THE NEW YORK TURF WRITERS' TITLE
CONSIGNED TO HISTORY


WRITTEN BY BILL ORZELL  |  PHOTOS PROVIDED

For the 2021 season, the New York Racing Association (NYRA) has revised the name of the long contested New York Turf Writers’ Cup, and renamed this Grade 1 stake event after Hall of Fame trainer Jonathan Sheppard. This change honors the gentleman who won 15 runnings of this famous jump event. As the New York Turf Writers’ Association, who should not be confused with the National Turf Writers and Broadcasters, was dissolved in 2012, a name change was inevitable, if not overdue. However, it is difficult to separate ourselves from many long-held Saratoga traditions, and seeing the name of the New York Turf Writers’ Association fade to an obscurity of the past demands some retrospection.

The scribes who labored under familiar mastheads, most of which are long gone, realized their unique position in the world of sport. These reporters made a few failed attempts to organize into an association in the early 1920s. They shared a unique bond in their task, providing accurate correspondence from the press boxes of the racing world, under the pressure of a daily deadline. Their journalistic efforts, always under their own byline, shared many of the same foibles of employment, and made this brotherhood realize the virtue of forming a guild.

The New York Turf Writers’ Association resulted in 1923. Perhaps the best known member of this group was the legendary Damon Runyon, who opinioned from his December 21, 1936 syndicated column, “Let us tell you a little something about the most compact, the most exclusive, and the most self-helpful organization of working newspaper men ever produced by Journalism. It is the Turf Writers association, of New York, composed of the men who write about the horse races for the Metropolitan dailies, and for the turf publications. We have seen a lot of similar organizations of newspaper writers come and go in our time, all of them starting out with firm purpose, and high resolve, but most of them, like the old Press clubs of the land, usually foundered for lack of cohesion among the rightful members, or wound up with the membership 90 percent pastry cooks, and barbers.”

Damon Runyon continued in his reflective on the New York Turf Writers’ Association (NYTWA) genesis by forthrightly stating, “The turf writers, like the baseball scribes, wanted better working conditions at the racetracks. The business of covering the races around New York was made uncomfortable and inconvenient by the magnates in those days. Moreover, the Jockey Club, which controls New York racing, was then haughty, and secretive, and disdained the racing scribes.”

 As a guild, these professionals took determined care of their own, recognizing that beating a deadline and compiling many a turf column, did not insure future employment. The NYTWA network was able to place their members who ran into employment voids, into positions as chart callers, hot-walkers or pari-mutuel clerks, very importantly continuing work at a race track, until their employment prospects improved.

A point that Damon Runyon made very clearly was that the primary NYTWA funding mechanism was the turf writers' annual dinner-dance, for decades the social highlight of the season at Saratoga. The first soiree took place in 1931 at the Piping Rock on Saratoga Lake, and the roast duck and entertainment were a great success. The 1933 event saw the largest crowd to date and the juvenile colt Supero was awarded in a banquet ticket lottery. The event was staged at other Saratoga locations such as The Brook, and the Arrowhead Inn. The 1936 affair at Riley’s Lakehouse included awards made to those in the industry: trainer, jockey, breeder and the individual who has done the most for racing. During WWII, like Saratoga racing, the NYTWA placed everything on hold for the duration, returning in 1946. During the early 1950s, with the Lakehouses under investigation, the NYTWA switched to several years of a breakfast banquet at the Saratoga Race Course. The formal gala format returned in the later 1950s, and for parts of the next four decades were mainly staged at the Canfield Casino, and at various other locations, including Belmont Park, with NYTWA officer Fred Capossela often beginning the proceedings with his signature delivery, “it is now post time!” In 1972, jockey Robyn Smith was honored at the Hall of Springs, and in 1991 NYTWA presented the Red Smith Award to Marylou Whitney at the Gideon Putnam Hotel.

Although the name, The New York Turf Writers' Association, departs the stage of actual competition in Saratoga, it leaves a marvelous history.

THE NEW YORK TURF WRITERS
THE NEW YORK TURF WRITERS
THE NEW YORK TURF WRITERS
THE NEW YORK TURF WRITERS
THE NEW YORK TURF WRITERS
THE NEW YORK TURF WRITERS

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