08/08/2013 12:26PM

Chart callers: The inexact science behind a basic betting tool

Bill Denver/Equi-Photo
Steve Hurley (standing) and Rich Feldman, Monmouth’s two-man team of chart callers, prepare to work a race from the press box.

Most jobs at the racetrack are comprehensible to the outside world. You ride horses, or you train them, own them, take bets, or bet on them.

Steve Hurley, a chart caller for 30 years, is not so lucky. He only receives blank stares when he describes his occupation.

“It’s so far from mainstream anything,” he said with a laugh. “As far as, ‘What do you mean? What do you do? How do you learn that?’ They’re just looking at you, shaking their heads, and they’ve got no idea.”

Hurley sat inside the small room in the press box one June afternoon at Monmouth Park, where for nearly every summer since 1988 he has called − or taken the call, as part of the standard two-person team − how a race is run, from the margins to a summary of what happened.

The job of a chart caller is at turns art and science. Charts and, by extension, past performances, carry the aura of inviolability, but at heart they are the interpretations and approximations of an individual. Through their binoculars, chart callers supply the information that makes up the charts on which past performances are based. These materials − charts and PPs − are the bedrock of the whole betting structure; the actions of bettors, breeders, jockeys, trainers, even the historical veracity of the game, all depend on accurate charts.

Chart callers are employed by the Equibase Company, and their work is seen by anyone who picks up a program. You might think this public service would pass them for celebrities at the track, but instead they are a small club of 100 or so active members that escapes attention. Charts are about as old as the desire to bet the races in America, and while technology has changed racing, charts have remained largely unchanged since they first appeared in print in the late 19th century.

“Without them, there wouldn’t be any racing,” Hurley said. “What are you going to get, 100 people to come out and just watch horses run around? It’s strictly about betting. So you’ve got to have the past performances. Other than the horse itself, it’s got to be the most important ingredient. Without it, you wouldn’t have anything else.”

The callers haven’t changed much either. It’s classic work that takes a classic racetracker. Most of them are nomadic, moving from one track to another every couple of months, Runyonesque in their enchantment with the racetrack − hard-drinking, chain-smoking, gambling types.

Hurley fits the mold, though at 61 most of that is behind him. He is a colorful storyteller with a laugh that fills the press box. He drifted around a number of track jobs until stumbling into this one, at Turf Paradise in 1980, where he still works most of the year. Decades later his fascination with the spectacle of racing still burns bright, even if, like most lifelong racetrackers, he finds a certain dark humor to the affairs.

The other half of the Monmouth pair is Rich Feldman, who at 35 is one of the youngest chart callers. He and Hurley rotate duties. They make a good team: Both are thorough, their charts concise, and an acerbic wit and perceptiveness emanate from their room on race days. You can learn a lot about the horses and horsemen on the grounds by hanging around them.

Both like to bet. Last year, Feldman qualified for the National Handicapping Championship in Las Vegas by finishing second in a contest at Monmouth. Their very job description − watching a race closely and then watching replays of the same race so as to write comments − is what full-time horseplayers put in as a matter of course.

“Most of the people who do it are gamblers, like Hurley and me, and they like it and want to be at the track,” said Feldman, who quit an entry-level job on Wall Street after two years and went to work for Equibase in 2001. “The job keeps you in the game. I’m hoping to make a score.”

It was a few minutes before the first race on a clear and sunny afternoon at Monmouth. Hurley usually arrives about an hour before the opener, to enter the early scratches and jockey and equipment changes into Equibase’s patented software known as eBase, which allows chart callers to work directly in the online central database.

“Everything in the chart comes from there,” Feldman said as he pointed to the eBase system running on the laptop in front of Hurley.

A second laptop, for the call taker, was on the other end of the room. Next to that was a terminal with pari-mutuel information, which is also connected into eBase. The VCR used to record the races was duct-taped to the top of an old television, which rested on top of a small filing cabinet. Hanging on the wall was a course map with the poles and chutes and gate positions. From the top-floor press box they looked down on the finish line, which afforded the best vantage point for calling a race.

