Sweetness And LightSweetness And Light The Score On Sports With Frank Deford

'Daily Racing Form' Still a Winner at 100

When The Daily Racing Form was created in 1905, there was nothing else like it. With pithy prose and a blizzard of stats, the publication still gives track enthusiasts a succinct view of a horse's past performance.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

If you like to keep track of anniversaries, you probably know that this year marks the centennial of Einstein's theory of relativity. It's also the 100-year anniversary of Las Vegas and the arrival of the first taxi cabs in Paris. For commentator Frank Deford, these events pale in comparison to another anniversary.

FRANK DEFORD:

It was exactly 100 years ago this summer that the daily racing form first started printing past performances of race horses, those arcane numbers and cryptic words which allow horse players to make their betting choices. Past performances are the Rosetta stone of sport. No literature from the poets of the sports pages has ever approached the influence of those lines of agate which tell us in one swoop dates of recent races, fractional time, speed figures, medications taken, equipment worn, odds, pedigree, career totals, stringer, jockey, speed figures, positions during past races, workouts, plus pithy summery comments like, `just up,' `outrun,' `past-tired horses,' `doomed,' `weakened,' `came up empty.' Empty, my favorite. If only theatrical and movie critics could be so succinct.

The scales fall from your eyes when you learn to read past performances. There are various sign posts in your youth which speak to growing up: your first kiss, your first shave, your first illegal drink of hard liquor. For me, it was the first day that I could understand past performances. I became a man among men that glorious adolescent afternoon.

While it was the daily racing form that pioneered the publication of past performances that momentos summer of aught 5, it was, it seems a charismatic gambler named George E. Smith who personally perfected the practice. Smith was better known simply as Pittsburgh Phil, a memorable man of equal parts, aphorisms and acumen. He was as much a student of his fellow gamblers as the thoroughbreds. `All consistently successful players of horses are men of tempered habits,' he wrote. `And wiser still, a man cannot divide his attentions at the track between horses and women.'

The man knew his stuff. By creating his own past performances, he literally beat the odds. When he alas died in 1905 at the young age of 43, he left an estate of almost $2 million, an incredible sum in those days. Yes, Pittsburgh Phil died just months before the daily racing forms publisher, one Frank Brunell, came up with the concept of printing for the masses the sort of material that Pittsburgh Phil had collected for himself.

Numbers are so much more integral to sport than they are to any other entertainments. I've often speculated that we might consider the possibility that more boys take to math than girls do because more boys grow up acquainted with how to divine the likes of earned run average and betting lines. But for all the numbers in sport, none are so complex and influential as what the form came up with one day a hundred summers ago. Without them, you just go no chance to ever know what a horse can do.

MONTAGNE: The comments of Frank Deford, senior contributing writer at Sports Illustrated. He joins us each Wednesday from member station WSHU in Fairfield, Connecticut.

And you are listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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Sweetness And LightSweetness And Light The Score On Sports With Frank Deford