08/15/2008 11:00PM

Turf writers find a home on Internet

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SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. - Oceanologists reported last week that humpback whales are making a comeback, thanks to a ban on commercial hunting that had threatened them with extinction in recent years. The same cannot be said for another endangered species whose natural habitat is a glassed-in booth at American racetracks: currus notarius, or horse-racing writer.

The precariousness of this creature really sank in when I took up residence in the Saratoga press box this summer after an absence of more than a decade. Back in the 20th century, every seat was taken and dozens of racing writers from newspapers around the country flew in to cover races such as the Alabama and Travers. Now, you can sit wherever you want. There are barely a dozen people a day rattling around, and that's including the ladies and gentlemen of the local Albany, Glens Falls, Schenectady, and Troy newspapers whose racing gigs last only six weeks a year.

By some estimates, there are fewer than a half-dozen full-time racing writers for general-interest newspapers left roaming the plains. (I am excluding the so-called "trade" publications, such as Daily Racing Form and weekly breeding magazines, from this discussion.) The New York tabloids and the Kentucky dailies still consider racing a full-time beat, but at most other papers, the racing-writer job was never filled when its last occupant retired over the last 20 years. Instead, a general columnist or football writer covers the major races that are run during his off-season.

The Los Angeles Times recently discontinued the position entirely, and The New York Times has yet to send a staff reporter to Saratoga this year. The New York Turf Writers Association, founded in 1923, nearly disbanded last spring due to lack of membership and interest.

Turf writers, like our cetacean friends in the sea, have been victims of commercial hunting - by the bloodless conglomerates that now own most American newspapers and never met a cost-cutting initiative they didn't like. Newspapers are in trouble everywhere between rising paper and trucking costs and the loss to the Internet of advertising, especially of the classified variety. Readership does not decline when the racing writer takes a buyout or gets a pink slip, at least not enough to justify filling the position, so another beat and species disappears.

This is not good news for the racing industry, which is still suffering for its failure to embrace television a half-century ago, a major reason that the sport fell from major to niche status at most newspapers even before the recent further declines in coverage. Yet there is a promising alternative rising quickly on the horizon, the same factor that brought me back to the press box, where I am surrounded by some of my colleagues of yore who no longer have their old racing-writer jobs: We're blogging.

There are probably more former turf writers filing directly to the Internet these days than there are full-time newspaper writers, including such veterans as Bill Christine, Paul Moran, Ray Paulick, John Pricci, and Maryjean Wall. If they're like me, they've found the lack of space restrictions, deadlines, and boneheaded editors to be gloriously liberating. We ink-stained vets, late to a blogging party that began four or five years ago, are also reveling in the immediacy and interactivity of sometimes voluminous response from readers.

It's a far from perfect medium. A lack of editors is not always a good thing, and many blogs are perpetrated by amateurs with limited credibility or journalistic training. But it's a racket that's shaking itself out like any other market, and the best of the current blogs are among the most interesting racing journalism (outside these pages, of course) being practiced anywhere: Check out Alan Mann's . Their authors are all passionate fans of the game, which is more than you can say for the bowling or hunting writer who gets stuck covering the occasional horse race for a metropolitan daily.

The racing industry is being a little smarter about Internet blogs than it was in the early days of television. The Breeders' Cup and the National Thoroughbred Racing Association have their own stables of bloggers on their websites. Tracks, however, have yet to figure out how to accommodate this new breed of racing writer. Should anyone who hangs out a blog shingle be considered a member of the press and be given working space and access to the backstretch? What should determine a blogger's legitimacy - his experience, the size of his readership, the presence of advertising on his or her site?

These are thorny questions, but having more people wanting to write about the game than you can accommodate is a very nice problem to have, especially as the newspaper racing writers of yore are going the way of the dodo.