Signs saying “No Cheering in the Press Box!” are posted in some football stadiums and basketball arenas. But even in venues where no such notice hangs, reporters know the rule. It’s as old as sports writing itself.
Yet at this weekend’s Belmont Stakes, likely the largest gathering of sportswriters in the country all summer, the no-cheering concept will fly right out the window.
The betting window.
Yup, there’s a betting window in the press box at the Belmont. If previous policy holds, three tellers will be assigned to take the wagers of any media type who wants to make them. Not that that makes the Belmont Park press box special. All major racetracks, including both Pimlico and Laurel Park, put tellers in the press box to service the scribes. These dedicated windows are, well, as old as turf writing itself.
Some reporters will be cheering for Smarty Jones to live up to hype and take the third jewel in the Triple Crown, because that would provide horse racing with its best story line in a quarter-century and give them an easy lede come deadline time. But even if the Philadelphia-based colt, who will go off as the odds-on favorite in the 136th rendition of the 1-and-a-half-mile classic, doesn’t secure his place in history, there will doubtless be somebody with a media credential showering huzzahs on the winner from the Belmont box. Smarty Jones’ losing the Triple Crown wouldn’t come as much of a letdown to anybody holding a winning triple ticket.
The tracks have no incentive to dissuade writers from betting. The house takes a cut of every wager, for starters. Besides, conflicts of interest come with the territory. Everybody bets. Jockeys bet. Horse owners bet. Trainers bet. Even the guy who sets the track’s morning line odds bets.
The media have never been too much into self-policing at the track.
“There’s no comparable situation in journalism,” says Bill Eichenberger, deputy sports editor of Newsday and the president of the Associated Press Sports Editors (APSE). “There does seem to be a double standard at work. Part of that is because gambling is such an integral part of the sport. Yes, gambling is a part of baseball or football, but they don’t post the odds at the stadium, and there aren’t betting windows right there. The ethical argument against [allowing turf writers to wager on horse racing] is pretty obvious: You’re not supposed to have a rooting interest in what you cover. And, clearly, it would definitely be an ethical conflict if [a writer] wrote one thing and bet another thing. APSE has never addressed this directly. I think newspapers have tended to turn a blind eye to this issue.”
Not all papers, however.
The Seattle Times is one of the few publications to have confronted the issue of staff gambling publicly. Last year, University of Washington football coach Rick Neuheisel was run out of his job after stories that he’d been involved in a March Madness pool. Then a report surfaced that members of the Seattle Times’s sports desk had gambled on Huskies football.
Cathy Henkel, the paper’s sports editor, says an internal investigation uncovered that the Seattle Times’ college-football-beat reporter had put $1 in a pool with other local reporters over which running back would gain the most yards in a spring practice game. The incident caused her section to officially install a zero-tolerance policy on gambling within any reporter’s beat.
“We’ve always asked that people don’t gamble on sports they cover or events they cover,” Henkel says. “That seems so obvious: If you lost money, you’d be affected in the way you wrote. And, also, this is about perception. With our guideline, we’ve asked our handicapper at the track not to bet on the horses he’s handicapping. Not even a dollar.”
The Seattle Times isn’t sending anybody to cover the Belmont. The many turf writers who will write up the race for the New York Times, however, must also abide by a no-horseplaying rule installed by the paper’s news-administration office.
As the big lines of gamblers inside the Belmont press box will attest, however, the Seattle Times and New York Times are aberrations.
Jennie Rees, the outgoing president of the National Turf Writers Association, has covered racing since 1983. The group makes no official recommendation to members about whether to allow writers to belly up to the press-box betting window. But Rees, a columnist with Kentucky’s Louisville Courier-Journal, thinks banning reporters from wagering would hurt coverage and ultimately be a disservice to readers.
“A little bit of betting is usually useful to keep [writers] in tune with the betting public,” says Rees, who describes herself as a small-time horse player. “There are consumer issues that betting makes you more cognizant of, like the track’s takeout and how various payoffs work with scratches. Also, you might pay more attention to what’s going on in a race if you’ve got a bet.”
Away from the racetrack beat, of course, editors typically don’t want their writers paying too close attention to their own investments, lest any sort of cheering creep into their copy. Jill Dutt, assistant managing editor for the Washington Post’s Business section, says members of her staff aren’t allowed to own stock in a company or industry they cover; have to hold on to whatever stock they buy for at least six months; can’t invest in derivative instruments, such as mutual funds, if those funds’ resources could go to an industry they cover; and must disclose to Post management each year a list of all stocks they own and funds they have an interest in.
But over at Sports, gaming has long been part of the game.
“Some papers are reluctant to allow that, and I understand that,” says George Solomon, the recently retired former assistant managing editor. “But it would be hypocritical of us to say we can’t do that, because if we did we wouldn’t have Andy Beyer.” (Full disclosure: I covered Maryland racing on a freelance basis for the Post for three years beginning in 1997, giving back most of my earnings to the tellers in the press boxes at Laurel Park and Pimlico.)
Beyer, who along with being a legendary gambler was also very possibly the most important turf writer in the history of racing, recently took a buyout offered by the Post and gave up the beat. Over the years, Solomon got scads of reporting mileage out of his columnist’s wagering. Twice in 1990, Beyer took home dog-bites-man-sized jackpots from Maryland tracks by hitting the double triple, an exotic bet that requires bettors to select the top three horses in the correct order in two different races. Beyer split a $1.3 million pool with nine other bettors in April, then in October had the only winning ticket for a $195,070.50 score.
But Beyer also gave out the goods. In his preview column for the 1984 Belmont, Beyer told readers that Kentucky Derby winner Swale would run to form and that second place would go to a long shot, Pine Circle. While at Belmont Park to cover the race, he went to the betting window and put his money exactly where he had told his readers to. In the big race, his horses came in. Beyer himself cashed Swale–Pine Circle exacta tickets totaling more than $80,000.
One more thing: He made his deadline.—Dave McKenna