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:
@body:Also region-specific are the guts of each Form--the entries (charts), past-performance statistics (PPs) and workouts (works) that fill the back four-fifths of every issue. Using the precise PP charts assembled by the Racing Form's correspondents--and they better be precise, because the Racing Form is the sport's official keeper of all records--serious horse players can tell exactly where a particular horse was at any given moment in a race run several weeks, months or even years ago. Was the track muddy that day in May? Was the horse a favorite in the eighth at Ruidoso that afternoon in July? And who was the jockey on ol' Bound for Gluery last week? It's all somewhere in the PPs, along with a horse's lifetime record and total winnings, a description of its appearance, as well as the names of its parents and grandparents, owner and trainer. Also compiled by Form track men are statistical breakdowns of workouts, the off-hour practice gallops that keep horses in racing shape. For decades, the Form's big job has been to balance coverage of the national racing scene, while at the same time delivering superaccurate local-track information into the hands of horse players (or, as they often prefer, handicappers) around the country, who then can pretend to understand them. When the Form slips up on a story of national interest (as it did recently in an embarrassingly well-publicized miscount of jockey Laffit Pincay Jr.'s lifetime victories), jaws drop. But to most racing fans, such a mistake is no more grievous than a statistical foul-up in the chart of a local maiden race (in which none of the horses has won before). "Most fans care most about what's going on at their track, in the races they bet on," says racing writer Modesti. "You could sort of paraphrase Tip O'Neill and say that all racing is local."
@body:Tip? Did somebody say tip? "There are no hot tips," says Wayne Monroe, Form Western editor, who arrives not long after Crowley. A longtime Racing Form staff member, Monroe is one of the crew that decides what goes where every day in the paper. Monroe, a former L.A.-area sportswriter, was official scorer at Dodger Stadium for 15 seasons. The big ring he wears he got for scoring an All-Star Game. His attitude is seen-it-all. His nickname is "Tiny." He is not.
"In the old days, the joke was that if World War III broke out, the page one headline in the Racing Form would be, 'Eight Go in Feature at Santa Anita,'" says Monroe, who relocated to Phoenix with the Form this past spring. "It's not that way anymore.
"We were stagnant for so long. We had a captive audience. Either they got it from us, or they didn't get it."
Most observers agree that such stagnation--a product of its traditional monopoly on all the straight racing dope--caused considerable journalistic malaise. "The paper is much more of a newspaper today than it has been in the past," says David Hooper, coordinator of the Race Track Industry Program at the University of Arizona's College of Agriculture. Hooper's program is one of only two college curricula in the country training for the industry.
"When there was no competition for the Form, for whatever reason, their editorial philosophy seemed to be to downplay anything negative about the industry," Hooper says. "To a certain extent, it was somewhat of a publicity shill."
Hooper adds that he worked for the Racing Form years ago, selling ads and doing some writing out of the Kentucky office.
"If it wasn't rewriting other people's press releases, it was more or less writing its own," says the Daily News' Modesti of the Form. "Every horse was a potential champion, every trainer was a humanitarian and God's gift to the veterinary world, and every jockey was a courageous young man."
"For years," admits Monroe, "people considered us--I'll clean this up--the mistress of the industry."
But these are better days, say the critics, thanks to an infusion of new editorial talent and the invigorating effects of journalistic competition. "If there's a scandal at a racetrack, a positive drug test in a major stakes race, you're not gonna find that on page 48 anymore," observes Hooper. "You're gonna find it on page one. I think that's a positive development."
Speaking of positive developments, the new Form even features a weekly page devoted to letters from readers, just like your local daily. That kind of interactive approach was once thought not possible. "It was unheard-of to get letters," says Monroe of the old days. "What letters we did get were illegible, and most of the people who wrote were fruitcakes."
@body:Enter Duke Dosik, who with Monroe is among the few Racing Form staffers one might pick out of a police lineup if one were looking for a guy who has spent too much time at racetracks. A former ad man (he once handled all the advertising for the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C.--not exactly a titty bar), Dosik is one of the staff's Macintosh computer whizzes.
