The DRF vs. Racing Times War of '91

If you look up Racing Times on Google, you will find only a single one-paragraph item on the racing newspaper being closed down after 10 months in existence. But what a 10 months it was following a full blown battle in which the new publication waged war on the powerful monopoly, Daily Racing Form, which had ruled the Sport of Kings since 1894 and was known throughout racing simply as “The Bible.”

On two previous occasions attempts were made by Sports Eye and Figs Form to challenge the might of the Form, but they were swatted away like gnats. Whereas those feeble challenges were equivalent of the tiny country of Grand Fenwick declaring war on the United States in the movie The Mouse That Roared, the Racing Times went into battle fully funded with the necessary ammunition, troops, and modern technology to actually threaten the DRF and cause serious damage to a dynasty whose once state-of-the-art computer system was rapidly becoming antiquated.

In April of 1991, the Racing Times launched its attack. With the backing of British publishing mogul Robert Maxwell and battle plans drawn up by former New York Times racing writer Steven Crist, the Racing Times went out and recruited a massive staff that read like a Who’s Who of racing journalists and handicappers.

By the time the ’91 Breeders’ Cup rolled around, Racing Times launched what would be its final attack on the DRF, whose handful of reporters covering the event were overwhelmed by the imposing army sent by Racing Times. In addition to executive columnist Joe Hirsch, the only reporters providing daily coverage for the Form were California correspondent Mike Martin and chart caller Jack Wilson. Ed Fountaine, former editor of Figs Form and now a member of DRF, was in Louisville covering the TRA seminar on drug and alcohol abuse in the racing industry, and he was assigned double duty by assisting in the coverage.

Fountaine recalled being in the Breeders’ Cup hospitality room at the hotel and feeling like a lost soul among the hordes of Racing Times employees, which numbered 22 according to Fountaine’s count. He said he felt like Custer at the Little Big Horn.

To give an idea just how extensive the Racing Times' staff was, in addition to Crist, there was Midwest editor Ray Paulick and his deputy editor Dan Liebman, and Western editor Jay Privman and his deputy editor Peter Berry. The writers and handicappers included major names in the industry such as executive columnist Jay Hovdey, Bill Leggett, Dale Austin, Steve Davidowitz, Karen Johnson Downey, Clem Florio, Brad Free, Jack Mann, Mike Watchmaker, former NYRA communications head Steve Schwartz, Jack Will, T.D. Thornton, Lynne Snierson, Jacqueline Duke, and Paul Cornman. Contributing writers included Tom Ainslie, Bill Finley, Russ Harris, Sid Fernando, Art Grace, William Murray, Mike Veitch, Kent Hollingworth, John Pricci, Dick Jerardi, and James Quinn, as well as Frank Mitchell, Lauren Stich, and Alan Shuback. It was by far the biggest array of editorial talent ever assembled.

But even with all this talent and the extensive amount of articles and features, it was difficult making a major dent in DRF’s armor. One Racing Times writer was quoted as saying, “Never have so many words been read by so few.” Or at least words to that effect.

I believe it was because of the Racing Times and the threat it posed to the DRF editorially, that I was plucked out of the library after 20 years and joined the editorial staff as a news and feature writer. I had been freelance writing, first for the Thoroughbred Record and other publications, and then for the newly established weekly, Thoroughbred Times, covering New Jersey racing, the Breeders’ Cup, contributing to the Triple Crown coverage, and writing features.

The editor of DRF refused to let me write for the paper; that is until the other editors pretty much ganged up on him during an editorial meeting, in which one of the topics was combating the impending threat of the Racing Times. When the subject of me writing for the Form was brought up, the publisher, who was attending the meeting, said, “I’ve always wondered why Steve is writing for the Thoroughbred Times and not writing for us.” The coup was complete. The editor had been soundly defeated. The next day I bid farewell to the library and joined the editorial desk. I was thrown right into the fire, having to write my first deadline story, an obituary on the legendary New York racecaller Fred Capossela, who had passed away that morning. Then came a multi-part series on wagering around the world, a trip to the prison in Walkill, N.Y. to do a feature on the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation program, and numerous other features.

