Sullivan Investigation Leads to Eclipse for News Writing

Jan. 5, 2016

The suicide of Hub Johnson was the subject of an investigative report by Tim Sullivan, and the writer has been awarded the 2015 Media Eclipse Award for Writing in the News/Enterprise category for “Family, PETA at Odds after Horseman’s Death."

Johnson was an assistant in the Thoroughbred stable of trainer Steve Asmussen and was the subject of interaction with an informant using a hidden camera secretly representing the People for Ethical Treatment of Animals. After publicity arose from PETA's surveillance, Johnson took his own life. Sullivan's article appeared in the Louisville Courier-Journal on Sept. 6, 2015.

Sullivan has been a sports columnist with the Courier-Journal since 2012 and earned his first Eclipse Award. Originally from Springfield, Va., and a journalism graduate from the University of Missouri, Sullivan was a sports writer and columnist for the Cincinnati Enquirer and a sports columnist for the San Diego Union-Tribune before joining the Courier-Journal. It's the second Eclipse Award for the Courier-Journal in 2015. Former Courier-Journal turf writer Jennie Rees won the Feature/Commentary Media Eclipse Award.

Like other recipients, Sullivan will receive his honor at the 45th Annual Eclipse Awards dinner and ceremony on Jan. 16 at Gulfstream Park.

“I’m thrilled and honored to be chosen for an Eclipse Award, but my excitement is somewhat tempered by the tragedy of Hub Johnson,” said Sullivan. “In the course of reporting this story, I developed a high regard for a young man I never met and a keen appreciation of how his loss has affected his family and friends. Their willingness to share personal and sometimes painful memories helped me gain insight into Hub’s life as well as his death.”

On March 28, 2014, the 27-year-old Johnson shot himself 10 days after PETA submitted allegations against Asmussen’s operation to state and federal regulators, and just one day after he was referenced, but not named, in an online story about jockeys’ use of electro-shock devices with Thoroughbreds – a piece prompted by a hidden-camera clip taken by PETA’s investigator, Kerin “Beth” Rosen. From Sullivan’s article:

Of the nine letters Johnson composed on the last day of his life, six mention
videos he suspected and worried were in PETA’s possession.

Sullivan became interested in the Johnson story when he was considering writing a piece on Asmussen. He decided to change course. In a meticulously researched article, Sullivan conducted a range of interviews with Johnson’s mother, Kirsten Johnson, and with other family members, friends, law enforcement officials and suicide prevention specialists, and examined toxicology reports to get a clearer picture of why Johnson chose to take his own life.

“What began as a search for a single day’s column stretched into a project that developed over a period of months,” Sullivan recalled. “The story was much more involved than I had anticipated, and not all of the dots could be connected. Though I probably spent more time on this story than anything else I have written, I have not yet been able to get my head around the decision Hub Johnson ultimately made, and the desperation he must have felt. Like so many of his survivors, I remain puzzled that he chose to end his life.”

Part of her [Kirsten Johnson’s] motivation in sharing her story is the hope that it might lead to revised privacy laws — Kentucky is one of 38 states where it is legal to record a conversation with only one party’s consent — and that it might cause at-risk individuals to reconsider suicide.

Another goal is to gain a greater understanding of the unknowable, to arrange the pieces of a mismatched puzzle into some kind of coherent narrative. For though Steve Asmussen has paid a high price for PETA’s investigation, losing his place on racing’s Hall of Fame ballot and having dozens of horses removed from his care by aggravated owners, Hub Johnson paid a permanent price and may have tragically miscalculated the collateral damage to his career.

The winning entry can be viewed here.

Honorable mention in the News Enterprise Category went to Joe Drape for “American Pharoah Wins Belmont Stakes and Triple Crown,” which appeared in The New York Times on June 7.

Judges for the News/Enterprise category were Dan Liebman, former Blood-Horse and Frankfort (Ky.) State Journal editor; Rob Longley of the Toronto Sun and David Papadopoulos, a managing editor at Bloomberg News.

Edited NTRA release