“Writing is easy. Just sit in front of a typewriter, open up a vein, and bleed it out drop by drop.”
Red Smith, one of the best writers of all-time, said that, and anyone who’s ever tried to put their thoughts into prose can relate. It’s in that spirit that I’m sitting down to write this and feeling equal parts pride and exhaustion.
I’m going to do something I don’t do often. There’s no shtick here. There’s no over-the-top, wannabe-pro-wrestling-manager delivery with a message that flies over the heads of two-thirds of my audience but hits the other third right between the eyes (often with words they don’t want to hear). This is me, as stripped-down as I can possibly present myself, explaining the mental construction of my brain for two months of the year, why certain numbers matter to me that couldn’t matter less to a lot of people, and what my next steps are.
You might’ve seen it or heard about it by now, but I had a really good summer at Saratoga. With 142 top-pick winners, I led The Pink Sheet for the third consecutive season (and fifth overall), and that total paced all members of the media who picked every race, every day, for a variety of different outlets available to the public. If you think that’s an easy job, you’re incredibly ignorant. The people who do this are sharp, dedicated to the game, and enjoy informing and educating the public, and every man and woman in this group has my eternal respect.
If you were on Twitter Monday night, what you saw was me comparing myself and a few friends/family members to Ric Flair and his entourage. I can be a little twisted, and rest assured, living with the way my mind works is a heck of a cross to bear sometimes.
Here’s what you didn’t see: After Ocean Air and Don’t Wait Up won the sixth and seventh races of the day and clinched the all-media title for me, I excused myself from a Labor Day party at my girlfriend’s house, went into the bathroom, locked the door, and cried my eyes out.
That probably sounds crazy to some of you. I don’t blame you for thinking that, and contrary to what some may think, I’m not writing this to change anyone’s perception of me. The Champagne family curse is that, no matter what, we can’t be invisible, and people cannot have neutral opinions of us. I’ve found ways to live with it, and I can sleep at night knowing those who have taken the time to get to know me know who I am and (mostly) seem to like me. What this will do, however, is peel back the onion in a way I’ve never done before. At a minimum, I hope it pays an appropriate amount of respect to a few things I’ve dealt with this summer.
I grew up in upstate New York going to Saratoga with my family. I’m not in New York anymore, and I don’t see my family nearly enough. That’s why I took a spur-of-the-moment, cross-country trip last month that involved more time on planes and in cars than time spent doing meaningful things.
I worked for The Saratogian as a full-timer for a year and a half, and was part of a packed press box during the 2012 and 2013 summer meets. The press box now looks like Thanos snapped his fingers and wiped out half the population. When I made my appearance at Saratoga, I didn’t even bother going up there.
I wanted nothing more than to be part of the horse racing industry, and for six years, I did a lot of great full-time work for some of the most recognizable brands in the business. I’ve been out of it for three years, ever since my position at The Daily Racing Form was shifted to part-time as a money move three days after I worked 36 hours over Labor Day weekend.
I’ve busted my butt freelancing for several outlets, and I’ve done work I’m incredibly proud of (including for DRF, the source of several relationships I greatly value). Much of the industry, however, has put me in a pool with other incredibly passionate people that it keeps at an arm’s length.
My full-time job is as a Communications and Marketing Manager for SHELTER, Inc., a non-profit in Northern California’s Bay Area. I enjoy what I do, but after putting in eight hours a day, the thing I most looked forward to other than spending time with my girlfriend was going home, handicapping, writing up cards, and going on podcasts/shows to talk about what I saw and how I planned to attack the racing programs in question.
If you saw me use the hashtag #OutWorkEveryone this summer and thought it was a total ego trip, you were wrong. I spent 40 hours a week getting the word out about how my agency is battling the homelessness problem in Contra Costa, Solano, and Sacramento counties, and then went home and, on average, produced between 10,000 and 12,000 written words per week for The Pink Sheet, TwinSpires Sportsbook, and Oddschecker US. In addition, I co-host my own YouTube show, am a weekly guest on Gino Buccola’s podcast, produce several weekly video hits for DRF, and was a featured guest at seminars held at this summer’s Pleasanton meet, which shared a weekend with Saratoga in July.
I’m not in an office at a racetrack, or in a casino somewhere mooching free wi-fi. I’m a guy with a “normal” job that, two months out of the year, has as abnormal a job as possible on top of it. It isn’t because I need the money, it’s not because I crave attention, and it’s not even because of the competition that comes with doing what I do.
