Photo: Don August
Last week, the New York Times rolled out a story called The Jockey: Russell Baze.
It first broke on multi-media as an eight chapter story, inter spliced with racing videos, illustrations, interviews and pictures. Quite a masterpiece if you ask me. Four days later, it made its print debut as a featured story in the Times.
The author Barry Bearak, had long finished the piece before it ever made its appearance to the public. But once all the issues were worked out with the multi-media filming, it finally saw the light of day.
The story chronicled the life and times of Baze, North America’s winningest jockey. From his time as a child, through his 50,000 mount, you learn more about him than you thought you would ever know.
For Bearak, the story was a stretch from what he is used to doing. Bearak won a Pulitzer Prize in 2002 for his stories about poverty and war in Afghanistan. According to his Wikipedia profile, Bearak is a “ Pulitzer Prize winning American journalist and professor of journalism who has worked as a reporter and correspondent for The Miami Herald, The Los Angeles Times, and The New York Times. He also taught journalism as a visiting professor at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. Since August 2011, Bearak has been working for the Sports staff of the New York Times.”
In 2008, Bearak made headlines when he was taken into custody by Zimbabwean police on a crackdown of journalists that were covering the 2008 election. The charges were “falsely presenting himself as a journalist." After 5 days in captivity, he was released when the state failed to provide evidence of any crime.
So how did this policial writer turned sports writer pull off this story? and what went into putting it all together?
Well, Bearak made 4 trips west to Golden Gate Fields, beginning last November, staying as long as two weeks at one time. We also went to Southern California to conduct a few interviews and traveled to Montana to talk with Baze’s parents.
The rest I will let you read just as I heard it.
BAB: How did you get to do this story?
Bearak: Sports editor Joe Sexton (who is no longer in that post), loved horse racing. He knew who Russell was and thought he’d make a good profile. He gave me the idea almost as if it was a gift. I was a foreign correspondent in South Africa, and he was trying to recruit me to join the sports department when I came back in 2011. He fired some story ideas at me, and Baze was one of them.
BAB: What did you know about horse racing when you first started?
Bearsak: I knew quite a bit. I knew the horses ran counter- clockwise and they had 4 legs.
BAB: How much did you know about Russell?
Bearak: I started to do some research and googled Russell and read some stories but didn’t educate myself on racing until Russell agreed to do it. I read everything I could find on Russell and read a lot of books about horse racing. Trainer Steve Miyadi was very helpful in recommending books on the sport.
BAB: When you were here, did you think you had done enough research?
Bearak: I’m a nervous reporter. I worry. I never think I know enough. I’ve been doing this for such a long time. On one hand, there’s this anxiety you live with as a reporter. On the other hand, the great thing about being a reporter, is you’re always going into new worlds and you get to look at them in a way an explorer would. There’s an anxiety dream that is common . It’s where you suddenly realize you signed up for a course in college and forgot about it and then the final exam is coming and you haven’t gone to any of the classes or read any of the books and your trying to play catch up.
BAB: what did you learn most about Russell the person?
Bearak: I'm fairly skeptical about people but Russell is so genuine. You talk to them once or twice and you wonder if they are actually like that. But that’s Russell, he is that person. With some people you have to peel them like an onion but not him.
BAB: What did you enjoy the most about doing the story?
Bearak: Being able to hang out on the backside of a racetrack is just a joy. It turned into one of those stories that you’re snickering to yourself and saying “they are paying me to do this."
BAB: How will this story rank with other stories you have done?
Bearak: I think it’s one of the better stories I’ve done in terms of enjoyment. What I’ve learned after all these years as a reporter, is you need a couple years to go by to really evaluate your work.
In case you havn’t seen the piece on multi-media, it is a must view for all horse racing fans. Barry did a great job capturing the real Baze and the video parts are incredible footage. If this piece is not an eclipse award winner, I don’t know what is.
Click Here to view the piece.