It wasn’t as if there was a shortage of practice in covering Triple Crown bids. American Pharoah’s victory at the 2015 Belmont Stakes ended a 37-year run without a Triple Crown winner that saw 13 horses head to New York with a chance at history and 12 (I’ll Have Another was scratched) fail.
APSE reached out to editors from local and national outlets which regularly cover horse racing and the Triple Crown races as part of the organization’s new Q&A series. Their input provides insight into how organizations of varying print circulations, from different regions and online presences went about planning for the event and executing their coverage.
An accompanying Q&A featuring writers who chronicled the Triple Crown races is also posted. We hope these Q&As provide insight and can be a tool for all in sports journalism, particularly members of APSE.
When does planning start for your Triple Crown coverage and how many people from your outlet are involved? How many did you have for day-of coverage (writers, photogs at Belmont, dedicated desk person) of the Belmont Stakes?
Chris White (Louisville Courier-Journal): By the time American Pharoah had two legs of the Triple Crown behind him, it felt pretty routine in planning since we’d essentially been in full horse mode since the day Kentucky’s basketball season ended. We had horse racing writer Jennie Rees and columnist Tim Sullivan on site along with photographers Michael Clevenger and Pat McDonough – all veteran pros on the horse beat. We also had another reporter, Jonathan Lintner, working from Louisville on a mix of original and aggregated content, largely around wagering. On the day of the race, we also enlisted some freelance help at Belmont for sidebars and videos (experts making their picks were huge, huge traffic draws for us).
On the desk, we had one of our full-time news assistants handling all the agate – we run some detailed charts for Triple Crown races – and some historical info boxes that we had largely anticipated and cribbed together long before to cover some of the more likely scenarios. The core editing crew consisted of two sports editors, myself included, and a pair of web producers. There was a photo editor helping us with the art from the office, and design studio supervisors and several of our news-side editors were communicating via email on headlines, lead art, etc.
Ron Fritz (Baltimore Sun): Ideally, for us, planning starts right after the Preakness for the next year. Hopefully those who covered the Preakness for us (metro, features, sports, multimedia, photo) look for story ideas during the event and I start an initial list of story ideas almost a year in advance. Then I usually forget about them until early the next year. For us, the Preakness and Triple Crown are one and the same and a huge coverage area.
Hank Winnicki (Newsday): Our Triple Crown planning started on the final turn at the Preakness when American Pharoah pulled away from the pack. When there’s a Triple Crown in play, obviously, we ramp it up.
Our team for the Belmont: 1 on-site editor, 4 sports reporters, 3 news reporters, 1 on-site photo editor, 5 photographers, 4 videographers, 8 large pizzas for the sports copy desk
From experience, we found an on-site editor to be a big help with this event. It helps to have a point person for both editors and reporters, especially during the post-race scramble. It’s also a great help in dealing with those unexpected events. This year, a horse broke down in the 4th race and had to be euthanized on the track. We were able to compile a thorough story with reaction from PETA, the jockey and fans without duplicating effort. It was among the most viewed stories on our website.
Our videographers produced a 14-minute documentary called, “The Backstretch” and one of our photographers got the photo that many felt was the iconic shot of the event.
Melissa Hoppert (New York Times): We began planning for the Triple Crown after the Preakness, when we knew for sure there would be a Triple Crown on the line. But with all the failed bids since 1978 we’ve had a lot of practice. We credentialed two staff writers, one freelancer and one columnist who normally cover the Triple Crown; four staff writers who barely cover racing but are amazing writers; one metro reporter; one web producer; one videographer; one graphics editor; and six photographers.
Teri Thompson (New York Daily News): Our planning begins in earnest as soon as the Preakness is run and there is the possibility of a Triple Crown winner. We begin planning our coverage of all the Triple Crown races, however, when we work on our yearly budget. We sent five writers to Belmont Saturday, in addition to the staff we have in the office to handle the copy, design the paper and populate the website throughout the day and night, and of course several photographers. In addition to our writers, we had two staffers producing social media copy at the race, beginning at about 6 a.m. Saturday. They produced Snap Chat video, Periscope video and of course Twitter and Facebook posts throughout the day. With 90,000 crazed fans at Belmont, the video we produced was really fun to watch.
Keith McMillan (Washington Post): We still have a dedicated horse-racing columnist in Andy Beyer who writes 24 columns throughout the year on various horse-racing events and issues; he burns through about a third to a half of those during Triple Crown season. He’ll typically write a column the Tuesday of race week on an issue, and the Friday of race week analyzing the race. He also provides a chart, with short sidebars, analyzing the race.
Patricia Mays (ESPN.com): The discussion began immediately after the Kentucky Derby and included members of our editorial, design, graphic and photo teams. On the ground, we had six writers, three photographers and a social editor, in addition to editors working out of the Bristol office.