Dosik and his computers represent a great leap forward for the Form. Staffers with not all that much tenure remember a time when the publication's flood of figures was transported via teletype, a dark-ages technology compared with faxes and computer modems. Where union typesetters once agonized over tiny bits of hot type or the maddening cut-and-paste approximations of succeeding typesetting trends, Duke's computer now does it all. His job at the Form--one of his jobs at the Form--is to shovel pages all day, electronically, from Phoenix toward the paper's West Coast printing plant in Gardena, California. Dosik got into racing journalism about a decade ago, when his employer, an ad agency, went belly up. Left with some time to play golf and hang out in New York City's many off-track-betting emporiums, Dosik grew a new hobby: the nags. "I really kind of liked it," he says today. (Like many of his co-workers, Dosik tends to visit racetracks during his vacations. A recent trip home to New York, he says, resulted in "the obligatory $300 day" at Saratoga.)
Soon he was writing and editing for a New York-based racing paper. After that, he hired on with the Racing Times, the first serious competition the Form had seen. But the Racing Times failed in its attempt to end the Form's reign o'er racing, folding in less than two years and leaving the victor to buy out some of the vanquished's assets. Several key Racing Times staffers, including Dosik and editor-in-chief Neil Cook, were folded into the Form.
Also incorporated were several seemingly minute changes the Times had made in the tradition-bound reporting of racing statistics, changes largely made possible by the computer age. Chief among these changes was the addition to the Racing Form's PP charts of Andrew Beyer's Speed Figure, a one-number-fits-all handicapping tool. Beyer, among the most revered of all racing gurus, has a formula that concocts a double-digit rating for every horse in every race. The number theoretically gives the casual handicapper an edge over someone who, say, wanders in off the street having never seen a horse before.
At any rate, the Form now carries it. Philosophically, a great leap forward. "The old racing form was like the stock tables in a daily newspaper, providing the facts from which you draw an analysis," says the Daily News' Modesti. "It's just the nuts and bolts. There's nothing in there that would point you in a direction. "The new Racing Form is more like Investor's Daily. They actually have some numbers which extrapolate analysis." @rule:
@body:At about 10:30 every morning, editorial action ceases for a few minutes as Monroe, Dosik, Crowley and a half-dozen other staffers meet in Neil Cook's office for the daily shapeup. When he is out of town, as he often is, Cook listens from afar as the editors gather around his phone. The editors assembled here handle layout, copy and the all-important PP flow. (Is this beginning to sound like a story about urology?)
They take their instructions from Cook, a jovial-enough but ultraefficient 32-year-old graduate of the London College of Printing, who keeps a bullhorn under his desk for occasional paging purposes. In his pre-Form years, Cook worked for a time for The Sporting Life, the London equivalent of the Racing Form, and freelanced the occasional piece around Fleet Street. When the offer came to do the start-up of the Racing Times, Cook leaped the Atlantic and has not looked back. "Starting a newspaper from scratch is a dynamic thing, something you get a chance to do once in a lifetime," he says. "It was an offer too good to miss, really."
The comparatively brash Racing Times, staffed by younger, more freethinking racing fans than the Form would hire, has had a lasting influence on the Racing Form. It failed, Cook says, because its statistics weren't as accurate as the Form's (When you're up against the might of the Racing Form, it's very difficult to be as accurate.") and because it failed to grab the average racing fan by the, um, lapels. "Since racing straddles every social sphere, you've got to balance it so that the guy in the grandstand gets what he wants and the guy who owns a multibillion-dollar company gets what he wants," he says. "That's what we're trying to do at the moment."
At the moment, the task of Cook and his crew seems like a circuit race (a full trip around all four turns) on a muddy track. Racing appears to be a victim of the universal scramble for "silly money"--the dollars once bet at racetracks by casual fans who now blow their dough on state lotteries and slot machines operated on Indian reservations, riverboat casinos and in expensively marketed pyramids.
Case in point: Turf Paradise, the Phoenix track in operation since 1956, had an all-time bonanza last season, generating $94 million in wagering. But track officials are publicly fretting for this season, which just opened, due mostly to the casino-building boom on almost every rez around.