Their craft is taught − chart callers get several weeks of training, but mostly it is a trial-by-fire apprenticeship − but still it is an inexact science. It is the chart caller who decides how far a horse is behind another horse and how the race is run. They don’t call noses or odd fractions, but only heads, halves, and whole lengths; you only find nose margins at the wire because of finish-line photo technology. They have to know the different points of call for each distance, and sometimes whisk through a field in a matter of seconds.

PHOTO: The points of calls from a race on the July 19 card at Monmouth (left), as filled out by Rich Feldman.

On this day at Monmouth, seven horses walked into the gate for a low-end maiden claimer at 5 1/2 furlongs on the main track. Hurley pulled his binoculars up and Feldman held his pen over a preprinted pad with columns for the points of call (see image above). The standard practice is to call horses by their numbers; color-coded saddlecloths offer easier recognition. At this distance, there were only three calls besides the start and finish: entering the turn at the seven-sixteenths pole, the five-sixteenths pole, and as always, the eighth pole. Hurley would have only a few seconds after finishing the first call to scan to the front and begin the second.

The bell rang. “6, 5, 4, 1, 2, 3, 8,” Hurley said, calling out the horse’s numbers after the start.

“And now it’s just points of call,” he explained, “depending on the distance what poles you call it at.” Three horses hit the seven-sixteenths pole together. “Two a head, one a head, four by three, five by two, six a half, three by two, and an eight.” He breezed through in five seconds. Five more seconds passed. “Four a head, two by one and a half, one by four, three by two, five a half, eight by four, and a six.” This took eight seconds.

You could hear cheers and programs cracking in the background. Twelve seconds passed, then the stretch call. “Four by two, one by one and a half, two by two, eight a head, three by two and a half, six by six, and a five.” Ten seconds had passed. The field was strung out to the wire, and Hurley called the order of finish. “Four, one, eight, maybe six, two, three, five.”

A horse named Song Catcher was eased up on the turn and came wide into the stretch, and with his binoculars Hurley noticed blood coming from his nostrils. Hurley noted this in the chart. “It looked like he gushed,” Hurley said, as he went to inquire with the stewards down the hall. The phone rang while he was there, the veterinarian calling the chief steward to verify this.

Back in the room, Feldman had received the official margins and times from the photo-finish operator upstairs. He entered these into the first of four pages on his laptop. The first holds the most important notes − weather, track surface, post positions, points of call, times, and finish. The next page is connected to the tote system and has the odds, payouts, and pools. On the next two pages Feldman entered the earnings for each horse, which depend on the size of the field, and the run-up distance from gate to timing.

PHOTO: A racing program bears Steve Hurley’s notes, which he later used to write short comments that went in the PP’s and long comments that went in the chart’s footnote.

Hurley faced the television and rewound the tape to watch the trips for each horse. He jotted comments in shorthand on his program. While points of call offer a two-dimensional picture of the race, the comments paint a three-dimensional scene. On his laptop,
Hurley typed in the short comment for each horse − the winner of that race got “3-deep into turn, held” − and then long comments, which make up the chart’s footnote.

The footnote is the narrative, more art than science.

“Everyone has their own style,” Feldman said. “I kind of think there’s no need for extra stuff in it. I just write what happened. I think that’s enough.”

Hurley concurred. “The footnote is supposed to be a short synopsis of what happened in the race.” For some callers nowadays, he said, it’s become a long scroll.

“Identifying trouble is the main thing. How a horse won is also important,” Hurley said, adding that the lexicon allows for modest differences. “Easily, handily, ridden out. Of course, driving is the most prevalent.”

The short comment is the commentary published in past performances. It cannot exceed 22 characters; the width of a past-performance line cannot hold any more. Feldman considers the short comment “the most important thing,” he said. “It could actually help people who just show up.”

Feldman looks for the one thing that defines a horse’s race. It might reflect the bias if it was pronounced that day, and thus mention an inside trip or wide one. Nowadays, more chart callers pay attention to the paths and whether a horse was covered up. Collected together, the charts for a given card can tell a studious horseplayer whether speed held or closers won, what part of the track was favorable or if it played fairly.

