The Daily Racing Form rarely permits its readers to be distracted by news from the real world. Wars in the Middle East usually merit a one-sentence story at the bottom of page three.
But last week the Form actually gave some prominence to a nonracing story, one which had its regular readers raising their eyebrows. The headline read: "Second Newsprint Company Announces Price Hike."
By tradition, this is the Form's way of hinting that it will soon be giving its customers less information for more money, that one of the world's costliest daily newspapers is going to get even costlier. And horseplayers who may routinely bet hundreds of dollars on a race will become incensed at the prospect of paying an extra 25 cents for the indispensable tool of their trade.
We view the Form the way other citizens look at public utilities. We know they render a vital service and we know they do their job reasonably well. But we hate them.
The Form does periodically give its readers good reason for rage. Leave aside, for a moment, the shortcomings of the paper's editorial content; if you want great prose, you can always read Hemingway. But for $1.50, you might expect a pretty complete array of entries, past performances and results. Such expectations aren't always fulfilled, as a local horseplayer named Terry can attest.
Earlier this fall, Terry had been following a filly named Sprouted Rye, whose trainer conducts a fairly far-flung operation. So every day Terry would religiously scour all the entries at all the tracks covered by the Form looking for her name.
One day, the name Sprouted Rye caught his eye. Unfortunately, Terry was looking not at the entries but at the results from the Meadowlands Race Track, where Sprouted Rye had paid $10.20 after winning the sixth race on the afternoon portion of a doubleheader. When the New Jersey track conducts a doubleheader, the Form prints the entries for only the evening half of it, probably figuring that is all its readers deserve for $1.50. (People at the track can shell out for a separate paper with the afternoon past performances.)
Terry briefly contemplated self-destruction, and then contemplated making a trip to Hightstown, N.J., to picket the offices of the Daily Racing Form, an idea that has surely occurred to many of his fellow horseplayers.
The Form isn't notably generous about disseminating the information it possesses. The paper used to give its Northeastern readers the past performances for Calder Race Course in November and December. But they haven't been appearing this year, and when a disgruntled horseplayer called to inquire why, he was told, "The cost of newsprint being what it is, we're trying to cut expenses." Now he spends another $1.50 a day for a mail subscription to the Calder edition.
To follow all the tracks I want to follow, I find myself immersed in Racing Forms -- the regular edition, the advanced edition, the Florida edition, the Midwestern edition. And while I suppose I could properly be resentful of the way the Form uses its monopoly position to gouge its readers, I must confess I love it anyway.
For all its shortcomings, the Form's past performances still contain vastly more information than any other racing paper in the world. I feel a rush of excitement whenever I open a fresh edition. In my years as a struggling neophyte, I always used to think every morning, "This could be the Racing Form that changes my life." And I feel as sentimental about old Racing Forms as most folks do about their high-school yearbooks. A little bit of my past is in every one of them.
This sentimentality gives rise to a practical problem, since the idea of throwing away an old Form is unthinkable to me. I have, in my handicapping room, a set of custom-made shelves that hold the last 40 months of the Form. Older papers are relegated to the basement, where I have stacked every Racing Form since Jan. 1, 1970.
Some pragmatists who visit this firetrap inquire whether there is any rational reason to save decade-old papers containing past performances of horses who are mostly dead by now. I cannot respond except to say that my professional reliance on the Racing Form has probably turned into an addiction. And if the Racing Form wants to charge me $1.75 or even $2 to satisfy this addiction, my protest will be a meek one.