Thursday, 12 August 2021 14:58

A Conversation with Horse Racing Author and Historian Edward L. Bowen

By Joe Raucci | Sports

Ed Bowen is the author of 22 books pertaining to many aspects of Thoroughbred horse racing. His resume includes nearly a quarter century as managing editor and then editor-in-chief of The Blood-Horse, a publication that covers the world of Thoroughbred racing and breeding. He also took his talents north of the border, where he served as editor of The Canadian Horse. Ed is also a past President of the Grayson-Jockey Club Research Foundation, an organization dedicated to the well being of horses. He is the recipient of numerous awards including an Eclipse Award for Outstanding Magazine Writing.

I became acquainted with Ed through a mutual friend, long time horse racing celebrity and the creator of Simulcast, Tommy Roberts. I recently asked Ed if he would agree to an interview with a question and answer format. To my delight, he accepted. I had so many questions that I wanted to ask. Unfortunately space is never a writer’s ally. That being said, I narrowed it down to a select few.

So, without further delay let’s gain an appreciation of Ed’s own words and excuse the pun, there will be no editing of the editor.

You have had an extraordinary career as both an author and editor. Would you tell us how you became interested in horse racing and how you got started in the business?

I grew up in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, and being able to watch Wednesday and Saturday stakes from Hialeah on television was one of three elements that created a great interest in horse racing. The two other elements were my family having riding horses and an aunt sending my brother and me the Black Stallion books for Christmas. Walter Farley made some of those books virtual primers on horse racing.

The Black Stallion’s Filly was particularly educational in its descriptions of the Kentucky Derby and the prep races leading up to it.

When I was 15, I talked my parents into visiting Lexington instead of our usual short vacation trips to North Carolina or Virginia. This is how I discovered The Blood-Horse. Later, in college, I spent one summer working on the broodmare crew at Ocala Stud and another summer as a hot walker and then groom at Monmouth Park. The following year, 1963, The Blood-Horse had major changes in staff. I applied and was accepted, so I transferred from journalism school at the University of Florida to the University of Kentucky. Believe me, I was, and have always remained, thankful and aware of my incredible fortune that so many things fell into place in that pattern and that so many people who didn’t know me took a chance on me.

You rose up the ladder when Charles Hatton and Joe Hirsch were the premier writers on the American Turf scene. Did you learn anything from their styles of writing?

I paid attention to them and other racing writers, but Kent Hollingsworth, the new editor of The Blood- Horse, was my primary influence. I regarded myself as his student for nearly 25 years. He pushed us to expand to familiarity with a variety of writers and subjects, and my job naturally acquainted me with older racing writers such as Joe Estes, Joe Palmer, John Harvey, and Walter Vosburgh. The managing editor at The Blood-Horse my first five years was a veteran sportswriter, Larry Shropshire. He implanted the thought that a grammatical mistake was on a par with breaking one of the Ten Commandments--- depending on which one, of course.

You have written numerous books on the “The Sport of Kings.” Looking back which are your favorites and why?

A couple of them involved specific sentiments that guaranteed they would be among my favorites. Back in my days of developing interest, the three year old campaign of Nashua when I was 12 really had sealed the deal for my love of the sport. To be able to write a book about him nearly 50 years later made the cliché “labor of love” a statement of fact. Also, my most recent book was on the history of Claiborne Farm. I still have a photo of my brother and me looking over a Claiborne paddock fence at Bold Ruler in 1959. Then, to have worked for Dell Hancock, chairman of Grayson- Jockey Club Research Foundation, for so many years later made that book on her family’s historic farm another special project in a personal sense.

Also, I found myself enjoying a book on trainers, Masters of the Turf, more than I had expected. I was worried that chapters would involve repetitions of similar careers. However, when you delve into those careers, each was an extraordinary story within the catalogue of the charms that Thoroughbreds can bring to people’s lives. Of course, the fact that many of my books were published by The Blood-Horse has added to my appreciation of the opportunities.

