HALLANDALE BEACH, FL. December 23, 2022 – Belmont Park, once known as America’s Longchamp, is so vast that its grounds straddles two counties; the far turn in Queens, the finish line in Nassau.
Appropriately, its press box is immense yet had to be stretched to accommodate all the reporters who came to cover the races there back in the day. Currently, the New York Daily News, New York Post, Newsday, and the New York Times still exist, live reporting not so much.
When I became a press box regular in 1970, each daily had two journalists covering horse racing in New York. These days, daily coverage virtually begins and ends with the Belmont Stakes, maybe the Wood Memorial, too.
And there no longer is a daily downstate presence in Saratoga, which probably says as much about the state of horse racing as it does the newspaper industry.
Back then, press boxes at New York tracks played to an SRO glut of characters: Lou O’Neill split his time as a racing editor at the Long Island City-based Star Journal by day, and called harness races at Yonkers at night.
It’s sister paper, the Long Island Press in Jamaica, Queens, was manned by legendary sports editor Mike Lee, who covered thoroughbred and harness racing every day and night, and also taught a class in racetrack management at St. John’s University.
Pat Lynch, who later became Vice President of Communications at the New York Racing Association, was columnist and handicapper at the New York Journal-American. “Lynch’s savers” were a thing back then.
There also was racing coverage from New York Herald Tribune, the New York Sun, Staten Island Advance and Brooklyn Eagle, among other defunct publications.
Reporters from outside its borders covered New York racing, too. The Jersey Journal, Asbury Park Press and Hartford Courant, the oldest continuously published newspaper in the U.S., showed up on major stakes Saturdays and holidays.
Like Newsday, the Courant was part of the Times Mirror newspaper conglomerate. While Rupert Murdock of News Corporation failed in his bid to buy Newsday in 2008, he did succeed in bringing Australian journalist Ray Kerrison to America.
In doing so, Murdock’s introduction eventually led Kerrison to American thoroughbred racing and it changed the face of New York racing coverage forever, the only blessing Murdock bestowed on America before selling out to autocracy. But I digress.
Before Kerrison, horse racing coverage was comparatively tame, filled with features and bare bones race reportage. When I first started, I remember one of the old guard approaching me to say: “kid, just make sure your story includes the daily attendance in the lede and you’ll do fine.”
Not that turf writing completely was a perfunctory exercise. The bygone era boasted great wordsmiths: Joe Palmer, George Ryall, a.k.a. Audax Minor, legendary Times columnist Red Smith, Charles Hatton of Daily Racing Form, erudite Post columnist William R Rudy and, of course, Kentucky Derby boswellian Hunter S Thompson.
But none were traditional “beat writers” per se. Kerrison was, and he was a breed apart. At a time when race reporting consisted of stakes wrap-ups or heart-warming feature stories, “Crusader Ray K” showed racing writers how it’s supposed to be done.
Before Jorge Navarro, Jason Servis, and the FBI sting, there was the infamous “ringer” scandal at Belmont Park, the vehicle for a huge final-race betting coup. South American champion Cinzano was racing, and won, under the name of a selling plater, Lebon.
Ray Kerrison broke that story and became a Pulitzer Prize nominee.
But if a racing official needed to be held to account, Kerrison did so. When he believed a career was worth saving, he wrote about it. When he saw jockeys crossing a line in a race, he wrote that, too. His hard-hitting coverage didn’t make many friends among contemporary press box competitors.
Kerrison was tough but fair, allowing the facts to tell a story. He was a Dawn Patrol regular at big events. He covered 32 Kentucky Derbies in his turf writing career, but was no stranger to real world news.
Kerrison covered Martin Luther King’s assassination in 1968, the first moon landing in 1969, and terrorism at the 1972 Munich Olympics. He was sagacious, tenacious, and indefatigable, but had a genteel nature about him, truly a gentleman of the press.
Ray Kerrison was honest to a fault, witty, and with a dry sense of humor. Mild mannered, his voice seldom was raised higher than a conversational level. When he disagreed, it never was disagreeably. A big fan of pedigree, he loved picking and betting against favorites.
Ray and his late wife, Monica, made a lovely God-fearing pair. They attended church regularly, not just on Sunday. Seven children bear witness to their devotion to family.
We spent good times together on the road. A favorite stop was with our wives at Penn National’s original World Series of Handicapping. The four of us made the half-our drive from Grantville to Hershey for lunch.
Neither one of us won the World Series of Handicapping but that’s of little consequence. I learned a lot about what it meant to be a journalist from Ray; to be honest in thought, unafraid to do your job wherever the chips would fall.
Those collegial days will be missed, but memories remain indelibly etched.