It’s because I love Saratoga, I love horse racing, I love turf writing, and I long for the days where EVERYONE took it as seriously as I do.
I sat behind Paul Moran and John Pricci, and next to Tom Amello and Mike Veitch, in 2012 and 2013. This was a summer after I worked for the Clancy brothers at The Saratoga Special, and those three summers gave me as good of an education as I could’ve hoped for. The stories I heard about packed press boxes and every writer/handicapper actively competing with one another for the best stories and handicapping records inspired me and lined up with how I’d approach days at the races as a kid. I’d tear out pages from The Daily News and The New York Post, grab whatever papers were available for free on the way in, and soak up as much as I could.
Russ Harris was the dean of New York handicappers, and the stuff he did allowed mine to exist. The Battle of Saratoga in The Daily News was required reading, for aspiring turf writers and handicappers alike, and I pay homage to that with The Pink Sheet’s daily bankroll blurb.
The people who created that content are mostly gone now. They’ve either passed away, retired, or moved to freelance work. Paul Moran passed following the 2013 meet, John Pricci’s in Florida, and the Daily News and Post both eliminated most of their racing staffs in similar cost-cutting moves. Nick Kling, my Pink Sheet predecessor, retired after a stellar career a few years ago, and Harris passed in 2016. I’ll spend the rest of my career (or however long The Pink Sheet will have me) chasing the success rates they had.
It’s easy to take what you see on social media and extrapolate that into an image that isn’t the real McCoy. I sometimes do myself no favors in this regard, and I’ll be the first to admit it. Between several stories involving major entities within the game, and the fact that nobody is doing the sort of thing I’m doing the way I’m doing it, it sometimes feels like a “one vs. all” situation, and there are times that bites me in the butt. That was the case a few weeks ago when trainer Chad Brown took exception to a tweet of mine. I didn’t say what he thought I said, but I understood why he thought I said it (I sent his barn doughnuts a few days later, along with a note I hope he read, and I’m going to call us even).
Chad’s response didn’t bother me. What hit me hard was the fact that people automatically assumed I said something I didn’t say and believed things I didn’t believe. That’s a byproduct of the age we’re in, and my body of work, skill as a writer/horseplayer, and history of turning my passion into final products didn’t matter one bit.
This is who I am: I’m the guy who works a 9-to-5 shift, goes home, eats dinner, and is up until after midnight working a day in advance so his editor doesn’t have to worry about a dude who left the paper eight years ago to live three timezones away blowing a deadline. I’m the guy that isn’t supposed to be a big deal in the business, and one who, 10 months out of the year, generally isn’t. However, I’m also someone who drove nearly 22,000 hits to the little-promoted website you’re on right now with daily content that had the highest strike rate of anyone actively handicapping Saratoga and giving information out in this way.
I don’t do what I do for points or political capital within the industry. If something hits me as broken, I’ll say it and I’ll say it in ways everyone can hopefully understand. I’m probably never going to be a simulcast host, or someone trusted by a major circuit to convey points on television and drive fan interest and betting money. I’ll never shut the door on that sort of opportunity, and I firmly believe I’d excel in that capacity, but I’ve come to terms with the fact that the call’s probably never coming.
There aren’t many people in racing like me. Some people think that’s a great thing, and those are the people my success ticks off. A bunch more, though, see past the gimmicky, sarcastic exterior and have said very positive things about the breadth and depth of my work, and that’s always something I’ll greatly appreciate. If you like what I do, know that I deeply value your support. When I thanked readers in my final bankroll blurb of the season, I meant every word. If even one person is enjoying my stuff like I enjoyed the work of Russ Harris and the Battle of Saratoga crew, that’s a win.
Now that Labor Day is over, though, we’re in the 10-month period where, to many, I’m just another guy who knows how to read a form. I’ll still be around, hosting my show and helping anyone who’ll have me, not because I’m some attention hound or someone who needs a spotlight, but because I want the industry to be at its best and I want to produce content that helps it get there.
My mind works in unconventional ways. With how much I work and how much of myself goes into each product, you bet I’ll celebrate when great things happen. If you think I’m an arrogant showoff, that’s your right, but it’s my right to tell you how hard I work and how much passion goes into what you see in articles, podcasts, and shows. Without that passion, I’m useless, so that’s a trade-off I’ll take 100 times out of 100.
142 winners is a big part of the story. However, it’s nowhere close to the full story…and THAT is called foreshadowing, kids.