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The Drug Runners

In all my years as a journalist, I’ve never spent as much time on a story as the one I recently wrote for Texas Monthly. The piece is about the plight of the world’s greatest long-distance runners, the Tarahumara of northern Mexico, whose land is being stolen by drug cartels as they’re forced into ferrying drugs into the U.S.

I began reporting this two years ago — traveling to the Sierra Madre last fall and later to West Texas to meet with border lawyers there — and believe that the story says a lot about the futile drug war, the American legal system, and the struggles of an ancient people trying to hold onto their way of life in the face of incredibly dangerous forces.

It’s in the August issue of Texas Monthly (on newsstands now) and featured on its website. Tomorrow at 2 p.m. Eastern, I’ll be speaking about it on the KERA show “Think” out of Dallas.

Update: Here is an archived broadcast of the “Think” episode. The story has also been featured on Longform, Longreads, and The Sunday Long Read.

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On sports-betting touts

I’ve been around gambling since I was 10, when I placed my first wager, $2 to win, on the jet-black Allen Jerkens trainee Devil His Due in the 1993 Iselin Handicap at Monmouth Park. (He finished third; Valley Crossing won the star-studded race that year.) I’ve bet the ponies ever since, added poker in college; have played backgammon and gin rummy for a few decades, and occasionally plunked down on sports. One thing I learned from a young age is to do your own handicapping; besides the enjoyment one finds in studying and learning from a lifetime of mistakes and rarer successes, it is also near-impossible to beat the game regularly. I know very few full-time horse bettors, and in the last few years, met a few full-time sports bettors. In horse racing, here in the U.S., you’re up against your fellow bettor; in sports, it’s even harder because you’re up against the bookmaker.

One of these sports bettors recently told me that there can only be so many winners; while designing and betting off of his MLB model some years ago, he was always fearful that the edges he had found would be discovered by other bettors, and then the betting markets would recalibrate, his advantage lost.

I’ve always been skeptical of tips, sure things, and people who want to sell you their expertise, a.k.a. touts. I’d seen these men on TV or heard them on the radio, citing information I knew was already baked into betting lines. I wondered why mainstream media outlets offered almost no skepticism to their claims. And if they were making good money from betting, I also wondered, why did they want the attention from selling picks for a relatively small amount of money? Who needs the grief?

I knew from experience. For one summer in 2006, I was the official program handicapper at Monmouth Park. Besides picking every race, in the Asbury Park Press’s long-running Daily Double feature I wagered off a mythical starting bankroll of $2,000. I was “The Man” and was pitted against a revolving “Fan of the Day.”

People came up to me all the time at the track to compliment a winning bet or, more likely, a loser. I finished positive by $100 or so, which given The Man’s finishing bankroll in previous years, felt like an incredible triumph. Nobody had to pay for this stuff.

So in the spring of 2015, I started looking at the modern tout industry — bettors who claim that, by paying them, they’ll help you win more than you would without them. I’ve worked on several stories alongside this one, but like any investigative issue, it turned out to be the most exhaustive. You can’t rush the time needed to understand a complex subject.

You can read it here, on Deadspin, a place I had written for before — including a feature on a high-profile horse-racing stable turned Ponzi scheme. I knew their editors had an appetite for a story like this.

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Borough Park

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June 13, 2016 · 12:16 pm

“Out there”

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I’m often told by my friends that I live out there. A shapeless, faceless, undefined place in south-central Brooklyn; too far from Manhattan, too far from the hip parts of Brooklyn, too far from anything that matters, too different. At first I resented that description. Now I enjoy it.

I have lived out there (Kensington, precisely) for more than a year now (14 months to be exact), and everything about it makes me feel at peace. Henry Miller wrote in “Air-Conditioned Nightmare” about feeling at home in the slums of New York, because these are where the immigrants are, and they’re European and hence not American in quality or outlook. I don’t live in the slums; in fact it is an unbelievably diverse, working-class, family-oriented community with folks who have landed from Tibet, Uzbekistan, Georgia, Azerbaijan, Russia, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Mexico, and a dozen other countries I’m forgetting. There is a timeless quality to living out there; a satisfaction and contentment among folks who aren’t worried about getting their kids into an expensive private pre-school, or moving to a hipper neighborhood, or how they should spend their weekends according to what New York Magazine says. What’s better than living on Ocean Parkway? Playgrounds for your children, a tree-lined boulevard to stroll, concrete tables to play chess or backgammon, the sounds of dice competing with vehicular noise.

