03/08/2012 1:20PM

Hatton provides window into racing's golden age

A 1969 photo of Charles Hatton in the Aqueduct press box. Hatton’s turf writing career spanned five decades, until his death in 1975.

After renowned Morning Telegraph and Daily Racing Form writer Charles Hatton died in March 1975, his wife, Gail, passed on two of his most cherished possessions upon his request. His battered Royal typewriter went to Joe Flaherty, the Village Voice newspaperman and novelist who was a great admirer of Hatton’s work. His copy of Walter S. Vosburgh’s seminal book “Racing in America, 1866-1921,” which Vosburgh wrote for the Jockey Club in 1922, went to Bill Nack. The worn pages were crammed with decades of Hatton’s annotations.

Nack had read Hatton since his teens and sought him out when he began chronicling the turf for Newsday in early 1972. Hatton became his personal guru. Their friendship fastened around Secretariat − Nack on his way into the sport and Hatton, its greatest lyricist over the course of five decades, on his way out.

The line that began with Vosburgh reached its apex – but also its culmination – with Hatton. His erudite, lively writing elevated Thoroughbred racing to the classics during a time when horse racing was the most popular spectator sport in the country. Hatton’s death, at age 69, left a gap that seems increasingly unlikely to be filled. Racing itself has changed, and so, too, has the style in which its writers chronicle it. Stories about heroes of the turf have given way to stories about slot machines and animal welfare and declining revenue streams. There is, with reason, more cynicism now. Hatton had a greater stage to play on. One could imagine him writing about the theater or literature, but instead he wrote his Iliad about horse racing. He saw it as his task to uphold its history and principles.

“He was the keeper of the flame,” said Nack, who more than anyone else continued in Hatton’s mold. But whereas Hatton spent his life in racing, Nack ventured also into other sports in his two-plus decades at Sports Illustrated.

The charm and enjoyment of Hatton’s work lies in its time-machine quality. It takes you back to that grander time. From 1930 until months before his death, Hatton wrote thousands of columns, most of which are lost to history save for the Keeneland Library. Some of his best prose can be found in the essays he wrote for the American Racing Manual, from 1949 through 1974. Slightly more available, they are a definitive source; there is no other place where the history of that golden era is so beautifully and fully told.

Coming across Hatton’s “Profiles of Best Horses” in dusty old American Racing Manuals elicits wonder. His equine descriptions are vivid and memorable, and his colloquialisms and turns of phrases make his classical style go down easy. His allusions bound from Voltaire to Impressionist painters to Mohammedan sayings and Kabbalistic tradition. For his profile of champion Dr. Fager in the 1969 edition, Hatton maneuvered through history, relishing the digressions.

“Sr. Federico Tesio always wanted to breed a superhorse,” he wrote of the late Italian statesman. “He hoped to create a Nietzschean prototype, a Wagnerian divine animal, a Carlylean hero of the turf. Unbeaten Ribot was his masterpiece.”

Hatton composed hundreds of columns throughout the year and then, when New York racing closed for the winter, quietly descended on the Telegraph office to work on his essays.

From 1957 through 1965, with the exception of 1960, Hatton also wrote the Manual’s review of that year’s races. These reviews reached 125 pages. Alongside his profiles, these exhaustively meticulous contributions stand up as unquestioned historical record.

Hatton’s horses were warriors, and their races were historic battles. He richly humanized his subjects, looking for individuality in every good horse. In 1956, for instance, he described the “magnetic personality” of the previous season’s Horse of the Year:

“Nashua has a large, luminous and intelligent eye, which reflects his innate cheerfulness and playful friendliness. Rather insouciant at times, he can be a handful for his attendants, with his high-spirited antics but this observer, who has visited him often to spar with him across the webbing of his box, has never seen him do a mean thing.”

Somehow Hatton could be simultaneously glib and heartfelt. And his prose could be breezy or steel-hard. On the 2-year-old colt sensation of 1963, he wrote: “Raise a Native worked down the Belmont backstretch this morning. The trees swayed.”

