Off the Charts

By John McEvoy -- The recent revelation that Equibase Company is working toward installation of an automated system of charting races sent a shiver up and down the spines of some of the sport's traditionalists, mine included. While the promise of more precise information for bettors is exciting, the demise of jobs for some of the chart-callers and call-takers currently stationed at North American tracks seems inevitable. These positions have existed in much their present form since 1894 when Daily Racing Form was founded. In 1998 Equibase replaced the Form as the official data collector, but it continues to employ many of the Form's veteran field staff. A reduction of their ranks would represent a major personality drain on the sport.

The track crews comprise one of the more colorful work forces in the U.S. Calling and charting races is a very specialized job. Not many people can do it. Most people, too, have little desire for the vagabond life involved in working in three or four different cities each year, locales often widely spaced geographically. A sense of humor and a love of racing were certainly required of those who labored for the man, now deceased, who for years was the Form's field supervisor based in New York City. His management style was likened to that of two tyrannical sea captains--Bligh and Queeg. Here are some instances involving the man I shall refer to as "Captain Bleeg."

--A Midwest-based chart-caller was ordered from Detroit to Rockingham Park "immediately." After driving through the day and night, he arrived in New Hampshire to discover that a chart-caller was already in place. Baffled, he called New York. Barked Captain Bleeg, "I meant Cleveland. Be at Thistledown by tomorrow afternoon." He was.

--An Eastern-based call-taker pleaded for time off work to attend his mother's funeral in Indiana. "No," was Captain Bleeg's response. "There's nobody to fill in for you. You can visit her grave after the meeting ends. She'll still be there."

--One of the free spirits in the Form's employ at the New York tracks returned to Aqueduct from Florida one spring, tanned and ready. He had brought with him a bag of citrus to be shared with colleagues. Before the races, he set up some soda bottles as "pins" at one end of the room and was bowling grapefruits at them when an enraged Captain Bleeg phoned the Form desk. "A guy called and said my call-taker is bowling in the press box," said the Captain. "Put that damned kid on the phone." Coolly replied the Form's chart-caller, who had fielded this call, "I can't interrupt him now--he's working on a spare." Then he hung up.

--Manning every recognized track on the continent, Form chart-callers occasionally worked alone, calling into tape recorders at the more obscure locales. One man arrived at his post late on an opening-day program and found out he was barely in time for the feature. He called the race while standing on a chair amidst the grandstand crowd. Leading throughout was a horse he kept referring to as "the little bay," who eventually won by a dozen. As the horses crossed the finish line, he felt a tug on his pants leg. Looking up at him with a scornful expression was an 8-year-old girl. "Mister," she informed him, "that horse you call the 'little bay' is Winada. Any fool knows she's the fastest mare in Colorado."

--Form crew members who didn't wager were in the minority. One of the most active bettors was a chart-caller whose call-taker--the person writing down the dictated description of the race--was forced to edit on the fly. A typical call would go like this: "At the eighth pole, that's Tomboy Teddy in front by a length and about to give it up as usual...Whistling Dixie staggering like a drunken sailor but still second by a neck...Fast Argo is pinned on the rail and jumping up and down like a heifer...And fourth and flying down the outside like a bat out of hell and going to make me a rich man is good old Retaluceps, closing ground and gonna win all by himself!"

Any "automated collection system" that eventually arrives won't be providing anything like that.

Former Daily Racing Form editor John McEvoy is now a freelance writer based in Chicago.