Uncle Lew wrote a letter, a few actually, and received actual responses. And soon I was in a Subaru, or maybe it was a pick-up truck, headed south on I-95 with Josh Pons. We took the old tunnel, went to Laurel Park and the Bowie Library. We talked about racing, writing, horses, people. I’m embarrassed at what I told him I was reading – newspaper sports sections mainly, and some dumb books.
But Pons helped put me on the path to writing this column.
That first meeting led to a story – a really short story – about the racing books in the Selima Room (part of that Bowie Library) in The Blood-Horse magazine and then a longer story about Due North in the March 1992 edition of The Maryland Horse. I thought of those moments – and a million more – when Dave Joseph of the Maryland Jockey Club told me I would receive the Old Hilltop Award for covering racing with “excellence and distinction” at this year’s Preakness. The honor, given since 1976 to journalistic giants Red Smith, Shirley Povich, Jack Whitaker and Jim McKay just to name a few, still feels somewhat foreign to me.
My career? Excellence and distinction? Now? OK, but wow. You sure there wasn’t someone else to honor?
I’m the third editor of this magazine, or its precursor The Maryland Horse, to receive the Old Hilltop after Snowden Carter (1980) and his daughter Lucy Acton (2006). Vinnie Perrone, a regular contributor to the magazine, was honored in 1998. My uncle probably wrote a letter to Carter. I wrote for Acton. And I have the privilege of working with Perrone. It’s a strange feeling, and a testament to this magazine you’re reading. People have been trying to give it excellence and distinction since the beginning.
I’m sure it’s the same for every honoree, but a slew of people helped make it happen for me. Uncle Lew and Pons for sure. Katy Voss for talking to me about Due North all those years ago. My father was a trainer, so was his father. My grandfather was a journalist who wrote mainly about the outdoors, hunting and fishing. His brother Lew Waggaman lived just outside Baltimore and did design and advertising work for some of the Maryland stud farms. He knew Pons, writer/photographer/editor Peter Winants and others. I’m sure my uncle, actually my mom’s uncle, referred to me as “Joey” in those letters, but somehow Pons didn’t dismiss me. I was 26, not 12.
At the University of Delaware, professors Chuck Stone and Bill Fleischman let me know I could actually do this. Early bosses Dennis Forney and Trish Vernon at The Whale newspaper in Delaware and Don Herring at the Cecil Whig in Maryland, where I was working when Uncle Lew sent those letters, put up with some dumb mistakes. My beats spanned the genres of a pumpkin chunking contest, a teenager’s murder trial, fishing tournaments, high-school basketball, county council meetings and everything in between.
My brother Sean and friend Tom Law (either of whom could have received the Old Hilltop before I did) make me better every day. Mom told me to read. Dad told me to work hard, and to appreciate horses.
Lonnie Fuller, a racetrack groom with few peers, taught me plenty about life, horses, people and how to “act like you’ve been here before” on the way to the winner’s circle no matter what the horse’s odds were (Dandy Danny, Laurel Park, 1984, 26-1). Man, I wish Lonnie lived long enough to call me when he heard about the Old Hilltop.
By now, I’ve interviewed countless breeders, owners, trainers and jockeys about horses. Despite the photo on this page I guess I’ve never interviewed a horse, but sometimes it feels like I have. Due North (look him up, he ran 106 times) was early. More recently, I hung out with Penn Mile winner Wow Whata Summer (kind of grumpy if you really want to know).
Preakness-specific, I covered my first in 1990 when Summer Squall won. I remember Howie Tesher’s sadness after Champagneforashley got hurt training a few days before the race. I was at Pimlico in 1991 (Hansel) and asked jockey Jerry Bailey whose idea it was to advance early on the final turn. Bailey paid full credit to Hansel. More recently, I walked to the paddock with trainer Art Sherman before California Chrome won in 2014. The man was as humble as his horse was good. After Exaggerator won in 2016, Kent Desormeaux told me to follow him to the jocks’ room. He poured about an inch of champagne into a cup, took a tiny sip and then told me what it was like to win a Triple Crown race with your brother. Two years ago, Kenny McPeek let me hang out with Swiss Skydiver while he hosed her legs the day before the Preakness. Then she won. Magic. Last year, Michael McCarthy brought me in the stall with Rombauer. Then he won. More magic.
So sure, I received the Old Hilltop Award. But the real winners are the horses and the people who took me there. Thank you.