(v) (n) (r) (Q) (B) (ru) (s) (u)
These letters and numerals are not the formula of a new atomic weapon or a cryptograph that leads to Blackbeard's buried treasure. They are from nine lines scribbled in ink recently on a ruled sheet of paper. This piece of paper provides the basis of Walter H. Annenberg's Triangle Publications, a small empire which not only owns every major racing newspaper in the United States and Canada but operates such valuable properties as the Philadelphia Inquirer and the magazines TV Guide and Seventeen. Racing fans, who bet more than $2 billion annually at U.S. tracks, are so conditioned to using the end result of this piece of paper as a guide to horses' form that a large majority of them would be lost without it. The scribblings are compiled into racing charts that give the correct position of each horse at different points in a race and describe in footnotes how each behaved. Triangle Publications consider the charts box scores and not betting guides.
The symbols show that after onehalf mile of a six-furlong race at Belmont, N.Y. last month a 3-year-old named Velvet Shield (v) was leading Naom Padraig (n) by a head (h, written above and to the right). Naom Padraig in turn was a head in front of Red Coral (r), who was one length ahead of Quickmarch (Q), who led Bartons Brook (B) by a length and a half (Right). The other horses, in order, are Run Bully (ru), Sunset Baby (s) and Uncle Hilly (u). A ninth horse, Lord Mike, threw his jockey at the start and was out of the race (see chart).
Costy Caras, a chart-taker for Triangle Publications for the last year and a half, wrote the symbols. Don Fair, who at 61 is believed by many to be the finest chart-caller in the country, told him what to write. Caras' performance, by most normal standards, was remarkable. Fair's was almost unbelievable.
No worker in any profession is under more harrowing nervous tension or more concentrated visual strain than the chart-caller. Six days a week he faces the incredibly difficult and exacting task of accurately calling off all the names of the horses in a race with their exact positions when they leave the gate, at the one-quarter-mile pole, one-half mile, head of the stretch and at the finish. In longer races he gives the positions at the three-quarter-mile pole. A six-furlong race takes about one minute 12 seconds to run. Most people would have a miserable time merely reciting the horses' names correctly five straight times during that span. But the caller is expected to watch each horse carefully, noting how he behaves and whether any peculiarities that bettors should know about develop. These he appends to his chart as footnotes. "Bartons Brook, in close quarters leaving the backstretch, saved ground when clear and, responding to strong handling during the drive, wore down Red Coral in the last 16th," Fair wrote of the second at Belmont. There were similar notations for all eight other horses in the race. The chart and the footnotes took Fair about four seemingly effortless minutes.
They weren't that easy though. His ability to get all the data down was the result of intense concentration. The slightest interruption of his mental and vocal processes could have meant that he fouled up his call and the chart was worthless. He never gets a second chance.
If a caller temporarily forgets a horse's name during the running of a race, he usually just yells "Skip one by two" and straightens it out later by a process of elimination. At other times when a lapse of memory occurs, the caller may designate the horse by his colors: "Something red a half"; or by his markings: "White blaze by one." There used to be a caller who yelled "Man o' War!" every time he fluffed a horse's name.
The caller can't call horses by saddlecloth or head numbers. These are often obscured during the running of a race. In the few minutes a field is parading to the post the caller seems downright demented as he mumbles over and over to himself, memorizing the names of the horses and the colors of the jockeys' silks. Sometimes these silks are very similar, only a stripe on the sleeve or a star on the cap differentiating them. In such cases a caller must rely on the different shades of horses' coats or their markings or on the fact that one wears blinkers and the other doesn't.
Fair concentrates on the horses first when they come out on the track. He picks them up with his binoculars later as they approach the starting gate, partly to see how they are acting, partly to refresh his memory for a field he has seen for the first time just a few minutes before. With the abandonment this year of the Widener Chute he figures his worst years are behind him. Often in the past a full field of 28 would roar down the famous straightaway toward the press box. The angle was so terrible and the field so crowded that Fair took to the roof in order to get a better view. With the help of the film patrol, which ran the start over for him several times immediately after the race, he was able to check his call for the start of the race. He made two other calls with no help and then checked his finish against the official photo. He was usually right. Caras says now that he personally was glad to see the Chute go "but Uncle Don wasn't. He considered it a challenge."
At present there are about 25 men in the country who follow the esoteric profession of chart-calling. An equal number take charts. Some of the latter are in training to become callers, but others among them will never make it. As Fair points out, calling isn't something you can pick up. You either have the memory and concentration and control or you find some other job. Caras, who once played football at Fordham and later worked in his parents' restaurant in Queens, believes at 35 that his future is in writing and not calling. He does a column and reporting for the Morning Telegraph and despite amazingly fast reflexes feels he would never be in a league with Fair.