Category Archives: Articles

Eclipse Award

The last week of December I was honored to learn that I had won the Eclipse Award for feature writing, the national horse-racing journalism award. (The other writing category is for enterprise reporting, a category in which I received an honorable mention last year.) The piece that won it was my story on father-son jockeys Eibar and Keiber Coa, which ran in the Daily Racing Form’s Weekend section on July 7, and the latter’s decision to become a rider after watching his father recover from a career-ending, life-threatening riding accident. I’m thankful to both Eibar and Keiber for giving so freely and honestly of their emotions and memories on a very difficult subject.

Here is the press release from the National Thoroughbred Racing Association announcing the award. And here is the story itself, in the Daily Racing Form.

I used to see “Eclipse Award” attached to Sports Illustrated writer Bill Nack’s name, and since his collection of features “My Turf” had as great an influence on me as anything I read in my early teens, I always thought that award was something fit for gods. So it’s a humbling recognition. Hearing the news also made me think of the late Bill Handleman, as fine a wordsmith as I knew in those youthful years; he was the sports columnist for the Asbury Park Press, and at 15 I started sending Bill letters, which, as I remember it, asked for advice and the chance to break into the paper. After quite a few letters he handed them over to sports editor John Quinn who, out of curiosity and a little skepticism, invited me for an interview. It was September 1999, I was 16 and had only started my junior year of high school. We shot the breeze on horse racing, I knew my stuff and he saw my eagerness, and Quinn hired me as a cub high-school sports reporter. He took a chance, something I’ll never forget. I got to write about the horses the following summer. If Handleman had thrown those letters in the trash (that he didn’t reminds me that he was, despite outward cynicism, a dogged romantic at heart), I’d probably have ended up writing about something far less exciting and fake. Never a happy trooper at my high school, that job with the Asbury Park Press saved me.

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A Vision in White

Last Wednesday, a profile I wrote about the nearly white racehorse Hansen, last year’s 2-year-old champion and one of this year’s leading Kentucky Derby contenders, ran in the New York Times. You can read that here. I was floored to open the paper and find a head-on action shot of Hansen taking up about 4/5ths of the front page of Sports (tucked behind the Business section). The story looks at Hansen’s unique coloring, the attraction of that, and the genetics of color. I learned a great deal about how color – particularly gray – is inherited, and it turned out to be a visually compelling article. Kudos to photographer Christian Hansen (no relation) in Louisville who snapped some beautiful shots.

Also, I stepped in to cover the Grade 1, $1 million Wood Memorial at Aqueduct on Saturday. That story is here. It was a thrilling contest, as the undefeated Gemologist showed a great deal of class and resolve to hold off the stout, late-running Alpha.

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The Kettle of Fish

I’ve spent as much time at any bar in the city as the Kettle of Fish on Christopher Street. It’s a friendly, warm neighborhood bar and one of the few remaining Village institutions. It opened on Macdougal Street in 1950 and became a bar of the Beat poets. But I had never been there for Packers games, for which the bar is now known. For more than a decade fans from around the city have made pilgrimages there on N.F.L. Sundays, and it’s also a destination for Wisconsinites too, now. Much of this is the handiwork of Patrick Daley, the boisterous, kindhearted 56-year-old owner, and a roundtable of regulars in the rear of the bar who incited the Packer tradition there. I wrote a feature for the New York Times last week which recounted a classic New York tale set within a slice of the Midwest in Greenwich Village. The story was positioned on the front-page of the Sports section, with a lovely layout of photos.

Here is the online version of the article and here are a few photos.

 

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Lasix: Demystifying the drug, methods of training without it

My most recent article for the Daily Racing Form Weekend section examined Lasix, the most commonly used drug in horse racing; the science, the history, and methods of training without it. Ostensibly used to treat hemorrhaging in the lungs, Lasix was the first drug legalized for raceday use, but it has come under attack from racing organizations that represent breeders and owners. I attempted to push past the vitriolic debate between horsemen and these groups, as well as the Us vs. Them mentality of American racing against the world. As I wrote:

Why Lasix, and why now? Given its universality and its visibility as the first raceday medication, it’s a symbol for the ways in which North American racing stands apart. In Europe, Asia, and much of the racing world, it’s illegal on raceday and barred from training in some of these places. The worst bleeders in Hong Kong and Germany are even forced to retire and are excluded from breeding.

Lasix has been scientifically validated, but these groups see the original rationale coined four decades ago by horsemen and racetrack operators and veterinarians – that Lasix would help horses withstand the rigors of additional racing – as unsupported by the evidence today. They see sour notes everywhere, an orchestra of declines in foal crops, bloodstock prices, field sizes, starts per year, and, most damningly, public perception and integrity. Federal regulations knock on the door. Lasix is only one factor, but it is seen as the key that unlocks the door into a drug-free sport.

The article can be read here.

I learned yesterday that it received a honorable mention in the Eclipse Awards news/enterprise writing category, alongside the Times’ Joe Drape’s excellent story on the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation’s failure to care for its retired horses. The award went to Jennie Rees of the Louisville Courier-Journal, the third of her career, for her story on the unique dynamics of the jockeys’ room. Congratulations go to her.

 

 

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The patients no one wants

I spent time at the turn of the year reporting a piece on a group of doctors, based at Brown University, who have made their careers and a distinguished history out of treating prisoners, easily the most neglected segment of our population. That’s a population that’s grown to unbelievable heights, and keeps growing: 2.3 million prisoners in all. Mass incarceration is one of the few areas in which the U.S. still leads the world.

This is a topic on which I’m going to continue reporting, particularly the individual stories of those affected by our correctional-industrial complex. I’m open to any ideas for those who’d like to offer suggestions.

