Wright Thompson is a well-known name in the sports media landscape. Some may know his various longform magazine pieces, others his work on ESPN's 30 For 30 series. Thompson's career spans two decades, and much of his notoriety stems from his feature writing on the Worldwide Leader of Sports platform.
But what no one knows Wright Thompson for is podcasting. That will now change, as he's teamed up with ESPN and Pineapple Street Studios to make Bloodlines, a three-episode podcast. The project documents the history of the horse racing business and examines a troubling trend of thoroughbred deaths in Santa Anita, California. Thompson has done a lot in his 20-year career as a journalist, but never a podcast.
What drew him to the audio medium? The natural curiosity that has driven Thompson in his journalism career, and a desire to not be the old dog who can't learn new tricks.
"It started because I was listening to podcasts and I both liked them and had no real understanding of how they came to be," Thompson told The Big Lead. "I read a magazine story, even one that’s really great, and I understand the moving parts. Or I read a book I know how they got it and why it’s in the order it’s in. But this was a total mystery and I like new stuff. You never want to be the dinosaur that only does one thing."
Thompson was initially drawn to this topic after reading a feature by Sports Illustrated's Bill Nack, who Thompson calls the greatest racing writer ever. Following the death of Eight Bells at the 2008 Kentucky Derby, Nack wrote a feature that warned readers of the problems with how thoroughbred horses are born and raised. In 2019, dozens of horses mysteriously died at the Santa Anita racetrack in California, and Thompson was reminded of the Nack piece.
"What’s really interesting is when you read all those news stories coming out of San Anita, eventually all of them landed at, well, sort of a rhetorical shoulder shrug. Nobody knew what was happening. That was the jumping point," Thompson said. "[Horse racing] has always been a mirror or a canary in a mine shaft for where we are and where we’re going. The intersection of those two forces, horses dying in California with no one knowing why and the understanding that horse racing is often a way to learn something about the American experiment, that was the propulsive force for the podcast.
"If you really know a lot about the history of horse racing, studying the history of horse racing and understanding the collision of forces that are constantly happening in its revolution, it’s sort of like a Rosetta stone for American culture. It takes it and shrinks it enough where you could hold it in your hand and see it."
The audience forms their own mental picture of the story a writer describes when told in print. In podcasting, the producers must paint a full, colorful picture for their listeners to enjoy. But only through the eyes of a person who has done both can anyone grasp just how different the two processes are.
Thompson was quick to admit he didn't have a clue what he was doing when he first launched the project. For writers like Thompson, formulating a story, orchestrating interviews, and then putting pen to paper is a one- or two-person process. But the podcasting game is a different beast. As Thompson described it, it's not just apples to oranges. It's being a doctor vs. being a lawyer. Everything is different. But in a good way.
"When I write a story, I am a lone wolf. I disappear into a hole, I work with my editor Eric Neal, we come out with a story, and there it is. This was... I was way out of my comfort zone. This was completely collaborative," said Thompson, who heaped credit onto Jess Hackel and Courtney Harrell at Pineapple Street Studios for teaching him the finer points of podcasting.
"As opposed to this being a vehicle for strutting and preening [like a longform feature], it became a vehicle where I was the least-experienced member of the team and I was determined to not be the weakest link. To hold up my end of the bargain. And I liked that, the feeling of being responsible to smart, conscientious people and to not wanting to let them down, that creates a real atmosphere of trust and love and friendship."
Thompson and those who worked on Bloodlines did not tackle a minor topic. It covers the history of horse racing in its entirety while simultaneously drawing it back to current events. The sheer amount of information Thompson aimed to cover had to be condensed in ways he wasn't accustomed to. But leaning on old practices helped.
"It was interesting for me to figure out. For me, in my own head, to put a word count on what the story would be if it were a magazine story, and that really helped me," he said. "I’ve written magazine stories that are 2,000 words and I’ve written magazine stories that were an entire issue of the magazine. It took me a while to understand how many characters and how many arcs we could both introduce and resolve. Courtney and Jess were really great with that because they were really patient with me wanting to say everything about everything at first.
"That’s also the process, right? I need to go down some dead ends and some blind alleys to arrive at the thing. They were very very patient with me because an experienced podcast maker would have known not to do that."
However, like any good magazine feature, it's the behind-the-scenes work that makes the final product what it is. It's what the readers (or listeners) don't see that makes all the difference in the world. Thompson knows that and has gained a healthy appreciation for those dedicated to the podcast medium.
"I have learned that the production process is the tip of the process and the pre-production is the iceberg," Thompson explained. "You really do have to take your time on these things. It’s an 18-month process, I think, to really crush one. I didn’t realize that. It’s interesting the number of people involved and how many hours of their time it takes.
"I didn’t fully understand the degree to which a podcast interview isn’t merely a vehicle for gathering material that you later build into something. It is the something. That took me a while to figure out."
Thompson lauded the team around him for the effort they put in together, which he compares to the camaraderie of a pirate ship. He's excited to finally show the world what they've made, yet can't help but feel some regret about what he's leaving behind.
"I’m excited. Because it’s so collaborative, people’s opinions of it won’t be as wounding or as thrilling. We all did this together. We share the credit and the blame," Thompson said. "I’m sort of sad to see it go out in the world. Because that means it’s no longer ours. This energy that existed between all of the people making it will, by necessity, dissipate and fade. In a lot of ways, the experience peaked for me [before release]."
The podcast was originally set to air ahead of this year's Kentucky Derby. But, as with just about everything, the pandemic got in the way. Thompson said the bulk of the reporting had already been done, and they were wrapping up the project about a week before coronavirus shut down the United States. There were a few phoners to be done, and Thompson had to record his narration in his closet at home. But he and his team consider themselves lucky the meat of the reporting was done before everything went south.
Thompson is thrilled to see the podcast go live. He's sad this experience is now behind him. But he's looking forward to doing more podcasts in the future. There's no point in learning how to fly a plane if you never fly one again, as Thompson put it. He'll be eternally grateful to the folks who helped him put this together.
"I’m genuinely curious if people think this is as cool and genre-bending as we do. For people who know a lot about podcasts, they’ve told me there’s not a lot of things like this because it’s such a hybrid of many different styles," Thompson said. "I’m anxious to see how that lands in the world. I’m as curious as anybody. I think it’s really special. I have no idea if other people will think that tomorrow morning.
"I’ll be friends with these people long after we’ve forgotten anything that’s in this podcast. That’s the great gift. As cheesy as it sounds, it is one hundred percent f--king true. That’s the greatest gift of it to me."
Bloodlines premieres Friday, September 4.