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Hatton asked much of his readers. Even if, as Sports Illustrated put it a half-century ago, the Daily Racing Form was an “eminently literate sheet.” In that magazine’s issue on June 27, 1955, this letter to the editor ran:

“I have been fighting a losing battle for years, trying to get a couple of the Form’s columnists to write DOWN to me. Over a period of 60 days, columnists Charles Hatton and Evan Shipman used the following:

“Insular. Sephardic. Fin de siècle. Jady. Aficionado. Incursion. Doyen. Apogee. Brio. Élan. Committal. Didactic. Métier. Contretemps. Hiatus. De trop. Rubicund.”

Recalled Nack: “He once said, ‘I swallowed a dictionary.’ He’d literally go looking up words to use in his columns. He liked the two-dollar word more than the one-dollar word.”

Hatton was not formally educated past high school. But he was an omnivorous reader, encircling the Greek classics, medieval history, philosophy, religious texts, art and theater history. To say nothing of his complete knowledge of the history of Thoroughbreds, both in America and Europe. He had no contemporary when it came to his fluency and eloquence.

The difficulty comes in squaring his personal presence with his writing style. Similarities in style between Hatton and the great New Yorker writer A.J. Liebling often come to mind – Hatton was to horse racing what Liebling was for boxing – but Liebling was himself jovial and garrulous. Hatton was not afraid of emotion and dry humor at the typewriter, but he was personally austere and reserved. In his later years he occupied a private aerie above the Belmont press box. Hatton had had rowdier years in his youth, Nack said, but by the time Nack befriended him Hatton possessed few racetrack confidants.

“He wasn’t a great raconteur,” recalled George Bernet, who joined the Telegraph as a young copy editor in the late 1960s and eventually became the Form’s editor. “He saved all his stories for the paper.”

The late sportswriter Barney Nagler once wrote that Hatton and the other reporters were like two trains passing in the night, meeting only in the press box.

“Hatton, as a man, was diffident and concise,” Nagler wrote in the Form in 1980. “Firm in his opinion, he was not easy to know, but once his armor had been pierced, he offered a benevolent acquaintanceship.”

Born in New Albany, Ind., on May 20, 1905, Charles Arthur Hatton quickly found himself around horses. Churchill Downs was across the river, and he became a habitual visitor. As a boy, he once recalled, “My grandfather would sit me on his shoulder so I could watch the races.”

His first Derby was in 1914, and he’d call Old Rosebud the greatest Derby winner until he watched Secretariat ransack it 59 years later. As a teenager he lived on Faraway Farm in Lexington, Ky., spending his free time with Man o’ War.

After he finished high school Hatton earned a job with the weekly New Albany Ledger, followed by a reporter’s post for the Louisville Courier-Journal. In 1929 he joined the new Blood-Horse magazine, where his knowledge of bloodlines and conformation sprouted from visits to Blue Grass farms and conversations with breeders. He was developing his “critical faculty,” to use a phrase he employed often.

The Telegraph, the East Coast forerunner to the Form (both were owned by Walter Annenberg), hired the 24-year-old Hatton in January 1930. By the end of that decade his column, called “The Judge’s Stand,” was featured prominently on the back page, with datelines occasionally venturing beyond Kentucky and New York to England and France. Around this time Hatton popularized the Triple Crown phrasing, a legacy attached to him although the characterization was already in existence.

“It was, from the start, a great life,” Hatton once said. “Where else could a fellow get a job where one week he’s at a track covering the races in Ascot, Ohio, and the next week he’s covering a race at Ascot, England?”

In his early columns Hatton’s writing was precise and perceptive, although his language was occasionally ornate. Soon enough, Hatton began fortifying his articles with references to art, music, and European literature. His metaphors were sublime. In 1958 he covered champion Bold Ruler in some of his best. The colt’s muscles were as “perfectly tuned as the strings of a fine, old Veronican fiddle,” he wrote. The “jaunty brown” colt with “wonderful, straight hind legs, deep girth and strong quarters” reminded him of Hindoo of the Dwyer dynasty.

“There is something distinctively ‘old-fashioned’ like a daguerreotype about him, as if he stepped from a Currier & Ives print into the vibrant present,” he wrote.