In the meantime, here’s the online version of the story. It’ll be in print this week; the magazine is sent to all Brown alumni.

Here is the story’s introduction:

On the second Tuesday in January, Professor of Medicine Josiah “Jody” Rich began his seventeenth year of weekly visits to Rhode Island’s state prison, the Adult Correctional Institution (ACI). The first inmate he saw that morning was a familiar one.

“How far do we go back?” Rich asked Charles Long.

Long shook his head mournfully. “Way back,” he said, his voice trailing off.

They talked inside a small examination room at the minimum-security prison on ACI’s sprawling campus in Cranston. Rich, an infectious-disease specialist and professor of medicine and community health at the Warren Alpert Medical School, sat behind an old metal desk that supported an outdated computer. Long rested on a plastic chair next to an exam table. Nearby were a young resident and the prison’s head nurse.

Laid low by drugs and sixteen prison stays in twenty-two years, Long, at sixty-one, was in bad shape. He had tested positive for HIV eighteen years earlier while incarcerated at the ACI, and the effects were catching up to him. His breathing was labored. He coughed frequently. His kidneys and heart were failing. His thin hair was arranged in cornrows above his small, weathered face, and his prison garb was a study in beige: beige sandals, beige flannels, and a light-beige thermal undershirt.

Inmates in Long’s condition are not uncommon among the 2.3 million prisoners in the United States, a number that forty years ago was only 200,000. More than half of those 2.3 million have a history of substance abuse or mental illness. Thanks to mandatory sentences for even minor drug violations, and to the deinstitutionalization of the mentally ill, prisons have often become overcrowded warehouses mixing young and old, sick and healthy, hardened criminals with men and women guilty mostly of being foolish and young.

Not until 1976 did the U.S. Supreme Court rule that the Constitution guarantees prisoners the right to health care. Yet how that right is acknowledged varies greatly from state to state. Jody Rich is one of several Brown doctors who over the past quarter century have quietly established Rhode Island as a national model for providing quality health care to incarcerated citizens. From the treatment of HIV infection to the easing of addiction, Brown physicians like Rich have been not only on a mission to ensure that people who have broken the law get adequate health care; they have also used their prestige to advocate for better living conditions in prisons more generally.

“These guys at Brown took some of the basics of providing health care to prisoners and they took it to another level, with the research and the systematic approach and the continuity of care,” says Dr. Mark Malek, the director of preventive medicine and epidemiology at the Los Angeles County Jail. He met Rich two years ago after asking the National Institutes of Health (NIH) about grants for treating prisoners with HIV. “I was told there’s a great group in Rhode Island I could learn a lot from.”

Malek says that Rich and his collaborators have approached prisoner health care as a public health mandate, and have streamlined the transition of health care for prisoners as they are released back into the community. The doctors are, Malek says, “an example for the rest of the country.”

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Louisiana drama

I spent the last two months reporting the case of the Louisiana horsemen’s group in which its leaders were indicted in November for a panoply of fraud – wire, mail, identity and health care – and are basically charged with trying to take anything that wasn’t tied down. It’s ensnared some powerful and well-known people in Louisiana racing. And its narrative conclusion is far from being written – the trial won’t be held until September.

The result of my investigation was a lengthy piece in the Daily Racing Form’s Weekend section last Saturday, where I’ve had the privilege of contributing my long-form stories for the last year and a half. The link is on the right side of the main page and also in the “Articles” tab above. What follows is the introduction to the piece.

If Hamlet were recast in modern America, is there any doubt where it would be set? Over the last six years in Louisiana, a Shakespearean performance full of intrigue, betrayal, greed, and family rivalries has played out within the Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association (HBPA), the non-profit group recognized by law as the voice of the more than 5,000 owners and trainers who race at the state’s four racetracks.

This storyline is as familiar to Louisianans as Mardi Gras. The populist governor Earl Long once said that his constituents “don’t want good government, they want good entertainment.” But if there is any entertainment here it could only be dark comedy.

Last November, the U.S. Attorney’s office of the Eastern District of Louisiana charged Sean Alfortish, the president of the HBPA, and Mona Romero, its executive director, with 29 counts of conspiracy to commit mail fraud, identity fraud, wire fraud, healthcare fraud, and witness tampering. The investigation took more than two years.

Alfortish, 43, and Romero, 52, pleaded not guilty and are free on bail. The board of the HBPA forced them to resign, and their trial is scheduled for September. If they are convicted on all 29 counts, Alfortish and Romero face maximum penalties of 280 years in jail and $7.25 million in fines.

Even for a game well acquainted with tomfoolery, this was sensational. Prosecutors say that beginning in March 2005, when Alfortish won election and then chose Romero as executive director, they siphoned off hundreds of thousands of dollars from the HBPA and its medical benefits trust for cash and salaries, parties and vacations, cars and entertainment, evening gowns and diamond cufflinks, and even a settlement in a sexual harassment suit.

That isn’t all. The indictment charges that after horsemen from around the country donated almost $800,000 for Hurricanes Katrina and Rita relief, Alfortish and Romero seized control of the funds and spent some on themselves and gave more to undeserving friends.

And, as a minority of elected members of the HBPA’s 10-person board asked more and more questions about the finances of the association, Alfortish and Romero, prosecutors say, conspired with three subordinates to rig the March 2008 election, replacing those members with their preferred candidates.

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MSN Money story

I wrote a story for Minyanville that was picked up by MSN Money and placed on its homepage today. For those who are interested, here is the direct link.

I spoke with Bill Lapp, former economist for ConAgra, about where food prices will go by 2015. With the price of grains doubling in the last nine months, there’s a whole lot of cost in the system that hasn’t been passed through to consumers — yet.

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