Mark Beech (Sports Illustrated): Depends on the year and the race favorite. We don’t cover too many preps any more, and instead shoot for a preview story or scorecard item that comes out the week or two before the Kentucky Derby. With California Chrome last year, we had a pretty compelling story so we gave that more space. With American Pharoah this year, there just wasn’t the same touchy-feely stuff, so we went with a shorter scorecard item.
How do you handle coverage of the Kentucky Derby and Preakness by comparison?
White (Louisville Courier-Journal): Kentucky Derby planning started sometime in probably February, when we were still swallowed up with college basketball. Things really ramped up, news and sports side, about four weeks out and everyone pitched in the week of the Derby. I think we have roughly 35 writers, maybe nine or 10 editors and about half a dozen on photo staff. Everyone was out at Churchill Downs sometime during the week and I believe every single person had some hand in coverage on Derby day. Even the design hub made some special arrangements to have an exceptional number of people on hand to help lay out pages, edit stories and proofread pages. They even loaned me a veteran copy editor and racing fan who worked with me as an editor from Churchill Downs and was invaluable the week of Derby. We cover the Derby like a cultural affair, too, so many of the news-side folks were working on things like red carpet coverage.
Staffing scaled back considerably for the Preakness. We sent horse racing writer Jennie Rees and columnist Tim Sullivan, while reporter Jonathan Lintner did a lot of work aggregating other items, mostly on wagering. The editing staff didn’t go beyond the sports crew that night, and we did not send a staff photographer. We also enlisted some freelance help for a couple stories and some videos.
Fritz (Baltimore Sun): Obviously, with the Preakness being in Baltimore, most of our focus is on the Preakness. But we cover the Kentucky Derby and Belmont for all of the Tribune newspapers so I send a reporter to both in advance of the draw and hopefully we’ve come up with a budget of stories that we’ll be working on throughout the week that I share with the Tribune papers.
Winnicki (Newsday): We can throw a lot more muscle at the Belmont because it’s in our backyard. For the Derby and Preakness, we ride with Ed McNamara, who is among the most talented horse racing writers I’ve ever had the pleasure to read – and there are some great ones.
Hoppert (NYT): We cover all of the Triple Crown races. At the Derby and the Preakness, we have two staff reporters and a freelancer and several freelance photographers. Because the Belmont is in our back yard, we normally go big, and when there’s a Crown on the line, we assemble what I like to call, The Dream Team.
Thompson (NYDN): Because the Belmont Stakes is in New York, and because of the possibility of the Triple Crown, we send at least five times the staff to the race.
McMillan (WaPo): During the Belmont, we sent Chuck Culpepper and columnist Sally Jenkins for race-day coverage. By comparison, just Chuck was at the Derby, and Dave Sheinin and Beyer covered the Preakness; some of this is because of geography and expertise as well as putting our best writers on site; Chuck and Sally have covered Belmonts in the past, Dave and Andy live near Pimlico and cover it frequently, etc.
Mays (ESPN.com): We had fewer people at Churchill Downs, but covered the first legs of the Triple Crown at a level appropriate for two of the most important horse racing events of the year.
Beech (SI): The Derby was going to be a story no matter who won. The Preakness was only going to be a story if the Derby-winner won – barring something extraordinary happening. We handled by doing a two-page scorecard essay.
With the 13 prior bids not coming to fruition, how much did your organization already have prepared and kept on file? For how long?
White (Louisville Courier-Journal): I think we knew going into the Belmont that, win or lose, American Pharoah was our big story, so I wasn’t worried about it being another failed bid. Our plan was to go big either way. I also avoided looking back at how we had covered past attempts simply because I didn’t want to be influenced to do things the way we have always done them.
Fortunately, Jennie Rees has covered horse racing for us since the early 1980s – and had been on hand for 11 of the failed attempts – so she is an encyclopedia. And if she doesn’t know something off the top of her head, she has the bookshelf and media guide collection to find the answer in a snap. Over the years, she also has developed some interesting charts and handicapping systems of her own, so in that sense some of our presentation remained pretty similar.
Other than building some additional historical charts and info boxes, by this point we had already dug up so much archived information over the previous couple of months that there was never a worry about having enough.
Fritz (Baltimore Sun): We had lists, photo galleries and capsules of the previous attempts done in advance. Since the last attempt was California Chrome in 2014, much of it didn’t take long to update.
Winnicki (Newsday): There are some staple items we have in stock from previous years, such as photo galleries, databases and graphics.
Hoppert (NYT): We don’t have anything on file per se, but we definitely have written every historical look back known to man about the previous 11 Triple Crown winners. We like to package them all together and bring them back every year.
Thompson (NYDN): We had daily coverage for the week leading up to the race, with features, charts, predictions, graphics. Our inside staff turned around graphics quickly after the race.