Once Hurley finished his comments, eBase gathered his information with Feldman’s into one instantly readable chart. Before validating, however, the system is programmed to raise any red flags − an equipment change, a fractional time that was too fast, a trifecta that pays more than an exacta.

“There’s a lot of stuff going on,” Feldman said, adding that some races are more difficult than others to call, like large fields going short. “If there’s a six-horse field and no trouble, I might only watch the replay once or twice.

“I like to watch the head-on too, to see if anyone was bumped or stumbled,” he said.

The use of television replay, beginning around the mid-1970s, as well as the onset of the digitized system two decades later, have made the job of a chart caller easier and any errors short-lived, for obvious reasons.

“We can go back at any time and fix it,” Feldman said. “Sometimes the next week I’ll be handicapping, or I might watch the race later and realize I missed that horse steady on the turn. I’ll just go back and add it. If I can get it in before the horse runs again, then it’s fine.”

Soon after, Hurley and Feldman had to adjust the chart of the day’s first race. One of the stewards came over. It concerned Song Catcher.

“Un-chart him as a bleeder,” the steward told them. “He didn’t bleed.”

No explanation followed.

Hurley later confided that he had never encountered this in all his decades calling races. “He’s an un-bleeder,” he said to Feldman, as both laughed. “How about that, if I just put ‘un-bled’?”

Whether a horse bled, or how much trouble it got into, or an equipment malfunction, or the path it took are added descriptors Equibase lately requests from its callers. Anybody can watch replays at home or at the track now, but that same person cannot see a horse gushing after it pulls up. In this sense, Hurley’s job has changed from when he first started in 1980. Technology has freed up callers to watch races multiple times and write charts more accurately and comprehensively than before.

PHOTO: A comparison of one of the earliest racing charts and one from July 2013. The 1896 chart, while not as accurate and detailed, reveals much of the information found in charts today, including points of call, margins, times, running lines, weights, and jockeys.

Still, you could draw a straight line between Hurley and Feldman and those of the chart’s founding fathers. In the 1880s, famous horseplayers such as Pittsburg Phil, “Pack” McKenna, “Cad” Irish, and Charles Botay created their own charts. This was for their own betting, not the public, which they recognized were playing in the dark.

McKenna would post men at the start and finish as well as the quarter poles, and then reconstruct the running of the race from that information. Phil’s charts were naturally crude, but they at least revealed the first three horses at the start, those which predominated in the early stages, the first three at the finish and how far apart they were.

The Form helped spread the usage of charts after 1894. In 1896, the paper issued its first monthly chart book. Others newspapers such as the New York Evening World followed. In 1905, the Form introduced past performances, and in time a turf-and-field division of callers rose around building this core product. From the beginning, the charts carried most of the information you see today − points of call, margins, times, running lines, weight, jockey − except for short comments.

“Races are races, and when you’re doing the chart calling, it’s really the same from one to the next,” said Mike Schneider, a 30-year veteran who has handled the Southern California circuit since 1993. “Once they leave the gate you’ve got one job to do, whether it’s
Zenyatta running or some maiden claimer.”

Perhaps no chart caller exemplified the Runyonesque nature of the job more than Bobby Casale, who was known as Bobby Castle at the New York tracks where he worked beginning in the early 1950s. Castle never had two nickels to rub together, was always borrowing money, smoked constantly, and wore a signature floppy fishing cap. He was a cantankerous natural, able to “warm up” a field, meaning to memorize the names, in 90 seconds. Chart callers, like announcers, used names then, not numbers. Schneider still does it that way.

Casale could offer commentary during a race as easefully as margins. Once in the Aqueduct press box, a reporter predicted during a race that his choice would catch the frontrunner in the stretch. “She’ll catch her,” Castle retorted, not missing a beat. “On the Belt
Parkway she’ll catch her.” He then returned to his call.

