‘It Pulls You In’: Sportswriter Tom Pedulla Reflects on Career, Love of Horse Racing

The Life
Sportswriter Tom Pedulla (at left), winner of the 2022 Walter Haight Award for excellence in turf writing, interviews Chad Summers at the 2018 Breeders’ Cup World Championships. (Eclipse Sportswire)

At the heart of each story lies the who, what, when, where, and how of a moment, captured in words. Putting it all together is a craft born of education and experience gained as a witness to the day to day of humanity. In horse racing, writers like Tom Pedulla stand trackside, walk the backsides, and ask the questions necessary to capture the many sides of the sport.

In his decades at a keyboard, Pedulla has been witness to the glory of the sport’s biggest days as well as stood in the shadows with those who make it all go, pursuing the answers at the center of each story. For that work, Pedulla was recently named by the National Turf Writers and Broadcasters as a recipient of the Walter Haight Award for excellence in turf writing, an honor he will share with Mike Welsch of the Daily Racing Form.

From his earliest years dreaming about writing to his celebrated career as a sportswriter, Tom Pedulla has remained focused on the essentials of the stories he tells. His adeptness at bringing the reader into the moment informs his long career, a style he credits to lessons he learned early on and one that remains at the center of the work he does for America’s Best Racing.

Building the Foundation

Pedulla comes by his skills as a wordsmith honestly: his father Louis taught English in the New York City public school system for 41 years. The elder Pedulla would bring the New York Times home each evening, giving young Tom a chance to devour the sports section. “I would be reading the sports section not for results, but for the writing style,” the sportswriter remembers. If I like something, why do I like this article? What is it about this paragraph, about this sentence, about the lede?”

Tom Pedulla

Writers like Red Smith would come to be his favorites, inspiring him to pursue the craft starting with a homegrown newspaper he started with a friend in elementary school. As the young man went to bed dreaming of the articles he was going to write, the groundwork for a future sportswriter was being laid word by word.

His parents knew that a good education was key to their son’s dreams. With Tom set on becoming a sportswriter, the family made sacrifices to enable him to attend Fordham Preparatory School, a private, college preparatory school. They lived in a basement apartment in the Bronx, where they did without a car and a television for years so that both Tom and his brother could pursue their studies. Fordham not only gave the young writer the academic preparation he would need for his college education, but also gave him the chance to meet his dear friend, fellow turf writer Bob Ehalt.

The two had the same senior mentor, whose absence gave them a chance to bond over the rigors of the prep school’s education and a love of all things sporting. Ehalt was a horse racing fan who grew up in Queens and lived within walking distance of Belmont Park. He introduced Pedulla to the sport, taking him to Belmont for a day at the races. “That day, I bet on a horse named Sir Alfred, who crosses the wire in first and I’m very excited,” Pedulla  recalls. “Bob says, ‘wait, there’s an inquiry sign up.’ Sure enough, the horse gets disqualified.”

Sir Alfred’s misfortune might not have been the best way to introduce anyone to the sport, but Pedulla was entranced, nonetheless. The two friends had many more days at the racetrack throughout their high school and college years.

“I started to understand the beauty of it,” Pedulla says. “And the more you understand it, the more it pulls you in.”

That appreciation for the sport would define his career in the years ahead.

Learning the Essentials

After his time at Fordham Prep, Pedulla went on to Manhattan College where he worked for the campus newspaper, The Quadrangle. During his college years, he needed a job to help out with expenses while he attended classes. When a counselor asked him what kind of a job he was looking for, Pedulla expressed his desire to work for a newspaper. Fortunately, The Riverdale Press, a local weekly paper, was looking for a messenger. Under editor David Stein, the young journalist learned about the ins and outs of the newspaper business. By his junior year, Pedulla had progressed to writing stories about Manhattan College athletics and editing the front page for The Riverdale Press.

Pedulla, far left, gathers around trainer Art Sherman. (Eclipse Sportswire)

After graduation, he juggled duties at the Bronx weekly paper with opportunities with Gannett and the Associated Press. Pedulla wrote the box scores for the New York Yankees, which led to a job covering the storied baseball team. Over the years, he would cover New York area high school sports, football, college basketball, and horse racing. Pedulla’s byline would be seen in the New York Times, the Boston Globe, and the Los Angeles Times. His time with Gannett led to a nearly two-decade position with USA Today.

During his career as a sportswriter, Pedulla has covered six Olympics, every Super Bowl from 1995-2012, and every World Series from 1985 to 1995. He has covered every major horse racing event since 1997, his byline gracing coverage of multiple Triple Crown seasons and Breeders’ Cups. For each of these big days, though, he focused on a lesson he learned early in his journalistic career.

Back at The Riverdale Press, the front page once featured an article about ducks in a neighborhood backyard. In a conversation with Stein, Pedulla asked, “Do you think people care about this?”

“You watch and see what kind of a reaction we get to this,” the editor replied. The paper received a plethora of letters about the article, showing that the topic had readers engaged. From that, Pedulla learned to write about what readers care about. “He instilled in me a sense of news, being able to identify what is a compelling story and what isn’t,” he remembers. “Give our readers all the respect in the world and feed their interest.”

That lesson inspired many a story that carries Pedulla’s byline over his time writing about the stories that make sports, especially horse racing, compelling for the country’s top newspapers and here at America’s Best Racing.

Capturing Life in Words

When The Jockey Club along with the NTRA started America’s Best Racing in 2012, Stephen Panus, president of TJC Media Ventures Inc., knew that this nascent effort would need the right writer to connect the sport with younger audiences. The first name that came to mind was Tom Pedulla.

“I come from a mainstream sports world and I had been reading Tom for years,” Panus says. “He knows the sport so well and he’s a great storyteller for the human drama as well as the equine drama.”

With his time with Gannett and USA Today at an end, the veteran sportswriter was looking for the next opportunity and ABR provided one. For this site, Pedulla and his long-time friend Bob Ehalt provide coverage of the sport’s biggest days, giving readers previews that provide valuable insights about the horses and the people. It is an avenue for Pedulla’s brand of storytelling, which Panus knew would be a great fit.

“He’s got a way with words. He’s a sports fan so he’s able to share his unique perspective on whatever he’s covering,” Panus shares. “He transports you to the event and if you weren’t there, you feel you were there, and if you were there, he makes you remember the experience of being there.”

For Pedulla, stories like his recent piece on Cody Dorman and the horse named after him, Forego Stakes winner Cody’s Wish, keep him coming back to the keyboard day after day.

Pedulla’s commitment to his work gave him the chance to work with Hall of Fame jockey Jerry Bailey on his autobiography, “Against the Odds: Riding for My Life,” which his late father helped him edit. From the sport’s biggest days to the backside of the racetrack, he relishes what’s at the heart of each piece he writes: the people.

“I enjoy every part of the process, interviewing people, writing the story. To be able to tell that story, to be able to put your personal touch on it, means so much,” Pedulla shares. “It is a great blessing, this career.”

Thank you, Tom, and congratulations.  

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