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Archive for May, 2010

My wife Patty and I had a great time in Louisville, my hometown, last week. Derby week always yields thrills, disappointments and interesting experiences. 

Here are three that stood out for me. 

* On Thursday, I went to the track with Joe Drape, a Kansas City native who is the turf writer for The New York Times. Joe and I had exchanged some e-mails and a few phone calls the last couple of years, but, to the best of my recollection, we had not met before Thursday. 

After meeting at 7:45 a.m. at his hotel not far from Churchill Downs, we drove to the track in his rented SUV. The barn area, open to the public most days, was crowded with people who had come to watch the Derby horses gallop. Outside the barn of trainer Bob Baffert, a three-time Kentucky Derby winner, Joe first interviewed Garrett (sp?) Gomez, who would ride Derby favorite Lookin at Lucky, trained by Baffert. Gomez spoke quietly, in a near monotone, and maintained a blank expression, which seemed to soften in the rays of the early-morning sun.  

Bob Baffert (left) and Joe Drape

 

Then Baffert appeared, wearing pressed jeans and wearing his trademark sunglasses. After posing for a photo with some fans, Baffert began talking with Joe, who had concluded his interview with Gomez. Joe introduced me to Baffert, and the three of us talked for a couple of minutes. We talked about Lookin at Lucky’s unlucky post position, No. 1, on the extreme inside, where he was likely to get squeezed as the outside horses pushed toward the rail. We talked about the weather forecast — heavy rain — and how Lookin at Lucky might handle a sloppy track.  

As the conversation began to lag, I decided on the spur of the moment to ask Baffert a question about the horse that I liked — Noble’s Promise. Like Lookin at Lucky, Noble’s Promise prefers to run toward the front of the pack, and he would break from the No. 3 hole, just one spot removed from Lookin at Lucky. 

And so I spoke up: “Where do you think Noble’s Promise will be?” 

Baffert looked at me squarely in the eye and without missing a beat, replied, “I don’t have the slightest idea, and I don’t care.” And with that, he turned and walked away. I turned to Joe, smiled and said, “Sorry I killed your interview.”   

* On Derby morning, I went to the track by myself. The Derby is always sold out long before Derby Day, and I always try to buy tickets on track grounds for less than face value. My track record is good: I’m cheap, but I’m a pretty good negotiator, and I work various angles. 

In the Derby ticket game, I’ve found, marketing is very important. The people who stand around holding up their fingers, seeking, one, two or three tickets, usually don’t do that well. People who have extra tickets to sell tend to give prospective buyers a good looking over (in many cases, the buyer will be in a six-person box with the seller) and simply ignore a lot of would-be buyers. 

I always try to dress relatively well (although it was sprinkling Saturday, and I wore a green rain jacket over my shirt), and I always have a home-made sign. On Saturday, my sign read, “Need 1 or 2, for me (Jim) and my wife (Patty).” I thought the personal touch might be a plus, and it also achieved another purpose: It told sellers that I did not intend to buy the tickets and then resell them at a higher price. 

I staked out a position about 150 yards from the clubhouse entrance, away from an area closer to the entrance, where a few other buyers were lurking. To my left, people were streaming by on foot. To my right, cars full of people edged toward the valet parking area. Both lines of traffic — foot and vehicular — had a good view of me and my sign. I stood there smiling, not saying much. As the people came by, almost all of them looked at me and read my sign. A couple of people said something like, “Hey, what if you only get one ticket — who goes in, you or Patty?”  

After half an hour or so, a head popped up from the sun roof of a black SUV, and the person whistled and gestured at me. I slowly walked to the vehicle, and the woman seated in the front passenger seat displayed two first-floor clubhouse tickets — on the rail about 100 yards past the finish line. The face value was $162 each. “I’ll take $200 for them,” she said. “Will you take $200 for both of them?” I asked. “Yes,” she said. “That’s what I meant. I wouldn’t try to sell them for more than they’re worth.” Just like that, we had a deal. The family had two boxes, each with six seats, and they happened to have two more tickets than they had people.    

As I was walking away, the woman’s husband said, “Now, you’re not going to sell those, are you?” I assured him that I was going back to where I was staying to change clothes, pick up my wife and return to the track. I would be sitting with members of his family, and friends of theirs, for the 136th running of the Kentucky Derby. 

