Kentucky Derby

Herald-Leader turf writer Wall retiring

Herald-Leader staff writer Maryjean Wall, a three-time Eclipse Award winner who has covered thoroughbred racing since 1973, is retiring.

Wall said Friday that she decided to accept the Herald-Leader's recently announced voluntary buyout program because “it's time to move on and do something else.” She said her first priority will be completing her dissertation for a PhD in history at the University of Kentucky, something she's been working on for about three years.

Herald-Leader Publisher Timothy Kelly said the number of employees who decided to participate in the buyout program was “very close to the number we anticipated.” Wall was the only reporter to take the buyout.

She was one of the first women to cover horse racing full time, in an era when sports writing was a profession still dominated by men.

“Maryjean was a pioneer in the industry,” said Gene Abell, Herald-Leader sports editor. “Her expertise and knowledge of the racing industry is unparalleled.”

Wall, whose last day at the paper will be the day after the Belmont Stakes, noted that she became a turf writer in the year that Secretariat won the Triple Crown. “I'm hoping Big Brown wins, because I came in with a Triple Crown winner, and it would be nice to go out with one,” she said.

Wall, who grew up in Canada, decided at age 12 that she wanted to be a turf writer, since girls then were barred from becoming jockeys. She moved to Kentucky in 1966 to pursue her dream, and a year later became a reporter with the Lexington Herald. In 1973 she landed the job she really wanted, covering horse racing.

Over the next 35 years, Wall wrote about all the great races, horses and jockeys, as well as the personalities, great and small, who make up the Sport of Kings. She won the Eclipse Award -- the top prize for turf writers -- in 1980, 1997 and 1999. She also won the John Hervey Award, a similar prize for writing about harness racing, three times.

“I was so disappointed that I couldn't be a jockey,” she said. “Now, I look back and think, thank goodness, because so many jockeys get banged up. This way, I got to be in racing a lot longer, doing something I really loved.”

Wall's love for horses also might have figured into her passion for history. Her PhD dissertation is on American history after the Civil War, focusing on the horse industry.

“When the buy-out offer came along, I saw it as a chance to really bear down on the dissertation, because it has been really hard to work and concentrate on that too,” she said. “I want to finish it, and then hopefully teach history part-time at the college level.

“I still love horse racing,” she said. “But you reach a point in life when you know it's time to do something else.”