117 Years Of Racing Stats Put To Pasture At The Track

Oct 15, 2011

Many horse racing fans swear by — and sometimes possibly at — the Daily Racing Form. It's the newspaper of the thoroughbred industry.

Before you bet that exacta, you can check out a horse's pedigree, race experience and morning workout times. You'll see which mares have been bred to which stallions.

The Keeneland race track in Lexington, Ky., holds a vast collection of Daily Racing Form issues, and further efforts are under way to preserve every issue and establish a digital archive.

Want To Pick A Winner? Read The Form

On opening day of Keeneland this fall, Doug Marques of Buffalo New York had the winner of the second race. He'd bought a racing form at the track for $4. He started making notes and learned that the No. 5 horse loves Polytrack, the kind of synthetic racetrack surface Keeneland has.

In the form's small type, Marques spotted No. 5's impressive morning workout on Polytrack.

"He works out faster than 55 other ponies — new trainer, just loved him," Marques says.

The sounds of breathing and hoofs at a training track in the early morning become numbers on stopwatches — then entries in the Daily Racing Form. The clockers send in the workout times from tracks all around the country.

"There is nothing more beautiful than being on the back of a horse galloping around and watching the starting of the colors coming up on the sunrise — that horizon kind of lifts all by itself as you're moving around the racetrack," says Michelle Nihei, a trainer who's brought 14 horses to the Keeneland fall meet. Some days, Nihei reads the Racing Form before 5 a.m.

"In order to talk to your owners, you know, about how a race is shaping up, they're looking at the form, so you've gotta be articulate about how to interpret what you see in that form and convey that or discuss that with them," she says.

'No Collection Like It Anywhere'

The Keeneland Library is about 15 minutes over the hill from the barn housing Nihei's horses. The Keeneland Association had been wanting to build a proper library, and when the Daily Racing Form collection was donated 10 years ago, it finally had the reason.

The first Daily Racing Form was published in Chicago on Nov. 17, 1894. The earliest issues are missing from the collection, but most of the others are in this room.

"There's no collection like it anywhere in the world," Keeneland's president Nick Nicholson says. "Most of the volumes you're looking at right now are the sole surviving copy."

They're about as safe as they can be in this archival basement. "If the fire alarm goes off, you run immediately to the closest door," Nicholson warns. "You don't ask me any questions, and we'll talk about it when we get outside because you've got 10 seconds before the oxygen is sucked out of this room."

The dry and crumbling newspapers are bound into leather-covered volumes. From there, preservationists are working to preserve the fragile narrative of racetrack history.

The Digitizing Progress

Becky Ryder of the Keeneland Library likes to read the headlines. She looks at the racing form from July 23, 1949 — Calumet Trio Seeks Arlington and Coaltown, Armed and Ponder Have Six Foes in Handicap.

"These are big races at Arlington," she says.

It is Keeneland's dream that all this collection would be digitized — online, searchable and free.

"The basic concept of it would be if you could digitize the contents of a book without opening it up — be kind of like an MRI," Ryder says. "That's fantasy right now, but a lot of fantasies become science."

That fantasy may be financially out of reach, but the library can still get started on the first step, saving the pages. That means taking apart the bound volumes.

"You cut through the hinge, which is just going to separate the cover from the text block," Ryder says. The pages are separated and trimmed, then nestled into custom-made, alkaline-buffered cardboard boxes.

Keeneland already has 200,000 Daily Racing Form pages online. It sounds like a lot until you add up the pages that remain.

"We think there's 11 million," Ryder says. "And it's still publishing."

In the preservation-and-go-digital field, there has been some research that offers a glimmer of hope.

"The basic concept of it would be if you could digitize the contents of a book without opening it up — be kind of like an MRI," Ryder says. "That's fantasy right now, but a lot of fantasies become science."

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