Since it is not possible to successfully interview a horse, I’ve gone ahead and done the next best thing ahead of the 137th Kentucky Derby.
For this session’s 10 question Q and A, meet Michael Compton, editor in chief for The Florida Horse magazine. It is the first time I have interviewed a journalist, but as well all know, there are many different types of sports jobs. Journalism continues to be one of the most popular jobs.
In fact, while attending the Rick Neuheisel Sportsman of the Year Banquet earlier this week (a blog post for another day), I sat next to Tori Gabert, a Corona del Mar High School senior who has a passion for sports writing. She was shadowing Steve Virgen, the Sports editor for the Daily Pilot. Becoming a sports writer is still a popular job, downturn in the industry and all, and so its appropriate with the Derby around the corner, we turn to Michael Compton for a bit of insight into horses, horse racing and the Kentucky Derby.
1. Tell us about your position and your responsibilities as Editor-in-chief of The Florida Horse magazine.
As Editor-in-chief of the magazine, I work closely with our team of writers and photographers to chronicle the exploits of Florida-bred racehorses and their connections. The Florida Horse is the official publication of the Florida Thoroughbred Breeders’ and Owners’ Association in Ocala, Fl., and we are proud to be the voice of Florida’s horse industry. Our family of publications—which includes Wire to Wire, a daily racing digest and Horse Capital Digest, a magazine that covers a broad range of breeds and equine activities—focus primarily on features and articles of interest to horse owners, breeders, trainers and racing enthusiasts.
2. Tell us what your average month is like as you prepare for a new issue.
A typical month includes examining upcoming stakes races and finding out which Florida-bred horses are being pointed to which races. I assign articles to writers, accordingly, and arrange for photo shoots to cover the subjects. I work with a talented stable of writers and photographers, which makes my job even more gratifying. Most of my days are spent writing and editing copy, working with artists on layouts for our print and digital versions of the magazines, as well as dealing with advertising agencies and clients. I also invest a lot of time talking to breeders, owners and industry decision makers to stay abreast of issues impacting our industry at both the breeding and racing levels.
3. Talk about your career path, starting from your first job until you arrived to your current position.
My first position in the thoroughbred industry was as a writer for California Thoroughbred magazine in Arcadia, Calif. That job provided me a wonderful opportunity to build upon my knowledge of racing by learning about the breeding segment of the business. Among my responsibilities in those early days, I covered races at Santa Anita, Hollywood Park and Del Mar, Golden Gate Fields and Bay Meadows in Northern California, legislative issues in Sacramento, as well as horse auctions.
I grew up attending the races in Southern California with my late father and my uncle. All of my early years at the track were spent following them around and bombarding them with questions. I was hooked on the races at a very early age. From my early teens, all I wanted to do in my career was write about racehorses. I feel extremely blessed for that to have materialized.
I also served as advertising manager of California Thoroughbred and managing editor of the magazine until I accepted my current position as editor-in-chief of The Florida Horse in 2000.
4. What is the best advice you ever received?
I played a lot of basketball growing up. I will never forget my father telling me before one of my games: “Leave it all on the court.” It’s simple, but true. To this day, I use that philosophy in life and in business. I believe if you give your best everyday, win or lose, you have to be at peace with the outcome and move on.
The day after my wife and I were married, one of my all-time favorite horses, General Challenge, was entered in a big race at Santa Anita. We went to the race, he won, and the entire family cashed on him that day. I’ve always figured that victory was a good omen.
I covered my first Kentucky Derby in 1998, the year after my father died. I was interviewed about the race on the NBC affiliate there in Louisville, my father’s hometown, a few days before that year’s Derby, and my father’s sister saw the interview live on television that morning. She immediately called my mother in California in tears knowing how much the Derby meant to my dad. Ironically, it was a bit of a dream come true for me to cover the Kentucky Derby, yet it was the first one I ever watched without my father. For the record, Real Quiet won the race.
6. Talk about the importance of the Kentucky Derby for the sport. It seems so many people tune in for this one race.
The Kentucky Derby, an American tradition since 1875, is older than the Super Bowl, World Series, NBA Championship, and the Stanley Cup. Race day brings out celebrities, politicians and even royalty. It is the toughest race in the world to get into and the most challenging horse race in the world to win, as nearly everyone associated with this industry will tell you. For those of us involved in the business, and even more so for the people that care for these magnificent athletes, and know first-hand the investment, the risk, the rewards, the pride and heartbreak that go along with simply getting a horse to the race, the Kentucky Derby never fails to live up to its billing as “The most exciting two minutes in sports.”