So, I was now part of the DRF troops, whose job it was to repel the attack by Racing Times. Each morning, managing editor Joe Rosen, who was also one of my best friends, and I would go over that day’s editions of DRF and Racing Times, where we would discuss the positives and negatives of both publications, and what we could do to improve our editorial content. Joe would circle bad heads and leads with his grease pencil; anything to help upgrade our finished product, while finding weaknesses in the enemy.

The Racing Times kept coming up with more and more innovative features in their past performances, which included Beyer speed figures, while the DRF was still dependant on computer programming that was becoming outdated. And the Racing Times’ vast army of writers kept churning out tons of copy.

Although they still were unable to threaten DRF’s sales numbers, there was concern that Maxwell’s deep pockets would help the Racing Times persevere until the public caught up to it. Many of us at the Form, including myself, still felt we put out a better product editorially, with more interesting, original features, while Racing Times focused a great deal on handicapping and gambling and straight news reporting. What a product we could have if the two publications called a truce and merged their talents. But Crist and company were intent on smashing the DRF’s monopoly.

All that became moot in February, 1992 when Robert Maxwell fell off his yacht off the Canary Islands after possibly having a heart attack. His naked body was discovered a short time later. The financial losses and massive loans called in by the banks, and the shake-up of Maxwell’s empire that ensued were the death knell for the Racing Times.

One morning, I received a phone call from my good friend and Racing Times employee Lauren Stich, who was a noted pedigree handicapper who specialized in 2-year-olds. Lauren informed me they had just been shut down. Just like that the Racing Times was no more. When their offices were invaded and they were told to leave the premises immediately, they asked if they could put out one final copy to say goodbye, but were told they were officially trespassing.

Although you hate to see so many people, several of whom were friends, lose their job, there was a sense of relief that the Racing Times no longer was a threat. The DRF was once again a monopoly.

But that was far from the end of the story. The DRF eventually was sold by Rupert Murdock to K-III, part of the equity giant Kohlberg, Kravis and Roberts (KKR). Eventually massive changes at DRF incurred and a number of former employees of Racing Times were brought in until the DRF had pretty much been engulfed by the foe it had once conquered. Former Racing Times executive Neil Cook was made editor, and Joe Rosen, DRF news editor Greg Gallo, and copy chief Tom Valledolmo eventually were fired, and the DRF moved its main office from Hightstown, N.J. to Phoenix, Arizona.

By the mid-1990s, K-III occupied most of the Hightstown office, with the remaining few DRF employees moving to a small corner of the building. The only two writers left were Ed Fountaine and myself, along with former editor George Bernet, art director Chris Donfry, Mandy Minger from marketing, and a few executives. We constantly came up with new features, such as the “Training Tree,” and “Stable Tour,” and increased our number of editorials. Neil Cook even assigned me to cover the 1997 Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe, and I brought my wife and daughter on a second honeymoon, staying at the same small boutique hotel in Paris Joan and I stayed 17 years earlier on our honeymoon. Fountaine and I were invited to attend and speak at the DRF’s retreat at a resort in Wickenburg, Arizona, where we discussed covering the Kentucky Derby. I even built up the nerve to go up in the DRF hot air balloon. I have to admit those were fun days.

Then in 1998, following persistent rumors, the Form was purchased by a group headed by none other than Steven Crist. The monopoly he had once detested and tried to destroy was now his. Although still the DRF in name, it was in reality the Racing Times reincarnated, as its former employees came storming back in droves. Fountaine was dismissed, but found a job with his old editor Greg Gallo at the New York Post. Soon, all remnants of what was the Daily Racing Form were gone, including me, who moved on to the Blood-Horse after 29 years.

The DRF has undergone numerous changes, both cosmetically and in content. It remains a monopoly, having been sold several more times, but bears no resemblance to what it once was. The conflict of 1991 is but a distant memory. The mighty DRF won its biggest battle, but in the end lost the war.

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