07/11/2013 12:27PM

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

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.