Nationally, the betting-on-horses business is not unhealthy: More than $14 billion was wagered on- and off-track in 1992, according to the trade publication Gaming & Wagering Business, almost $3 billion more than a decade earlier. But there's some trouble inside those numbers. As off-track betting has increased (up 13.6 percent last year), the take at tracks has fallen (down 3.35 percent). About $400 million more was wagered at racetracks in 1982 than in 1992. The concern in the business is that the OTBs attract longtime serious players who likely would have been gambling somewhere anyway, while the racetracks have failed to attract younger, more casual fans to the sport. A case could be made that the racing industry's fans are significantly older than other sports fans. The Form's own marketing staff says the median age of its readership is 45.8 years; Sports Illustrated's median reader is a full decade younger. "As the industry newspaper, we have to be upbeat about the industry when it's needed," says Cook, who has instituted plenty of editorial policies that call for Form writers to adopt a tougher reportorial point of view. "We have to work with the industry to help to attract more people, or our sales ain't going to go up! It's the bottom line! We've got to do everything we can to make racing fun. "We've focused a lot more on the novice handicapper, and it's our function in the newspaper to be educational.
"When somebody goes to the racetrack for the first time, they're surrounded by experts. Everybody's an expert in the stands, you know. I imagine it must be a pretty daunting experience. But if they pick up the Racing Form, they've got a form to bet with. We've got to make sure the first-time racegoer can find his way through it and use it as a tool. "We're failing in our duty to the public if that person goes away from the racetrack on that first day and vows never to return."
Naturally, the 1,000th-time racegoer weighs just as heavily on Cook's mind. The decrease in "silly money" means that ace handicappers are betting against one another for a smaller slice of cash pie every race.
To further capture and hold the interest of serious handicappers, Cook's newspaper is prepared to move into the 21st century along with the sport it covers. Simulcasting--by which races from one track are beamed to other tracks or off-track-betting parlors--has drastically changed racing already, and the technology will almost certainly test the all-racing-is-local bromide. In fact, it's inevitable that all-day racing from tracks around the country will soon be broadcast and bet upon in other tracks, OTB outlets and even homes. (Yes, someday you won't even have to get dressed to blow your bankroll at the track. You'll do it over the phone in your underwear, while watching a race from some track in Miami on cable channel 331. What a country!) For the Racing Form, this means a gradually increasing focus on the national racing scene throughout its myriad regional editions. "We have to adapt to the marketplace, and the marketplace will eventually be heavily involved with simulcasting on a national basis," says Cook. "We have to become a national newspaper. It's important we're not parochial." @rule:
@body:Lunch at last!
The midday respite from megabite manipulation is not signaled by a Klaxon or siren at the modern Racing Form. Instead, it is the call: "Have you got a horse?" In translation, this question means: "It's time to go to 40th Street. Today there are two simulcasts from the Del Mar track near San Diego. Have you found a potential winner, listed at suitably long odds, that will fool everyone in attendance either in California or by telecommunication device elsewhere, except us?" If the answer is yes, and even sometimes if it isn't, the Western edition of the Daily Racing Form's seven full-time professional handicappers, accompanied by various key supporters, hie themselves toward the 40th Street Grill, one of several establishments the great state of Arizona (state motto: "God Enriches") allows to take bets on racing beasts. Taking positions around the restaurant/bar among other regulars (Arizona State basketball coach Bill Frieder is one--we know it was him: He was wearing a tee shirt that said "Arizona State basketball coach Bill Frieder"), the most powerful posse of handicappers in the West orders lunch. There is time during this lunch break to bet upon and watch two Del Mar simulcasts, and the accompanying reruns. Local racing follows, but later. There is no shouting during the races from the Racing Form party. There is no boasting or chest beating. There is no weaseling and no caustic second-guessing. The amateurs who surround the table are much more vocal than the pros.