The hundreds of pages given over to Hatton for his American Racing Manual essays were perfect landscapes for his learned, discursive style. These were new additions to the growing publication, which Daily Racing Form founder Frank Brunell started in 1896 and devoted exclusively to racing in 1906. Hatton was likely inspired by Vosburgh, who in his Jockey Club book spun decade-by-decade profiles of that era’s best horses. 

Cherishing these essays takes nothing away from his daily columns. Those are stunning in their own way, for their joie de vivre and the references he ably summoned on deadline. Nashua’s Jockey Club Gold Cup in 1956 is but one example. Beginning his article with a description of Belmont as “America’s turf headquarters,” where racing of the highest order was staged, Hatton wrote:

“The setting was something to inspire Sisley. And when the Cup and Futurity had been decided, thoughts like ‘the King is dead, long live the King’ naturally occurred to everyone present. Who was it said: ‘Departing friend, defend your glory?’ It doesn’t matter, but defend it Nashua did. He ended a career that began in victory at four and a half furlongs by setting a new American two-mile record (3:20 2/5) in his second Cup, and he retired sound as the day he was foaled, on the word of Mr. Fitz.”

Hatton prided himself on his ability to look at a horse. In each American Racing Manual profile he included paragraphs of analysis on a horse’s conformation, anatomical measurements (taken by New York veterinarian Manny Gilman), and pedigree. These passages still stir awe. The best horses had unique personalities, and Hatton saw a kaleidoscope of human qualities in them.

Tom Fool, he wrote in 1954, was “sensitive” and had a “generosity of spirit.” The next year Native Dancer was “contemptuous of his rivals, delaying his run to the last instant” and “indeed almost arrogant at times.” Damascus was, at a glance, “a demure little horse who goes quietly on parade and handles himself with decorum at the gate. But in the heat of conflict, when his blood is up, he has iron resolution.”

Or, in a personal favorite of Nack’s, Hatton wrote this about Swaps’s head: “It has an exquisite, cameo quality, with the fine penciling of an Arab’s, the sort of frontispiece with which Herring adorned his subjects.” As for his conformation, Hatton wrote, “The muscular investiture of the stifle is abnormal, connoting tremendous driving power. This last is, indeed, the cachet of his extraordinary speed.”

Hatton saw in the best horses natural entertainers who had an eye for drama. With Secretariat, he immediately spotted “classic potentialities” in the big red colt standing 16 hands, and after Secretariat won the Hopeful, he wrote:

“Secretariat not only has class and style and dash, he has the instinctive flair for theatre that brings the house to its feet cheering. Horses win all the time, just as ham actors quote Shakespeare endlessly. Secretariat imparts to his performances the exciting quality which is the difference between Olivier and other Hamlets.”

That Hatton gushed over the 2-year-old Secretariat stood out against his characteristic Easterner’s sobriety. His abiding view was that “sentiment mists the lens of analysis.” Some might have seen cynicism in him before Secretariat came along, but that was never the case. Racing was his life, the greatest of all sports, but it was also important to place every performance in its historical context. He believed that only time – 30 or 40 years – made possible comparisons between the best of different generations, and even then as individuals rather than competitors.

Grounded in this history, Hatton, a chain-smoker and religious coffee-drinker, opined on the principles of racing worth safeguarding. Saratoga should forever stay the same. (“This resort,” he wrote in 1942, “world-famed as ‘the Horse Capital of America,’ belongs to no generation, but to the ages.”) Blinkers “were invented for cowards.” In the early 1950s he was already warning about the dangers of overemphasizing 2-year-old racing and of imparting too much significance on breeding for speed and precocity. One change he was happy to see was a narrowing gender gap in regards to bloodstock value and purses for fillies.

His strongest opinion, however, was in his hesitation to use the word “great.” He wrote in Tom Fool’s 1954 profile that “seasoned, discriminating turfmen rarely employ the term. Experience tends to make them conservative.”

For Triple Crown winner Citation, Hatton suggested in 1949 that the rank and file considered him a “Horse of the Ages,” but he would only say he was “a most exceptional performer.” Whirlaway, he wrote, never really cared to be a racehorse. Hatton called Kelso “a magnificent performer, one of the great geldings of turf history.” Dr. Fager was “assuredly exceptional.”