McMillan (WaPo): We did not have a dedicated person on the copy desk, and obviously our plan on the desk was to go bigger if American Pharoah won. We also spent a lot of time, in words and graphics, looking at the previous Triple Crown bids that failed, so if that had happened, we’d have still given in prominence.
Mays (ESPN.com): In the three weeks between the Preakness and the Belmont, we prepared content that accounted for an American Pharoah win or loss, and could be made available on our digital and social platforms quickly after the race.
Beech (SI): Nothing on file from the 13 prior bids.
If American Pharoah failed like the 13 (12 who ran) prior, what was your plan (quantity of coverage, story prominence, etc.)?
White (Louisville Courier-Journal): It would have been the same on race day, though we wouldn’t be here putting together a special section or printing posters.
Fritz (Baltimore Sun): The story would not have gone on 1A, but would have still been the sports centerpiece. I would have still had a column, local scene and notebook. I would have had 1 ½ pages to 2 pages of coverage either way.
Winnicki (Newsday): If American Pharoah failed, most of the coverage would have stayed in the sports section. When he won, it received more prominence in the front of the paper.
Hoppert (NYT): We still would have had the same amount of stories in the newspaper, but we would not have had an A1 article. We also would not have had as many stories in the days after the race.
Mays (ESPN.com): The plan was to have a news story, analysis of the race (in this case, likely focused on what went wrong for Pharoah), and commentary about the inherent challenges of the Triple Crown quest and state of horse racing.
Beech (SI): Belmont was scheduled to get a two-page spread in leading off if American Pharoah lost.
What was your main print headline and how many people were involved in deciding it?
White (Louisville Courier-Journal): Our A1 headline was “PHAROAH CROWNED” and our sports front had “ROYALTY.” There were about a dozen people weighing in on those.
Fritz (Baltimore Sun): On 1A, it was “Pharoah Crowned.” Probably 8-10 people suggested ideas. On our front it was a quote from a fan in the local scene piece, “A part of history.”
Winnicki (Newsday): Our front page came together beautifully. Our front page photo received national acclaim, the headline was “All American,” which came from the person designing the page, Elysia Smith.
Hoppert (NYT): On A1 it was “Riding Into History by Five and Half Lengths: American Pharoah Is First Triple Crown Winner Since ’78.” On Sports it was “Sport of Kings Finally Crowns One.” Several people were involved in selecting the headlines, from the rim editor to the slot editor to the news desk, which approves A1 headlines.
Thompson (NYDN): We decided on a wrap cover following the race, with the headline: “PHAROAH’S CROWN!” It’s a gorgeous cover, decided on by the editor of the paper and the Sunday news editor. The readout is “American Pharoah takes Belmont Stakes, wins 1st Triple Crown since ’78.” It’s a gorgeous collectible poster cover.
McMillan (WaPo): A1 “American Phanoah’s historic Triple Crown” and ‘American’ history on sports front
Mays (ESPN.com): Wait is over: American Pharoah wins Triple Crown
Beech (SI): Main headline for cover of magazine was “All American Pharoah.” main headline for story was “Holy …” Two, maybe three, people in on those.
There’s no way to know if next year’s Kentucky Derby winner will vie for a Triple Crown as well, but how do you anticipate this changing your coverage of next year’s Derby?
White (Louisville Courier-Journal): I think we’ll continue to increase our wagering and picks coverage, we had a good deal of success with some new video formats and we really amped up our SEO and social media game this year with some really strong results – but I think there’s room for improvement in all those categories.
We also have some educational assets – Jennie Rees has an online how-to-bet page that serves as a great primer if, like me, you have no idea how to do that – and we’d like to do more that to help the casual fan better understand the sport itself.
Fritz (Baltimore Sun): Since we cover horse racing for Tribune, we probably won’t change much. Each year the Triple Crown series is big for us, the Preakness provides a lot of online traffic and we’re the source of information for a lot of those who go.
Winnicki (Newsday): I anticipate the sport getting more coverage and interest next year.
Hoppert (NYT): I think there will be bigger interest going into the Derby, and we will probably send another staff writer. Then again, with hotel rooms going for $750 a night, maybe not.
Thompson (NYDN): I don’t think our Kentucky Derby coverage will change for next year. We generally send a writer and a columnist, although this year, mainly because of scheduling issues with other sports going on, we only sent one person.
McMillan (WaPo): I don’t think this will change our coverage plans all that much. We will still staff the Derby and Preakness, and measure the amount of interest in the Belmont by the performances in those two races. In years when there is a Triple Crown contender, we find interest to be through the roof. Now that people have seen it, will they be as interested? Maybe not, but time will tell.
Mays (ESPN.com): We don’t anticipate making any changes.
Beech (SI): We won’t have to write about the 38-year drought. We’ll do stories on the Derby, maybe the Preakness, if the Derby-winner wins, and the Belmont if a Triple Crown is on the line. Don’t know about the cover.