There is analysis, of course, lots of it. The workday of these men (yes, it's an all-male handicapping staff; the Form's readers, according to the marketing poop sheet, are 75 percent male) dangles on the presumption that the seeming chaos of a horse race can be predictable. For their paychecks, the staff handicappers review upcoming races at all the tracks in the Form's region, pick favorites and assign odds against the projected also-rans. Doing their picks from Phoenix, away from the major tracks, is not a huge handicap for these oddsmaking technicians. They have tapes of races flown in to review, but most do their predicting based on the hard figures printed in their own publication, anyway. "You're not going to get a more knowledgeable crew as handicappers go," says Chuck Badone of his co-cappers. Badone, track handicapper at Turf Paradise for several years, now is a member of the Form's crew. "People who handicap in general are considered to be egotistical and vain. You get a lot of guys in handicapping who were never athletes themselves, were never in competition. And this is now a competitive thing for them. They get the feeling that if they can't pick em, nobody can pick em. But I've never worked around a group of people who were this astute and less involved with ego than these guys. You never hear anybody criticizing anybody else's selection, and if they win, there's no chest beating. I've worked with guys, you'd want to shoot em, they were so disgusting. You'd want to throw em out a window."
Badone got the racing bug at age 18 (I'm what you call a self-professed handicapper. You handicap for a while, then you start telling people you're a handicapper.") while attending a fairgrounds track on the East Coast. He holds master's degrees in P.E. and education and rarely vacations where some form of gambling isn't available. "I don't know if I've ever been on a vacation in my life where you couldn't gamble," says Badone. "I wouldn't go. My wife and I talk about it. 'Do we always have to go where there's gambling?' I say, 'Well, you want to go where there's food! You want to eat!' That's what a vacation is about. You do what you want to do!"
Yet Badone claims he's not a heavy gambler. "Like everybody else, I've had successes," he says. "I've never, as long as I've lived, been a big bettor. The only bets I ever made I considered big, I lost. So I learned that wasn't my game. I'm what you call a $2 player."
Badone has written two books on handicapping, taught seminars around the country, been a staff tout at racetracks from here to there. All the while, he says, he's considered himself a "consumer advocate." "I've always believed, as an educator, that the horse-racing business was very remiss at educating their fans."
Lately, the handicapping trend is toward "weird intellectuals," in the words of Daily News writer Modesti, technocrats whose homemade software tells them what ponies to pick. Speed Figure-conjuring Andy Beyer, just one example, is a Harvard grad who probably had other opportunities to exercise his genius, but opted for gambling on small-brained quadrupeds instead. "It used to be you could go to the track thinking, 'I know I can win! Just look at these bums around me!'" says Modesti. "It's no longer like that."
A few of the Form's handicappers fit into that category. Not Badone, who's a pen-and-paper man. And not Brian Mulligan, a self-described "stubborn Irishman" known to readers as Sweep. Mulligan, whose nom de cap supposedly comes from a great horse from the last century, is the latest in a succession of expert staff handicappers to use the handle for the paper. He's been Sweep since 1983, and as the Form's Hollywood Park handicapper this summer, he picked eight winners in nine races July 1, which is pretty good. His pick in the fourth race finished out of the money. As quoted in the Form, Sweep explained: "I guess I wasn't paying attention."
Another relocatee from L.A., Mulligan grew up in a "gaming oriented" household, where pinochle was played more often than the radio. As a young man, he worked as an assistant horse trainer back East; later, having relocated to northern California, he worked as a Teamster. Visiting L.A. one summer day to catch a Dodgers game, he caught a Racing Form advertisement for a statistics editor, whatever that meant. "I told my first wife, 'This job is made for me,'" says Mulligan. "I borrowed a jacket and tie, tried to comb my hair and went down there and sold my soul to the Racing Form." Sweep Mulligan, who on his summer vacation took his second wife to Del Mar, thinks of himself as a "situation handicapper," one who bases his decisions more on the various entries in a race than on the speed of any particular horse. "People tend to think that the horses are machines or something, and they're really not," says Mulligan, age 41. "There are so many intangibles, so many different factors that make a race turn one way or another. . . ." Though his picks often jibe with Andy Beyer's numerical one-stop-shopping approach, Mulligan says he thinks there's more to the game than a stack of numbers. "If it was that simple," he says, finishing his fried-chicken plate at 40th Street Grill, "we wouldn't be working for a living."