For Hatton, “great” was reserved for Man o’ War, Sysonby, and Colin. The 1940s through the 1960s delivered a long procession of outstanding racehorses, and Hatton described them fondly. He wasn’t damning them with faint praise, but his conservative nature – and that of the horsemen he respected – made him hold his tongue.

One time in 1973, Nack stopped in his office and found Hatton writing a letter to a reader who had solicited his opinion on the five greatest horses. For all of his experience, Nack told him, that would seem like an easy task.

“No,” Hatton conceded, “I can only think of four.”

But from his authoritative perch Hatton saw greatness in Secretariat, the realization of his breeding ideal and the perfect physical specimen, and he rang that bell from morning until his own night. It gave lie to any criticisms leveled against him for lack of enthusiasm. Hatton was dying of lung cancer, and one senses he felt fortunate to have had this final opportunity; but his appraisals of Secretariat were not overly sentimental, instead marked by a firmly held belief that this was a Horse for the Ages.

Secretariat brought out some of the finest work of Hatton’s career. For Hatton he was pure art, as aesthetically exciting for a turf writer of his faculty as an olive tree was for Van Gogh.

On Aug. 17, 1972, Hatton described Secretariat’s winning move in the Sanford at Saratoga: “Coming to the quarter pole, he lowered his head and hunched his shoulders, like ‘Orange Juice’ Simpson plunging into the line and scattered a bunch of rookies from the second team.”

And as Secretariat prepared for a sterner test in the Hopeful one week later, Hatton wrote: “In action he can be terrifying. He swoops down on his fields like a monster in a horror movie…he gets real physical, storming through the stretch with tremendous strides and practically throwing horses over his shoulder.”

Hatton continued his praise like a roll of drums. He voted for Secretariat as Horse of the Year in 1972, and the majority of turf writers agreed, making the colt by Bold Ruler out of Somethingroyal the first 2-year-old to achieve such acclaim by all of the voting bodies.

“Secretariat is genealogically equally exceptional,” Hatton wrote in his American Racing Manual profile, “especially in this era of mass-produced horses, when their very pedigrees are a handwriting on the wall.”

As Hatton left the office for his trackside post at Aqueduct in March, he was rewarded to find Secretariat based locally for the Triple Crown. Nack spent every morning at Secretariat’s barn and would visit Hatton in the press box afterward. The notes Nack fed Hatton on the big horse began appearing in his columns attributed to a “racetrack operative.”

Before the Gotham on April 7, Hatton joked, “The mile Gotham Saturday will have plenty of drama and suspense, even if nobody shows up to meet Secretariat and [racing secretary] Ken Noe Jr. has to run him against an old film clip of Man o’ War.”

The Gotham delivered – Secretariat equaled the track record – but then unwelcome drama arrived in the Wood Memorial two weeks later when stablemate Angle Light defeated Secretariat. Hatton knew better than to read into it – even Man o’ War was beat by Upset – and he lost none of his enthusiasm before the Derby.

Validated but amazed nonetheless, you can picture the old man at his typewriter holding back a smile. He gushed in his column a few days later:

“ ‘Great’ is a term we seldom have occasion to employ. But this Derby was the greatest. The greatest of all its winners gave the greatest performance in its annals before the greatest audience ever when Secretariat reduced this ‘greatest two minutes in sports’ to 1:59 2/5.

“The Derby marked the only time this senior citizen of the turf has had occasion to think departed friends of Man o’ War’s era missed anything.”

Secretariat galloped right into Hatton’s top five – at number one. After Secretariat’s Belmont victory, he decreed him the Horse of the Century. “His only point of reference is himself,” he wrote.

Fittingly, Secretariat became Hatton’s last American Racing Manual subject. A stream of reflection meanders through the masterpiece.

“Exterminator and Man o’ War have come and gone since the present writer’s first acquaintance with the sport. Impressions of longstanding tend to become fixed and assume a prescriptive right not to be questioned. But Secretariat is the most capable horse we ever saw, and geriatrics defeat any thought of seeing his like again.”

Read now through a clear lens afforded by the lapse of time, one realizes Hatton could not have said it any better about the author himself.