Casale broke in Jack Wilson, who was the dean of chart callers for many years and ultimately became their supervisor for the Form. Wilson wrote the footnote for Secretariat’s 1973 Belmont, which unshackled the chart from its formulaic strictures. Previously, the caller wrote little more than stock descriptions: driving, handily, outrun. Any description or flowery touch was frowned upon.

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Wilson wrote: “Secretariat sent up along the inside to vie for the early lead with Sham on the backstretch, disposed of that one after going three-quarters, drew off at will rounding the far turn and was under a hand ride from Turcotte to establish a record in a tremendous performance.”

Those days, a three-man crew was normal: two for the chart and one operating the teletype machine. The “trackman” position, part of the Form’s track-and-field division, included chart calling and other tasks like making selections and writing weekly columns, stakes previews, and recaps. The chart caller had more tasks on his plate than today.

The Form didn’t introduce computers until around 1990, according to Schneider. If the teletype operator made a mistake, he had to start over again.

“We used to work on a typewriter and then hand it to somebody to type all over again,” he said. “You would send it off, and you didn’t know what he wrote until you saw it in print two days later. “

There was another operator at one of the Form’s offices who would type it all over again.

“There were some hilarious, ridiculous typos,” Schneider said. “One byline had my brother’s name, Mark Schneider. I wrote the Remington column for five years, except once when my brother did it.”

The teletype days gave way to wholesale changes. Equibase, a general partnership between The Jockey Club and the Thoroughbred Racing Associations of North America (TRA), was formed in 1990 to establish an industry-owned database of charts. In 1998, the Form scrapped its track-and-field division and became Equibase’s principal customer. Equibase was always technologically advanced: It created one of racing’s first websites, in 1995, and at the turn of century implemented eBase. Ever since, race results arrive on its website in minutes and full charts before the next race goes off.

PHOTO: Feldman and Hurley say technology such as Trakus, which tracks a horse’s precise position throughout a race, make a one-man chart-calling crew inevitable.

More technological change is afoot. For almost 10 years Equibase has partnered with Trakus, a company that tracks a horse’s precise position throughout the race. Seven North American Thoroughbred tracks employ the Trakus system, where its real-time points of call feed right into eBase. Chips in the horses’ saddlecloths allow them to be tracked from start to finish and show up on a virtual interface.

At those tracks, the call taker operates the technology, mainly checking whether the chips are functioning for each horse before the race. If one or more are not, he notifies the outrider to replace them with a spare.

“It’s the simplest thing you can think of,” said Schneider, who calls at Del Mar and Santa Anita, both Trakus clients.

Nothing has changed much for the traditional practice. The chart caller still calls the race the old-fashioned way, as a safeguard, since the points of call now come from Trakus. Equibase still maintains its own points of call for supplemental purposes, and because on rare occasions Trakus malfunctions.

The chart caller also determines whether to overrule the Trakus information. Because Trakus tracks horses individually, and not based on the lead horse, the fractional times and margins are supposed to be more precise. But Schneider said he often feels the need to adjust the margins.

“The transmitter is in the saddlecloth, so the margins may not be as accurate as we would like,” he said. “We measure the margins from the nose of the horse.

“It’s not wrong, just that I have to look at it more, just in case,” he added. “So it adds a little more work. It’s mostly with the short margins. You can see why that is with the transmitter being in the middle of the horse.”

Many chart callers believe that Trakus will spell the end of two-person crews, but its chief executive, Bob McCarthy, said he believes the technology enlarges the role instead of diminishing it.

“The chart caller’s interpretation of the data, while operating the system, is a broadening of those responsibilities,” he said.

For their part, Feldman and Hurley see Trakus as the future. The footnotes can never be written by a machine, but otherwise they see a one-man crew as unavoidable in the long run. Then again, they say they’ve heard this tune for 10 years.

Either way, neither is going anywhere. Press boxes have been mostly emptied of reporters, which might be as poignant as any remark on racing’s wane, but chart callers hang on, steadfast. In many cases, they are the only ones left besides cameramen and the announcer, their voices almost calling out from racing’s past and into its future.