07/11/2013 1:27PM

Steven Crist: At Saratoga, an ever-evolving view from the press box

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Easy Goer wins the 1989 Travers, in between the eras of the electric typewriter and the Internet.

When I climb the ancient, rickety wooden stairs to the ancient, rickety Saratoga press box next week it will – contrary to the impression of some readers – be for only the 35th year in a row, not the 150th. It is possible, however, that more has changed in how a racing writer has covered Saratoga in those 3 1/2 decades than either the racing or Saratoga itself has changed in more than a century.

The first time I covered a horse race at Saratoga was in August 1979, as a fill-in when the racing writer for The New York Times fell ill the week of the important Alabama Stakes for 3-year-old fillies. I took a bus from Manhattan to the parking lot of the Spa City Diner on Broadway, lugging an electric typewriter. The Sunday Times in those days had an early Saturday deadline of 5 p.m., just minutes after the race would be run. My assigned 800-word story on the Alabama would consist of 750 words filed early in the day – typed and then dictated over the telephone – known as “B copy.” I would dictate the lead 50 words by telephone as soon as the result was official.

At least the Alabama would be an easy story for writing B copy. Davona Dale was a cinch, so 50 words about her Alabama margin of victory and time would flow nicely into a 750-word canned account of her achievements to date. I watched the Alabama with my hand on the telephone, mentally composing clever ways to describe Davona Dale’s inevitable victory. A California import named It’s in the Air went to the front, and only in deep stretch did it finally dawn on me that Davona Dale wasn’t going to catch her.

The next morning, Times readers outside the city, including those in Saratoga, read a rather curious account of the 1979 Alabama: 50 words about how It’s in the Air, had scored a historic upset victory over Davona Dale, followed by a 750-word tribute to the invincibility of Davona Dale.

By the time I was covering Easy Goer’s Whitney and Travers victories a decade later, I was still writing B copy for Saturday stakes races, but the days of electric typewriters and dictation were over. I now had a newfangled writing device called a Portabubble, which looked like a keyboard attached to a black picnic basket, with two big holes in its top where you jammed in a telephone receiver. I could now push a button and my lead paragraph would magically appear on an editor’s screen down in the big city. I could now pound out 100 words of legitimate news rather than 50, cutting the B copy down to a mere 700 words.

By 1999, the year of Lemon Drop Kid’s Travers, I had moved on to Daily Racing Form and a laptop computer, and the dissemination of racing news and information was changing radically. Simulcasting had made Saratoga’s (and everyone else’s) racing available to fans at their local track or OTB, and nobody was going out to a newsstand late Saturday night or Sunday morning to find out who had won the races. Also, this thing that people were still calling the World Wide Web, including a fairly primitive website at drf.com, was effectively putting an all-night newsstand into everyone’s home.

A decade later, when Rachel Alexandra was winning the 2009 Woodward, the Internet had changed everything and was the horse pulling the newspaper cart. For a writer, the new medium was liberating: Instead of writing a scheduled news article or column at a fixed length with a deadline dictated by the mechanics of printing-press schedules, you could post directly to the website at whatever length or time of day you liked.

Such freedom also encouraged a less formal and more personal approach in a setting like the Saratoga blog I was now writing every racing day. I was skeptical of the format at first but then pleasantly surprised to find that readers really enjoyed following along with my days at the races through a real-time diary.

There was (and still is) a need for formal and detached racing journalism, especially when it comes to news reporting, which is best done by trained professionals backed up by editors with standards of fairness and accuracy. The new instant access of electronic publishing, however, allows for other kinds of interaction with readers who can receive more timely information instead of waiting until it’s all over.

Maybe someday I’ll be able to write my blogs and columns on a tablet or even on something that fits into a shirt pocket, but I’m not there yet. So when I lug that laptop up those press box stairs next week, I’ll be getting a twinge in both my memory and my shoulder of that very first trip up the stairs with an electric typewriter.

John Nicoletti More than 1 year ago
Excellent look back at the Spa, Steve. My all time favorite summer event. Lake George, and the Spa. My routine was quite simple. A great day at the track, and a great dinner, and some wine, at Chez Pierre. Doesn't get much better then that.
Dan More than 1 year ago
Saratoga has only cancelled once because of excessive heat..... Opening day may come close to being the 2 nd time- expected "feels like" temp will be over 100! Hope everyone can find a cool spot at the spa.
mikey More than 1 year ago
Yes Saratoga is the best racing and track in the country.Maybe the RACING FORM could take a fan a day up to the press box to get to watch the races from your point of view.Great contest and a little payback to your loyal customers.
Jim Majors More than 1 year ago
Why was I under the (wrong) impression, Steve, that you produced copy on a granite slate with hammer and chisel-- Fred Flintstone style ? Just kidding ! Thanks, for a trip down memory lane, and all the best as you precariously navigate the ancient path to the Saratoga press box. Happy wagering !
Thomas Nicholson More than 1 year ago
Saratoga is a very, very special place. No matter what life throws at you, there is a refuge on the second floor under the slow turning fans. All you troubles and problems seem to vanish. $280 is my bank roll. $20 to get in and park. $240 worth of $20 pic-3's every race with two $20 pic-4's thrown in for good measure. $20 to go to Siro's for a drink or two after the races and let the traffic go down. It is pure fun and as the man said fun is like gold. See you at the SPA!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
Chris Garrity More than 1 year ago
Thanks for letting us tag along in your Saratoga sandbox, Steve. It's one of the most enjoyable parts of the racing year, the chance for working stiffs like me to imagine, Walter Mitty-like, what it's like to live and breathe racing for a month at the Spa.
Matthew Ellis More than 1 year ago
Easy Goer great selection Steve for the pnoto He represented the best of East Coast Racing Pedigree, Connections, Class, and most of all DIRT
. Anderson More than 1 year ago
Memo to S. Christ The "Form" is implementing a beta version of MindReader® next year. You will be fitted for your "Thinking Cap" at your next employee evaluation session. According to the suppliers the "Thinking Cap" weighs less than 20 lbs.
Mark More than 1 year ago
Ah yes, the way we were.When I started in the wine business there were no e-mails or electronic transfers..sales reports were mailed and results not tabulater for weeks..now results recorded 3 seconds after the month closed..Back then there were $2 ,$5 and $10 win,place and show windows..SEPARATE windows..and my first trip to Saratoga I had the pleasure of dining at a place called LUMS..where we were waited on by a waitress with no botton teeth...we changed the name to GUMS Mark in Mass
John Weber More than 1 year ago
Lums...they had one in Glens Falls....the home of the Olie Burger!
Chris Lowe More than 1 year ago
Used to be one in Horseheads,too...
jimf552 More than 1 year ago
Yes and hot dogs steamed in beer. My Father used to take us kids there back in the mid to late 60's. I had read somewhere the last one just closed a few years ago.
nicholas More than 1 year ago
Pity the newspapers don't even bother to cover racing anymore. There was some excellent journalism back in the day-- not anymore-- I remember the ritual of getting the ny post, newsday, daily news to see who Harris Pricci and kerrison picked at Saratoga so I could throw them out!!