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Kentucky Confidential

The Back of the Book

For a long time, I used to make a habit out of hanging on to every racing paper I ever bought, as well as the corresponding track program, and keeping them in a cool dark place in my home.

Everything about that sentence now seems odd — even the phrase “every racing paper,” since it now seems so long ago that you actually had a choice between picking up the Daily Racing Form or its upstart competitor, The Racing Times. Around the time that I first started paying more than a casual interest to horse racing, the latter had the leg up, since the only speed figures I wanted to understand came from Andy Beyer, and The Racing Times complimented its sleek look and the Euro-thin paper it was printed on with those bold-faced, boiled-down, easy-to-understand numbers.

The Beyers were the gateway drug to harder stuff, and before The Racing Times went under, they got many horseplayers hooked.

I reluctantly sacrificed the paper archive at the alter of recycling years ago, and I felt like a piker when I learned that a degenerate friend still held on to his, in a shoebox apartment, inside his unused stove. Admittedly, I don’t buy the actual paper version of the DRF much anymore except on big days like the Derby or the Breeder’s Cup, where it will join the much smaller pile of soon-to-be racing souvenirs. It’s simply so much easier to download the past performances and read the columns online than to scour the newsstands of New York to hunt down a physical copy, which was a needle-in-a-haystack odyssey even before the city’s OTBs were shuttered last year.

As fine a product as the online DRF is, I miss what you can’t get in the virtual product, all the little items shoehorned in at the very beginning and very end of the paper. I’m glad to see that they’re still there. The Morning Telegraph news brief — the only living reminder of the DRF’s old sister East Coast publication, “America’s Oldest Authority on Motion Pictures, Theatre, and the Turf” — still gives the horseplayer just enough of the news he or she needs to get by in the world.

They’ve gotten a bit more topical over the past decade. It was a sure bet that in the old dispatches, one of the two headlines would offer some variation on “BUS PLUNGE KILLS 56,” followed by a tight-lipped teaser on unemployment rates or congressional legislation or a presidential trip to Asia. Now they jostle for space with the Watchmaker Watch and the update on how gaming industry stocks are faring.

The back of the book, though, still has the dependable riot of classifieds I find compelling and happily familiar every time I pick up the Form. Racing partnerships! Stalls available! Prime real estate still available for the Del Mar season! The Cure for All Bleeders! I’m aware from reading the small editorial type that, if you take out a classified in the Form, you also get a running slot at, nestled away in the subdirectory. Still, every issue of the Form is like a Land’s End catalogue of goods and services I can’t imagine ever taking advantage of but enjoy imaging I would and could.

The last page of the classifieds is the gold mine, wall-to-wall ads for tipsters, handicappers for hire, show-betting your way to a big ROI, unique angles that promise no gimmicks, only results. There are more revolutionary systems mentioned here than at a meeting of the Communist International. Best of all are the friendly reassurances that almost all these ads make: Try it out for free, you don’t pay a dime until you win. Sounds good, where do I sign up? That answer is quickly provided, though most of the ads today have a web address in addition to a P.O. Box and an apparently toll-free number.

Graphically the ads have changed a good bit since I mostly gave up buying the print DRF. There aren’t as many images of lucky horseshoes, four-leaf clovers, or even clip-art colts, just bold-face fonts that graphic designers haven’t had much use for since the early days of the Reagan presidency. The handheld pace computers with their enormous buttons and first-generation LED display aren’t nearly as prevalent as they used to be, gone the way I guess of those Ray Talbot slide rules. There aren’t as many human faces, either, though you’ll still find a few sprinkled among the display ads elsewhere in the Form, all of whom seem to have singled Animal Kingdom last year (ach, if only I’d picked up the phone!).

I used to get a kick out of the picture of the handicapper-for-hire named Harry who sported a fedora with a couple hundred dollars sticking out of the brim. (I seem to remember that he also held a rotary phone up to his ear in the ad.) I’ve never used one of these services myself, but I always knew that if I was taking the advice of one of these folks, I wanted it to be Harry. At least I could ask him where he got the hat.

Almost all the old handicapping books you could find had an obligatory chapter on the potential pitfalls of tipsters, usually folded into a section on the perilous dangers of any systems. My guess is that there’s not as much need for the warnings since there’s not as many subscribers to the systems, which are often delirious algorithms drawing on early speed, weight, class, experts’ picks in the back of the tabloids, the three winning numbers from yesterday’s lottery, your hat size, and much much more.

Reading the examples in these books today is to meet a creature as rare and exotic as Harry. In Ainslie’s Complete Guide to Handicapping, Tom Ainslie was a virtual taxonomist of somewhat more serious systems, laying out 77 of them that grew case-by-case in baroque complexity. To wit: “Identify all horses whose last race was at today’s track. Take the three who had the highest speed ratings at today’s distance. Bet the one that had the rating in the highest class race and/or (nice touch coming) when carrying more weight than today. Resolve this in favor of the horse dropping the most weight.”

There may still be someone out there picking apart past performances to apply the cinch system, but I think you’d make more money offering your services in the back of the Form.

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Author PhotoEric Banks is a writer and editor based in Brooklyn. His musings on racing have been published in the New York Times, the Guardian (UK), and Slate, among other places. When he's not thinking about the tote board and the will-pays, he writes on books and art for a range of magazines and newspapers and serves as the president of the National Book Critics Circle. More by  ›