Sean Clancy’s a better writer than I am. I take no shame in saying that, nor do I feel a sense of defeat, because he’s better than just about everyone. My name is on the extensive list of former interns at The Saratoga Special that went on to long careers in the racing business, and as I half-joked on Twitter a few weeks ago, I sincerely hope I’m not the Eric Mangini to the Clancys’ Bill Belichick.
Sean’s annual “I’ll miss/won’t miss” column is a must-read, and it was published Sunday. There’s a line in there that hit me like a ton of bricks, though, as good writing is prone to do.
“I’ll miss the enthusiastic interns, their futures ahead of them,” he wrote. “I won’t miss the jaded veterans, their irrelevance grinding away at them.”
I’m not taking this as a shot against me. I haven’t been to Saratoga yet this year, so I’m not in a position where I could be someone Sean would mention in that regard. However, that one line made me think more than just about anything else I’ve read in a long time, and this column spawns from that train of thought.
– – – – –
Those who followed me last year may remember a column I filed upon the completion of the 2018 Saratoga meet. It came hours after I fell one win short of Liam Durbin, largely due to three lost photo finishes in the last two days, and was written following a soul-searching meal eaten at a local dive bar.
Two days later, after working 36 hours over the course of Labor Day weekend (largely thanks to a situation involving gunfire at Del Mar), I was informed that my full-time position at The Daily Racing Form was being transitioned to part-time. This came a few weeks after a satisfactory evaluation, and was a continuation of layoffs at the publication that came earlier in the summer. When I left that part-time position for a full-time role at a non-racing company in November (the less said about my four months at that job, the better), that position was not filled.
Over the past year, racing has done a tremendous job of scaring off passionate people. The Stronach Group laid off a bunch of them late last year, and DRF had a widely-publicized round of cuts earlier this summer that claimed a number of visible writers and content contributors (several of whom I consider friends).
It’s brought about a real identity crisis for me, one that I wrote about back in November. If we’re mostly in agreement that racing needs knowledgeable handicappers who can make the sport more fun for novices, which in turn drives handle and adds repeat customers, why are such people being forced out?
I grew up reading the New York City papers and spending the lion’s share of drives to Saratoga pulling out the racing sections of The New York Daily News and The New York Post. This was a time when major newspapers had racing writers and full-time handicappers, as well as space for content contributors to expound on what was going on. Like many other racing enthusiasts, I worshipped Russ Harris, laughed at the antics of the participants in the annual “Battle of Saratoga,” and strained my eyes to read the small, blocky text that was found in the Post’s racing section at the time.
I’d wind up sharing press boxes with those folks, and many of them became my friends. Now, it’s an effort to see where they’re at. I sat behind Paul Moran, John Pricci, and Jerry Bossert (among others) for two summers at Saratoga. Paul is dead, John spends most of the year in Florida, and Jerry was laid off by the Daily News not long after I left for California. The Post laid off its racing team as well, indirectly sparking one of the weirdest sagas of my life involving a $70 Kentucky Derby future bet (P.S.: John paid up).
HRTV, the network I moved 3,000 miles west to work for, is long gone, having been purchased by TVG in early-2015. I was hired over as part of the acquisition. The first two years of my tenure there were some of the most enjoyable times I’ve had at any job (those close to me know why). The last two months were some of the least enjoyable times I’d had up to that point (again, those close to me know why), and that experience prompted a move over to DRF.
It’s 2019 now, a year after I was informed of my change in employment status at The Daily Racing Form, and Saratoga is the one time where I get to test my skills against some of the best handicappers in the game on a daily basis. For 10 months out of the year, I’m a semi-professional handicapper who uses racing as a side hustle. For the other two, I go 15 rounds with some of the smartest, sharpest horseplayers I’ve ever known, and every once in a while, magic happens (as it did in 2017, when I topped all public handicappers with 128 top-pick winners). That’s why it means so much to me to be a part of The Pink Sheet’s pick box, as I have been for seven seasons, and it’s also why I take what I do incredibly seriously.
I know that I’m fortunate to have had my experiences, and it’s not like I’m detached from the racing industry. I still freelance for DRF with two Formulator videos per week, and I’ve been able to pick up writing assignments for Horse Racing Nation, Trainer Magazine, Granite Media, and a few other outlets. I maintain my ballots for both Eclipse Awards and racing’s Hall of Fame, and I consider both of those to be tremendous honors.
Having said that, Sean’s words hit me hard. I’m 30 years old, passionate about horse racing, and eager to teach people who want to know more about it. However, I don’t care about the social side of racing. As a goofy guy with no patience for those who are blind to the necessity of gambling money in this sport, I’m never going to be the focus of one of those “I Am Horse Racing” videos. I don’t bet enough to be considered a big player, and my emergence as a handicapper/content producer wasn’t necessarily anyone’s idea. I know that doesn’t sit well with at least one person in power at a major company, and I’m sure there are some in the sport who would like nothing more than for me to sit down, shut up, and do something else.
Does that make me irrelevant? Does that make those similar to me irrelevant? Are people like me simply shuffling deck chairs on the Titanic as foal crops decline, field sizes shrink, and handfuls of trainers get most of the top-tier horses? All of these are really tough questions, and they’re ones I’m now pondering a lot as I prepare to venture east later this week.
– – – – –
This Wednesday, I’ll be spending lots of time in the air en route to upstate New York. Over the course of a week or so, I’ll be seeing my family (including my two adorable nieces), mooching lots of free food, and, of course, making several trips to Saratoga to watch horses turn left.
I’ll be at the track Thursday, Saturday, and Sunday, and if you see me walking around, don’t be afraid to say hello. I greatly appreciate anyone who takes the time to read my stuff (either in print or online), and I see that as validation for the effort I put into trying to solve 10 or so handicapping puzzles each day. Each puzzle, by the way, has become incredibly important. I’m locked in a three-way battle for top honors in The Pink Sheet, and have two wins to make up on Liam Durbin with six cards left in the meet.
I don’t know if I’m irrelevant. Maybe I always have been. Maybe we all are (we certainly will be if protestors have their way). Here’s what I know: I enjoy the hell out of this game. I love reading the past performances and trying to find things others don’t see. I’m going to keep doing this for as long as racing’s media outlets will have me, and for as long as people keep reading my stuff. Want to reach out? Tweet me at @AndrewChampagne, or email me using my site’s “contact” section. I try to respond to everything I get (just don’t use the term Runhappy on Twitter; I’ve muted it, so I won’t see your tweet if you do that).
The people who don’t like me aren’t going to change their minds. I’ve been at peace with that for a pretty long time (it’s sort of a family curse). Maybe I’m irrelevant in the grand scheme of things, but it’s not for a lack of trying to grow the game. I’m going to be around for as long as people will have me, and I’m always going to believe I’m one of the better ones at what I do.
As far as writing, though…yeah, Sean’s better than me.