The United States thoroughbred foal crop was approximately 33,000 in 2008 (3-year-olds of 2011). Out of those 33,000, a grand total of 20 runners will load into the starting gate for the Kentucky Derby on May 7th. The odds of even making it that far are astronomical, and simply participating in the historical event provides an unforgettable experience for most. This is an industry fueled by big dreams. It’s those dreams that move grown men to tears on Derby day.
7. What are some practical tips you can offer people watching the Derby for the first time?
For all of the horses in the Kentucky Derby, the first Saturday in May is an entirely new experience. These horses will encounter the largest crowd of fans they will ever face, likely numbering in excess of 150,000. That many people generate a lot of noise, and racehorses, typically high-strung, can be shaken by all the energy and festivities. How a horse handles the surroundings leading up to the race on Derby day is often a good indicator of what kind of performance is on deck.
Watching on television, fans new to the sport can look for some signs of how their choices are handling pre-race warm ups by their body language. You want to see the horse on its toes, maybe prancing a bit in the post parade, but not too much. Ears should be up, signaling attentiveness, not pinned back, suggesting he is tense or uncomfortable. You want to see a shiny, healthy sheen on their coats and you don’t want to see excessive sweating along their necks and shoulders (kind of a white lather), and indicates they are worked up. A little sweat is OK, like a boxer readying for a fight. You just don’t want them overreacting to a new experience as that will take away from their race. Horses that react strongly to the crowd noise can be bothered to the point that it may impact performance. Horses with a calmer disposition that are able to stay focused tend to leave the starting gate in a better frame of mind, which usually leads to a better effort on the racetrack. Think Kobe Bryant in clutch situations. The size of the stage doesn’t matter.
8. If I were going to the horse races for the first time, what advice would you give me for enjoying the experience?
For the novice fan, a day at the races can be intimidating, and that is something our industry must address if we are ever going to seriously grow our fan base. It has a vernacular all its own and there really is so much to absorb that it is best approached in small chunks. I’ve worked in the business for two decades now, and I’m still learning. My best advice is just have fun and learn as you go. My wife didn’t really understand the sport when we first met and some of our early dates were to the racetrack, of course. She cashed as many winning tickets as I did in those days. Her methodology: wagering on the horses with handsome jockeys. Seriously, though, I would suggest that fans new to the sport, find their way to the walking ring where horses saddle up before a race. That is the place where jockeys receive last minute instructions from trainers and owners and get a leg-up for the race. Seeing racehorses up close and personal and being able to look in their eyes is magical. I believe the best racehorses, like the best human athletes, have that “it” factor. They know they are something special.
9. If you were not working in the horse industry today, what would you be doing?
I’d be a sports writer. My appreciation for the game of basketball continues today, so I would think maybe a beat writer, sprinkled in with some boxing coverage.
10. Executives talk about being passionate in your job. What are you passionate about and why?
My greatest passions are my family, my most important team, and racehorses. I’m truly blessed with a wonderful wife and two beautiful children. I have enjoyed growing as a couple with my wife, who has been supremely supportive of my career. Watching my children grow and develop as individuals is special beyond words. Having a supportive and understanding family allows me to invest the necessary hours pursuing my professional passion. I spend most of my days surrounded by like-minded people that share my feelings for thoroughbred racehorses. I’ve lived my dream of covering Kentucky Derbies and Breeders’ Cups and have been fortunate to be in the company of many of the greatest racehorses of my lifetime.
Lastly, is there anything I didn’t ask that you’d like to share?
What to watch for in Kentucky Derby 137. There is an abundance of early speed (horses that like to set the pace in the race) signed up for this year’s renewal. When that happens, the horses on the front end through the early stages are not allowed to coast on an easy lead and they tend to run too fast early, paving the way for a closer, or a come-from-behind runner, to charge down the stretch and win the race in dramatic fashion. It appears that scenario could play out this year. If that is the case, and the early speed types duel early, look for a horse like Dialed In, winner of the Florida Derby earlier this year, to reel them all in. Good luck!