Sportscasters and Sportswriters Association named her the Kentucky Sports Writer of the Year. In 2014, Rees was added to the Joe Hirsch Honor Roll at the National Museum of Horse Racing and Hall of Fame. And now her Eclipse Award for 2015 places her in rarefied air. Only the legendary Bill Nack has won more.

Having won Eclipse Awards in four different decades, Rees has ridden a roller coaster of evolution in the newspaper business. Her first winning feature, about life behind the scenes at the D. Wayne Lukas stable, was published in the Courier-Journal’s former Sunday magazine and printed by the time-consuming rotogravure process.

“In those days, you had one deadline, and that was it,” Rees said. “You could work on other stories, take time when you needed to. Now, with social media and live Web updates, everybody has to do so much that they can’t spend three days on a good story. I wasn’t burnt out, but it was a relief to not have to think that somebody might tweet something at 9:30 tonight, and I’m going to be expected to react.

“Other than this award being a complete surprise, one of the things that pleases me about winning this time is that it shows there is a place for the old-school journalism,” Rees said. “You work a beat, you get to know people, and they feel comfortable talking to you. They trust you with things they normally might not want to share.

“It’s disconcerting that I won’t be replaced by a full-time racing writer,” Rees added. “But that is the national trend. If you are not interested in horse racing, you’re not following the people who are tweeting about horse racing. So, where are you going to create new fans if racing disappears from mainstream media?”

Rees said she is determined, in the course of her reinvention, to be an active advocate for the sport she covered with dedication and integrity for 33 years.

“I still believe that fans are created best by one-on-one contact, by somebody showing them the ropes,” Rees said. “I’ve spent a long time reporting on the problems. Now I want to be part of the solution.”