So it's a myth that a good horse player can make his whole nut on the wagering side of the window? After all, if anyone could, it would be these sharpies. "I guess there are people who do it," says Badone, "but I've never known one personally. . . . It's a terrible lifestyle. It's got to be your whole life! If you can find 100 people who are doing it, probably 95 are single.
"What wife and kids would put up with it?" adds Badone, a family man himself. "Today we eat steak. Tomorrow we don't eat.'"
@body:Daily Racing Form workers are paid about like most newspaper reporters, meaning they're on the same scale as cops, teachers and other underappreciated public servants. Cash is not too flagrantly flashed on 40th Street excursions, so it's hard to tell if staffers are doubling or tripling their paychecks during lunch breaks--or, conversely, if they're blowing two or three paychecks at a pop. The handicappers, a disciplined bunch, seem to pick their spots pretty carefully; whole races fly by without a single Form-funded wager at the restaurant's makeshift betting windows. But the addiction-wary reader might be wondering at this point: Might not all this gambling pose a problem for these lads? Back at the office, editor-in-chief Neil Cook says, Nah. "I've seen some people, especially back in England, who got into gambling problems," he says. "But it's a question of discipline and money management. People on the Racing Form, if they have a bet, they have a bet. It's of no concern of mine. "But if it gets to be a problem . . . I have seen no evidence that it is. . . . All but a few of em are over 21. I expect a certain amount of individual responsibility from people. I don't see that it's a problem. If they want to spend their money at the racetrack rather than buying compact discs, it really has nothing to do with me."
@body:Meanwhile, out in the cubes as the workday winds down toward quitting time, the staffers have returned to their duties. The handicappers review their remote-control selections. The PP jockeys finish their Sisyphean compiling gig. Larry Crowley moves the last of the day-after-tomorrow's racing news out of his computer directory. Duke Dosik has but a few remaining screens of data to dish toward the setting sun. Wayne Monroe has cradled his portable phone.
Across the room, Doug Miller, 23 and already a veteran of 21 Grateful Dead concerts, waits not nearly patiently enough for late results from westerly time zones. Miller grew up 15 minutes from Belmont Park, got a college degree in creative writing from UofA and learned about this job by bugging some guy on an airplane who was reading the Form. "I'm inclined to say something to anybody reading a Form outside a racetrack," he says. The guy turned out to be a Form employee, who told Miller about the paper's move to Phoenix. Miller's father took him to the track for the first time at age 13. "He showed me how to read the Racing Form and I picked the favorite and I won," he says. "Irish Waters. Paid $4.80 to win. I lost the next race and a torrential rain fell, wiping out the rest of the day. My father said he'd never seen that before."
With a couple of years of college to go, Miller got into the professional-horse-racing-journalism business by writing the editor of the Racing Times, describing a couple of his own "big hits" (I had Alysheba in the 87 Derby.") and proclaiming that he would quit school for the right job in the business. "My mother said she thought it was a shitty idea," he says. "I said you have no say in the matter."
Miller did eventually work for the Times, but returned to campus when it folded. Now he works at a Racing Form computer terminal all day (pausing only to take lunch with his co-workers at a nearby grill), paddling down the data stream. "It's like being a stockbroker, this job I have now," he says. "I'm constantly exposed to this information. How could I not bet on it? It sucks that way."
@body:These people are at the track, standing near the finish line. It's Belmont Park, near New York, a year ago. "It was me, my sister and my dad's girlfriend," says Doug Miller. "We had my dad's ashes in a jar. The place was completely empty. It was August, so everybody was up at Saratoga. It's this huge place, a mile-and-a-half track. It was 6 in the morning. They must have been working some horses, because it was completely empty. They stood at the rail and I hopped up onto the track. I took his ashes and spread em at the finish line. Mixed them into the dirt.
"Some of the best times of my life were with my dad at Belmont.
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