Money Machine

In the New York Times' full-page obituary on Walter Annenberg, there is virtually no mention of Thoroughbred racing and only a single opaque reference to the Daily Racing Form/Morning Telegraph, which Annenberg inherited from his father, Moses. The sister publications were funded with the fortune Moses amassed operating racing wires to bookmakers. It was that same money made in horse racing that eventually helped lead to such prominent magazines as TV Guide and Seventeen.

Even Annenberg's own child--which has evolved into today's Daily Racing Form--felt only six inches was sufficient space for his obit, with only a couple of brief mentions of his involvement with the two publications.

Was this a snub of its own parent, or was that all the space Annenberg warranted? As ambassador to Great Britain, publishing mogul, and philanthropist, he deserved a lengthy obit. As owner of the Daily Racing Form, perhaps six inches was sufficient.

The obit did state that when Annenberg took over the Form/Telly, it was "one of the most profitable publications in the country." While today's Daily Racing Form, like many other publications, has financial challenges, it is important to remember that the Form under Annenberg made a minimum of $40 million a year, probably more.

So, what did Annenberg do to build this "racing sheet," as the N.Y. Times called it, into a monopolistic money machine? Not much. He didn't have to. The Form was something you just wound up each day and let it take you one more rung up the financial ladder. So, while Daily Racing Form employees fought to get unionized and fought for raises and pensions, Annenberg was donating hundreds of millions of dollars, a good deal of it earned from the Form, to education--including his alma mater, the Peddie School, in Hightstown, N.J., where he eventually would move the paper's main office. In 1991, he donated a collection of paintings to the Metropolitan Museum of Art that was valued at $1 billion.

Even the Times obit alluded to his "aloofness and imperiousness" when mentioning his selling of the Philadelphia Enquirer and Philadelphia Daily News without prior notification to staff members.

Annenberg, in fact, had little or no contact with DRF employees, and certainly would never engage in any racing discussions, even if he were able to. Preakness Day 1975, a DRF copy editor picked up the phone and was shocked to hear that the caller was Walter Annenberg, who was inquiring about the attendance at Pimlico that day. Attempting to make small talk while the communications department, better known as the wire room, sought out the information, the copy editor asked Annenberg who he liked in the Preakness. He replied emphatically, "I'm in no position to answer that!"

When the copy editor finally informed him it would take them a while to obtain the information, Annenberg responded, "Well, that's rather silly."

DRF employees had no idea what Annenberg looked like, and many had no idea who he was. One day, after attending a Peddie School commencement, he stopped by the Racing Form office, an extremely rare occurrence. As one of the statisticians led him to the editorial department, she said to him, "Please follow me, Mr. Annendale."

The racing world back then was far removed from the world we know now. And the Racing Form was an absolute power, although it chose to drift along slowly on calm waters rather than create waves. On the few occasions some insignificant gnat--like Sports Eye or some other pest--dared to disrupt the serenity, it was like waking a hibernating grizzly bear, and the DRF would turn nasty and crush them or buy them out. Annenberg may have seen the writing on the wall, however, selling the Form, along with TV Guide and other publications, for $3 billion in 1988. Two years later, when Equibase was established, the Form lost its monopoly on racing data and past performances.

Annenberg was not William Randolph Hearst. He was not Rupert Murdoch. What he was I really have no idea, nor do I really care. In the realm of Thoroughbred racing, which is my realm, he simply owned a damn good, very profitable newspaper in its time.