Every poll that rates the greatest American thoroughbreds of all time have Man O’ War, Secretariat and Citation leading the list. Does any racehorse that you have witnessed compare with them?

I have no quarrel with those three having pride of place, but I wish that Kelso would be recognized more widely as joining them to create a “big four.” It is instructive of the many ways greatness in a Thoroughbred is summoned and expressed that each of those horses did things the others didn’t. Yet, I have yet to see any horse have what I regard as a perfect career---perfect in a sense of achieving all the revered benchmarks and also never having campaigns seriously altered because of any form of setback or late physical development.

Having attended Churchill Downs for more than 50 Kentucky Derbies, are there any that stand out to you over the rest?

It would be tempting for anyone to look at his/her first Kentucky Derby as a standout. When that one happened to be won by Northern Dancer it makes for an even more compelling case. Given Northern Dancer’s half-century-plus as a major pedigree influence, I can quip that “One of these days I’m going to finish that story.”

One also quickly learns to revere Derbies that reward certain individuals, so seeing owner-breeder Paul Mellon and trainer Mack Miller win with Sea Hero in 1993 ranks very highly. Also, as someone enthralled with racing history, it was a unique moment when I realized I was watching a filly win the Derby. When Genuine Risk won it in 1980 she re-wrote one of the milestones I had learned early, i. e., that Regret (1915) was the only filly ever to win the Derby. You seldom have the luxury of being able to put any moment into context so thoroughly with such immediacy.

And not to ignore pure ego, my wife and I both have professional ties to the Bell Family of the old Jonabell Farm. We rented a house on the farm for some years. Holy Bull was among the stallions there when our son was very young, and whenever he saw a gray horse, he would say “Holy Bull.” When the Holy Bull colt Giacamo won the 2005 Derby at 50-1, my delight was enhanced not only by my having bet on him but from having predicted the victory on a radio program the week before! Horses and racing make you humble most of the time, but not ALL the time.

You won an Eclipse Award for Outstanding Magazine Writing in 1972. Can you tell us about it?

Fortunately, there are no serious aspects of my life that have to be described as being lonely for a half a century. But that poor Eclipse Award in my living room is just about to reach that milestone! I try to conjure the phrase “splendid isolation” rather than “still all alone.” Seriously, the award came along in only the second year of the Eclipse Award program, 1972. The fact that it applied to an article that I wrote for The Blood-Horse, that the subject was the Kentucky Derby, and I did the research in the Keeneland Library meant that it embraced many elements that already had come to mean so much to me.

You are an expert on the history of the breeding of Thoroughbred racehorses. Is there one stallion that stands out to you as the sport’s greatest sire?

In terms of lasting influence still with us I would have to say, Phalaris because his legacy entails all the riches in the male-line descent from both Nearco and Native Dancer. That gives you Nasrullah, Bold Ruler, Northern Dancer, Galileo, Royal Charger, as well Raise a Native, Mr. Prospector, etc. To focus on a more recent stallion and his influence in just a few generations I lean towards Northern Dancer. He seems such a distant figure in some ways, and yet was close up (grandsire) in the pedigree of the contemporary Galileo. Like I said, that 1964 Kentucky Derby story is still being written.

You have spent a lot of time at both Keeneland and Saratoga. They both have a shrine like appeal to horse racing fans. Can you give us your thoughts on what makes them special?

This leads me to an aside. I remember once reading an interview featuring the late Louis Lee Haggin II, whose career and family were wrapped up in Keeneland in a most personal way. He told the questioner that he could not quite “put my finger on what makes Keeneland so special” or words to that effect. I thought, “Well, if he can’t do it after living and breathing Keeneland all his career, the pressure is surely off the rest of us!” The best I can do is pay tributes to Keeneland’s combinations: Social and business prominence within a relatively small population, and a pastoral setting perfect to showcase the beautiful and sporting brushstrokes on the canvas of the Turf.

