Friday, February 5, 2010

This used to be my playground

While aimlessly Googling last week, I stumbled across a website which tells part of my life story.

It’s officially called the Daily Racing Form Historical Online Archive. It includes PDF files of all copies of Daily Racing Form since the 1890s—at least all of them that have been entered online so far.

It’s an ambitious undertaking, and I’m not surprised that most days are unaccounted for. Issues from May and June—Triple Crown season—are the first to be preserved for posterity in most years, which is not surprising, because those are the issues that historians and fans care about the most.

It’s fun to go back to Secretariat’s Belmont and relive the anticipation of the real prospect of the first Triple Crown winner in 25 years. It’s eye-opening to read articles about the big races after the fact to see just how wrong the experts can be. The 1971 Derby edition shows that shocker Canonero II, while not completely dismissed, received baffled mentions as the mystery horse from Venezuela. The past performance lines from that renewal are good for a laugh, as I scoured the lines and the accompanying articles for any indication that horses such as Fourulla and Royal Leverage deserved to be in the race.

But it isn’t the famous races that I find the most fascinating. Having misspent much of my youth at Beulah Park, I’m attracted to the lines on $2,000 claimers at tracks that may or may not exist today—Narragansett Park! Lincoln Fields! Havana!—the grist of racing back when it was king.

Beulah isn’t in the current archives much because its race meets back in the day usually took place in the spring and fall (its spring meet still ends on Derby weekend), so many of my reminiscences must be experienced through other Ohio tracks (although I did find several cards from the ‘80s when Beulah was being mismanaged under the name Darby Downs).

It all comes back to me...those Sundays in the chilly air, maybe some rain, as they played the National Anthem and track announcer Jim Dolan gave the changes for the day, and I wrote down every last one of them with more zeal than I ever gave to any classes in school. I would hand two bucks to my dad to bet for me, and he would make no comment one way or the other, even if he thought my choice was ridiculous.

Then I would rush off to the paddock and study the horses intensely as if it were the Kentucky Derby. Then off to either the rail or the grandstand to see the race. I usually lost because my handicapping methods were pretty unsophisticated (“Hey, this week I’ll just go down the program until I find a horse that’s dropping in class!”). But it was my own, action-packed little world for one day a week.

And through it all was the Form. I would read it cover to cover the night before while listening to "Saturday Night Cruisin’", an oldies show on WBNS radio. Even before I set foot in a racetrack for the first time, I was familiar with the Form. There was just something about the mass of statistics that approached art.

While handicapping is far more sophisticated than this, there was something that showed me the general difference between a good horse and a bad horse at first glance. The better horses’ lines appeared cleaner, loaded with small numbers, 1s and 2s. Slow horses’ lines appeared cluttered, full of 11s, 12s, and, in later years, negative comment lines. How simple, and beautiful.

It may sound weird to discover such splendor in race horse statistics, but it’s no stranger than finding beauty in, say, Campbell’s soup cans.

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