Many weeknights since I moved, I have jumped the B train to Brighton Beach for an evening swim or to walk the boardwalk. To be near the sea. This feels incredible to me, that I can get on a train and be on the sand in 15 minutes. Makes me think of early Lou Reed, singing “Coney Island Baby.” I took that above photo one night in the spring. An almost waif-like woman walking alone on the beach. Some nights I walk through Borough Park and feel transported in time. I see art-deco buildings and neon signs and think people would pay big bucks to live in these places, if it weren’t out there. People who tell me New York is dead are missing the picture. I mean, many parts of it are, and we all spend too much money to live here — Manhattan, save for Chinatown, feels like a foreign land to me now, a museum city, preserved in Formaldehyde. But out there, there’s a wildness to life. People fill the streets at night. When I lived in Cobble Hill for seven years, I used to walk through Brooklyn Heights on a summer night and see nobody on the street or on their front steps. Were they inside watching television? Upstate? They weren’t on the Promenade, which was rarely crowded. I never understood this. The playground next to my current building is like a children’s United Nations. On Coney Island Avenue, you can get a haircut or Sugarcane at any hour of the night. Men gather in small groups on Ocean Parkway, or outside cramped apartment houses. You almost never hear English, and I like that. On Ditmas Avenue, dozens of men, probably Russian or Azerbaijani, play backgammon late into the night at Brandon’s Tea & Grocery. They don’t sell produce there. Some nights, I have seen 40 people waiting to get on a table, or just watching the action. The other night at a new Turkish gyro place, four Russian men poured shots of vodka out of a porcelain tea kettle. It was 6:30. My friend and I call our neighborhood the Fertile Crescent; if you want to see what people looked like 3,000 years ago, come to Ditmas Avenue and Ocean Parkway.

If I want tranquility, I walk a few blocks into Ditmas Park. Down sycamore-lined Argyle Street, past the weeping willow on Dorchester, up streets with spacious front porches and privet hedges. It’s like walking through one large botanic garden, and I imagine it felt that way in the early 20th century when these districts were carved up from farmland. Some of these houses have turned over two or three times in a century. I tell people that I can see the stars at night, and they rarely believe me. And when I leave the Cortelyou Road station it’s like coming into a small village. Cafe Tibet looks like it’s about to tip over onto the tracks, at Vincent’s barbershop across the street prices haven’t changed in 25 years, and a few blocks away San Remo sells slices out of its window. I was sold on this area two years ago when I came on a Sunday, the farmer’s market was open, and I had never seen such humanity in my time in New York. This is what Old New York feels like.

And the food…I’ve never eaten so well in my life: Trinidadian, Pakistani, Tibetan, Turkish, Moldovan, Uighur, Uzbeki, Mexican, take your pick. I will write another essay on Shayna’s on Church Avenue, run by the matronly Joyce Bittan, one of my favorite people and favorite restaurants in the whole world. All cheap, all fresh, a little dirty, and bursting with life and character. No white tablecloths here, or fancy ratings, or preciousness.

Out there is not for everyone. It is not conventional, it is ageless, and I hope it stays that way.

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The Dark Horse

I wrote my first story for Deadspin today, “The Dark Horse: How Big Brown’s People Nearly Pulled Off Horse Racing’s Biggest Scam,” an approximately 5,000-word account of the downfall of Big Brown’s human connections since the colt finished last 5 years ago in his attempt to break the Triple Crown spell. You can read it here. Also deserving of credit is Barry Petchesky, who was the editor on the piece and is one of the few journalists still interested in horse racing, and thus was eagerly receptive to the idea.

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For new visitors to the site, feel free to look around and peruse the other stories I’ve written, in the Articles section.

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Film, radio, and print

Some news to share. Last night, the ESPN Films “30 for 30” documentary on which I was the associate producer, Benji, finally aired. The film tells the story of the tragic murder of Chicago high school basketball star Ben Wilson in 1984; his death rocked the city and the lives of his friends and family, and still reverberates today. I’m proud of the film and those who had a role in it. I think we told a compelling story, one in which a sports narrative extends beyond box scores and locker-room quotes.

It also played at the Chicago International Film Festival last week. Here is a video from the Q&A that followed the Thursday night show. It was a surreal moment for those who’ve seen the film.

Elsewhere, last month I was interviewed on the WBUR (Boston) show “Here and Now” about equine genetics and the concurrent article I wrote for the Times. I think I sound better in the end than I felt at the time.

Lastly, my most recent feature was for the Daily Racing Form about geriatric trainers and the rich history of old men training well into their eighties, and why that’s such a colorful, important, unique part of the game. I spoke to some true legends for the story, men with enough stories for a few lifetimes.

 

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Various stories

The last few weeks have been busy, with the documentary I worked on, “Benji,” the story of the late Chicago basketball star Ben Wilson, premiering at the Tribeca Film Festival last month. For those who didn’t catch it, it will make its televised debut on ESPN in October. I had a great time on the project, from my joining directors Coodie Simmons and Chike Ozah and producers Ted Schillinger and Amani Martin in July, through to its finish in April. It was a pleasure being part of that team, along with accomplished editor Jason Schmidt, and several others.

There was no rest, as I wrote three articles which came out last week. The first two were features for the International Herald Tribune’s Kentucky Derby preview section and the other was a profile for the Daily Racing Form about quintessential powerbroker Dennis Drazin’s plan to save Monmouth Park, the historic track in New Jersey and a place where I first placed a bet and got my start as a writer years ago (2000, to be exact).

The IHT stories are here and here. The first is about Take Charge Indy’s trainer Patrick Byrne, and his revived career. Unfortunately Take Charge Indy ran poorly in the Derby while coming out with an ankle injury. The second article is about Went the Day Well’s trainer Graham Motion and owner Team Valor; their horse ran a credible fourth, and I give him a big chance in the Preakness on Saturday. Here is the Daily Racing Form article on Monmouth Park.

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