Behind the Book: Talking With Bill Doolittle, Part 2

Pop Culture

California Chrome in the winner's circle after his win in the 2014 Kentucky Derby (Photo by Eclipse Sportswire)

Bill Doolittle is the author of the 1998 best-selling The Kentucky Derby, and The How to Be a Better Bettor Book. He has covered the Kentucky Derby for decades for publications like LEO Weekly and Lousiville Magazine. In addition to once being the on-track handicapper at Churchill Downs, Doolittle has also worked with the racetrack to chronicle their history as the writer/historian for the exhibit design team that created the Kentucky Derby Museum. He is the author and "project manager" for the recently published book The Kentucky Derby, a much more ambitious reboot of his 1998 coffee-table book. He spoke with David Hill about the book and his process. 

You can read Part One of Doolittle’s interview here.

How'd this book come together? You referred to it as an authoritative history. Can you talk to me about what the genesis of the book was?

I had written a similar coffee table book in 1998 and it was very successful, and of course that's a long time ago and it's all out of print, and the fella who owns horses here, a couple in the Derby, Jim Shircliff, he cornered me one day and he says, "Could you do that book again?" I said, "Well, yeah." He said, "I'll pay for it," and I said, "Then we definitely can do it!" And so we went to work, and I've been more not only the author, but kind of a project manager for the thing. It's got all that photography, and the photographers are you know, Barbara Livingston is up in New York, and the old archival photography has to be dug up. It was a big project and it was expensive, but Jim wanted to do it and I think we're going to not get killed on it and it's going to be fun.


And the other part of that was my friend, Ross Eberman, was in Portland, Ore., and is in the book packaging business. So, he makes books, all the printing aspects and everything. So we put the two together and keep adding more people, and pretty soon we had this book going ... And I had this idea that, you know, people still love books, but they also like video. It wouldn't work for every book, but the Kentucky Derby and horse racing is just LOADED with video, especially archival and new stuff. So we thought we could - I just thought surely there's a way that we could make a book and have a video in it somehow and out in Oregon these guys were already working with Digimarc and they knew exactly how to do it. And so they would say all this stuff and I wouldn't get it, I know nothing about technology, but it works. I'm the most shocked person around, but it does. I don't know if you've gotten a chance to try it out or not …

I did, and when I was reading the book, I had my phone out and was doing it while I was reading it. My wife was watching me and she was like, "Are you going to read that book or are you going to look at your phone?" Like, she thought I was just dorking around with my phone instead of reading the book. I said, "I am reading the book! They go together!" It was cool but I did kind of have my phone on the table right next to the book while I was reading it, and it worked pretty well. In addition to video, I also like that there were footnoted stories that you could access through it, too. I'm kind of a maximalist: I like to write with footnotes. I like reading footnotes; I love how one story may branch off into another one, and here's this little box and I could read some more stuff on my phone about it.

Well you're exactly the person we were hoping to attract, because the idea that you can access this bonus information ... we just made the book be a vehicle for all of that, and a year from now everybody will be doing it. We're going to do it, we have new books planned, but I just think this is  - it's a little primitive, but I think we're the first book to have the Digimarc technology.


It's the way that our brains are maybe getting trained to read. I mean, when I'm reading Wikipedia about something and there will be some, you know, interesting tidbits in the story, I can just click it and follow that path. You know what I mean?  Like it branches off, and that's how I've gotten used to reading history and reading some stories on the internet. This book kind of has that, a version of that where I'm reading a book in my hands and then I can you know, kind of click here with phone and follow a little link to see where the stories goes in that direction. That sort of rabbit hole that the internet offers is here with this book.

So you did a lot, you did a lot, you were sort of the project manager for this book, but it seems like there was, it was just as much of sort of research undertaking as it was writing it. What was that, what kind of, what was that kind of process like researching the book?

Well, as you can imagine, being a writer, the notion of sitting in a chair underneath a reading lamp in the cold of winter, with your book and this book and that book and pretty soon there's a whole pile of books.  They're all over. I have a lot of these books, but I bought more and they are covering everything around your feet and scratch paper is everywhere. You sort of dive into it.

Tell me a little about your history. Why are you the best guy to write this authoritative history?

Well the reason I'm the best guy is not because I'm the best writer but I think of all the things that I do, the Kentucky Derby is my number one (event). I've been to 52 Derbys in a row so I know a little bit about it. I've hit my share of trifectas and I've gone home with no money. My friend Bill says that it's not dignified to go home broke, you should have at least $2 in your pocket when you leave the race track

He is not a gambler then.

He’s just needling me. But I used to do all that stuff. We used to sneak out of school and go to the races and over time I've learned that I just love the horse aspect of it the most. The barn area in the mornings, that's just my favorite. Especially the two weeks before the Derby when those horses come in and they are so sharp and they look great and they fly around the track, I just love all that. But as far as the rest of my background goes I've been low on the chain at the Courier-Journal, then I got a job as the writer/historian with the creation of the Kentucky Derby Museum. I wrote all of the exhibit copy and all that kind of thing, and kind of helped plan it. And I just never went back to the newspaper. But I write regularly for two papers here in town, LEO Weekly and Louisville Magazine. I just keep track of horse racing year-round. And of course everybody here writes basketball, and I write classical music too. So that's kind of me.

Well, you've done good. I really think this book is handsome, it's interesting ... This technology thing is a really cool hook, but I was really taken by the prose and the stories. Well done on the writing and on the research, because for anybody who's into horse racing history, I think there's some really good gems in there, and I'm happy to recommend it to folks. So thanks for writing it, and thanks for talking to me today.

Thank you.

Be sure to pick up your copy of Bill Doolittle's “The Kentucky Derby”

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