TOWARD BETTOR JOURNALISMPHOENIX IS THE NEW NATIONAL HEADQUARTERS FOR THE DAILY RACING FORM, WHERE EVERYONE COVERS THE HOOF BEAT

These two old guys are at the track, standing near the finish line. It's the first race. The field comes around the last turn, passes the men and crosses the finish line. Then one of the old guys keels over. The paramedics arrive. "Is he alive?" they ask the other old guy. "Only in the Double," he says. @rule:

@body:Okay, so it's a joke. An old joke. The dead guy had the winner in the first race on his Daily Double ticket, see, and his friend was just explaining that. . . . Anyway, what do you want to bet that the paramedics had to pry a Daily Racing Form from the old guy's hands? The Form, as it's known to its readers, is regularly described as the bible of thoroughbred racing. Founded in Chicago in 1894, the tabloid-size newspaper is distributed at racetracks, newsstands and many of the finer liquor stores across the country. Its national daily circulation is about 50,000, more than 90,000 on weekends. It costs $2.85 per copy. Its contents are the sacred runes of the horse-racing game.

Each issue contains the day's race lineup for the nearest track and long, gray columns of past-performance statistics for the horses entered in those races. Around that all-important numerical information are wrapped several pages filled with breezy track news, sage columns and lots of photos of horses, jockeys and horses being ridden by jockeys. The formula has varied little since the Gay Nineties.

But something is happening to the Form in its 99th year. The paper is undergoing "its biggest change in presentation and content in its history," says Kevin Modesti, who covers horse racing for the Los Angeles Daily News.

Once widely considered "a mistress to the industry," the Form is attempting to shed its lingerie and don something resembling journalistic standards. At the same time, the Form editors pine to increase the tabloid's appeal beyond its traditional audience--the hard-core racing fans who tend to resemble escapees from a road-show production of Guys and Dolls--and help usher the Sport of Kings through what most observers believe could be a rocky near-future. And, oh yes. The Daily Racing Form--America's Turf Authority," the extra-official and seldom-questioned data-keeper for sport's most data-hungry fans--is moving to Phoenix.

Already the Form's West Coast editions are produced here. Soon, all editions of the Form will be edited and assembled locally. Eventually, this office--the Phoenix-based editor-in-chief already calls it the national office--will have about 40 staffers and control the production of every edition of the Daily Racing Form across the country. Since 1988, West Coast Racing Form staffers have survived two ownership changes (something called K-III Communications Corporation made the last buyout, in 1991), the start-up and shutdown of a formidable and splashy competitor (Robert Maxwell's Racing Times) and the Los Angeles riots (the old West Coast headquarters were located in South Central L.A.). Local production started this past spring. Now they have survived their first Phoenix summer. @rule:

@body:A visit to the Form's new digs is not the page out of Damon Runyon one would expect. The offices are located on the ground floor of a tony office building along the Keating-Symington corruption corridor, otherwise known as East Camelback Road. Instead of cigar smoke, the air is filled with the binary hum of disk drives and clicking keyboards. There are no spent wager slips littering the work space, not a fedora in sight. It is a roomful of foreheads barely ascending out of work cubicles, brows scrunched in contemplation of big-screen video monitors. Ho-hummmmm.

Except for lunchtime, when many, if not most, of the staff bolts for the nearest off-track-betting den. That would be the 40th Street Grill, "the most expensive restaurant in town," according to Duke Dosik, national managing editor. "I usually go for the $40 order of cheese fries myself." Typically the first staffer out of the gate every morning is Larry Crowley, copy chief, who gets up early to assemble and distribute overnight faxes, then sort through copy generated by outlying Racing Form bureaus and correspondents. (Crowley is also a contributor to New Times' Sun Tracks section.)

The data stream that now brings these words and figures to Phoenix has been honed over a near-century. Though currently in midconsolidation--Arizona's right-to-work laws are the big draw for the Form's corporate move to Phoenix--the paper still has business and printing offices in several locations, including New York, New Jersey, Chicago, Kentucky and Southern California. The Daily Racing Form also staffs every track in America and parts of Canada. These staffers annotate essentially every movement by every thoroughbred at those tracks. For now, the Phoenix office produces regional editions sold at a total of 19 Western and Southwestern tracks at different times of the year, plus a special Nevada edition for sports-book horse players. The front-of-the-Form news pages are the domain of early bird Crowley, who spends his days copy-editing and topping them with snappy headlines (example: "Little Sester/tops open/claimer"). In addition to stories about feature races and columns by such venerable characters as Joe Hirsch (the Form's East Coast-based executive columnist), these pages also often carry short roundups of national and international racing news, as well as full coverage of important national racing events, such as the Triple Crown and the Breeder's Cup. Relatively new to the Form are regular columns about other forms of sports betting, a daily news-brief section and the popular This Day in Racing roundup (example: "Longshot sets world record in Champagne," the recounting of 1938 stakes victory at Belmont Park by a horse named Porter's Mite). One of Larry Crowley's daily duties is to do the final edit on the news-brief section (sample headline: "Rabin, Arafat shake hands on deal"). This day, Crowley points out a two-sentence story about troubles in Haiti. "Something I'm sure every $2 bettor wants to know," he says. @rule:

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