* Late Saturday afternoon, as the field of 20 Derby horses hit the top of the home stretch, I thought I had the Kentucky Derby winner. I let out a shriek as my horse, Noble’s Promise took the lead from two front-running horses who were slowing down. For several strides, Noble’s Promise, who had gone off at odds of 24-1, led the race. But just as quickly as he had taken the lead, he, too, slowed and relinquished the lead. Joe Drape had told me that Noble’s Promise, bred more for speed than distance, would not be able to survive the stretch run. He was right. 

Super Saver wins the Derby

 

Super Saver, the eventual winner, passed my horse. So did Ice Box, who finished second; Paddy O’Prado, who finished third; and Make Music for Me, who finished fourth. But not Lookin at Lucky. Oh, no, he finished sixth, one spot behind my horse. But, at that point, as the horses flashed by the finish line, I didn’t have the slightest idea where Lookin at Lucky was. And I didn’t care.

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As some of you know, I was in Louisville, my hometown, all last week for the Kentucky Derby and related activities.

Despite a lot of rain on Saturday, Derby Day, it was a great time, and the city was throbbing with action and anticipation. On Sunday, the day after Derby, there’s always a bit of a letdown, a communal hangover, as people float back down to earth and try to return to their normal routines.

One thing almost all Louisvillians, as well as out-of-town visitors do on Sunday is read The Courier-Journal’s special Derby section, where people can read about all facets of Derby Day, from the race itself to the fashion on display and the celebrities who attended. The special section — usually 20 pages or more — takes weeks to plan and involves thousands of hours of work by editors, reporters, photographers, artists, designers, copy editors and others. It is always well done and as much a part of the Derby aftermath as rumpled suits and dresses and soiled Derby hats.

But this year there was a problem, a really big problem. For most of the Courier’s 240,000 Sunday subscribers, the paper — the news and Derby sections, anyway — did not come out on Sunday morning. Just after the presses began to run Saturday night, an unusual and fatal press failure occurred. Sunday morning, tens of thousands of people woke up and found only the pre-printed sections — opinion, the arts, features, etc. — in their boxes or on their doorsteps.

The “live sections” — the main news section, the Metro section, the regular sports section and, of course, the Derby section — were missing. Understandably, the calls began pouring in to the paper. I was staying at my uncle’s house, and he began calling before 8 a.m., getting a recording that said, “All circuits are busy.” 

Thousands of people, undoubtedly, went to their local convenience and grocery stores in search of papers, but what many of them found was what my wife Patty and I found — hand-printed signs on the doors saying, “No papers.” About the only place where some full papers were available were hotels relatively close to downtown and Churchill Downs. 

Later in the day, Courier-Journal President and Publisher Arnold Garson said at a news conference that the paper received “tens of thousands of calls.” The press failure, which Garson said involved “complex electronic circuitry,” did not affect the paper’s online presentation. The Derby stories and photos, and all the other “live” stories, were there. But it wasn’t the same.

“This is the worst possible time” for a press failure to occur, he noted. The paper had planned a run of 270,000 papers, Garson said, which would have allowed for single-copy sales of about 30,000. To learn more about the press failure and to  highlights of Garson’s press conference, click here

Almost all newspapers, including The Star, experience routine problems that interrupt the press run, but a catastrophic problem like the one The Courier-Journal experienced is extremely rare. And, unfortunately, it happened on the paper’s best-read, most-anticipated edition of the year.     

On Sunday afternoon and evening, the live Sunday sections were being printed in Indianapolis, as were copies of today’s paper. This morning, subscribers got Sunday’s live sections along with today’s paper. 

As a result of the press failure, The Courier-Journal suffered significant monetary losses. The greater potential threat, however, is a loss of confidence among subscribers. Even though newspapers have suffered significant circulation declines in the last decade or so, the bond between many communities and their daily newspaper is very strong, and it’s not due primarily to the online product — not yet, anyway. It’s because of the newspaper that people pick up in their yards, hold in their hands and read with their eyes. It’s one thing they count on every day. They might complain about the product, but they’ve come to expect it to at least arrive.   

Hopefully, most Courier-Journal subscribers will understand that the weekend debacle was an aberration. The incident should not significantly dent subscribers’ confidence in the company, but that doesn’t mean it won’t. These are tenuous times in the newspaper business, and readers have many more options. The Courier-Journal would be wise to reach out in some way to its subscribers to try to make amends for Derby Debacle 2010.

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