As for Saratoga, similar physical beauty is part of its hallmark, as are the annual meeting’s long history and prevalent quality of the racing. These are augmented by the ability within the human spirit to find elegance and comfort in creations whose history predates ourselves. Every year I go to Saratoga, my first glimpse of the roofline of the old stands clicks me into a unique and proper mood.

Having gained a reputation as America’s foremost author of horse racing books, along with many years as editor-and-chief of The Blood-Horse is there any advice that you have for today’s generation on what it takes to make the grade as a Turf Writer?

Well, with the proviso that “foremost” is a nice comment not to be “tested” by vote, I think planning for a career as a Turf Writer is fraught with uncertainties. Of course, life always has uncertainties, but in some roles and eras they are more recognizable than others. I have been very impressed with the established trade publications from the print and/or fax eras which have taken with full heart the new realities of communication. The Blood-Horse going from weekly to monthly in print while providing amazingly extensive daily electronic communications are just one example. The Thoroughbred Daily News is another, while the Paulick Report I regard as having been a remarkable creation and perhaps a guide to the future.

Having said that, however, I believe some of the traditional requirements for racing journalism are not only still in play but perhaps even more important than ever. These would include knowledge of racing history, which enables context for today’s events and undertones; the ability to write with great speed; and correct grammar.

In today’s world, no editor is going to be happy with a submission that he/she wants to distribute immediately only to find that time has to be spent correcting “would have went” to “would have gone,” or shortening a 100- word sentence into two or three sentences.

I don’t think anyone can be confident in predicting how many Turf writing jobs that can support someone are going to be around.

That leads me to guess ­—and I do mean guess ­— that being effective and comfortable in some form of “on camera” performance is going to be important for someone who in an earlier time might have thought the written word would be a stand alone platform for a career.

I think the good news is that knowledge and respect for the subject and the discipline to be objective will be paramount to reporting, while informed perspective will be essential when commentary and opinion are appropriate.

As a past President of the Grayson- Jockey Club Research Foundation, would you explain what it’s priorities are?

Grayson-Jockey Club Research Foundation was founded by individuals in the Thoroughbred sector and its leadership today still involves many key individuals from that sector. However, its goal from the beginning has been to support veterinary research helpful to all equine species. That is still the case.

I am so impressed by the Foundation and the overall equine research community. During my years with The Blood-Horse I was aware of the achievements of researchers funded by Grayson. Then working in an organizational and fund raising capacity for the Foundation for nearly 25 years constantly added to my appreciation. It was always gratifying to be involved in something that great sportsmen and sportswomen with true devotion to horses felt was worth supporting with donations small and large ­— and sometimes huge.

Two great veterinarians, Dr. Larry Bramlage and the late Dr. Gary Lavin, shaped the process of having dozens of projects evaluated by an amazing collection of 32 experts with a wide range of backgrounds.

There were racetrack vets, horse farm vets, and researchers in all the branches of equine health and

soundness. I helped organize annual three-day meetings and I was so pleased to hear such comments as one crossover expert from human medicine said to me: “I have never seen practitioners and researchers (in medicine) work together so well.”

Grayson- funded research consistently moves knowledge forward in a way that helps innumerable horses, and sometimes that can be regarded as a breakthrough for a veterinarian.

I still take pride every time the stallion Paynter makes news; one of the veterinarians who helped save him from laminitis documented on tape that her confidence in the treatment she gave Paynter was gained from a presentation on results of a project funded by Grayson!

In closing, I would like to thank Ed for taking the time to share some of his expertise with us. It has been a distinct privilege to conduct this interview. It is not a stretch to say that he is a National treasure as both an author and emissary of this grand pastime, known throughout the racing world as the “Sport of Kings.”

There are so many more questions that I have for Ed, they could fill a chapter in one of his books.

Hopefully he will agree to another session sometime in the future. I welcome it.

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