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Frank H. Brunell: The father of form
The man who changed horse racing was at first a reluctant fan. Frank H. Brunell, the founder of Daily Racing Form, who gave the Thoroughbred sport charts and then past performances, was initially more fond of trotters. In his hometown of Chicago, Brunell fell for Thoroughbreds only five years before he began publishing the Daily Racing Form in 1894.
“I tackled the Thoroughbred racing sport under protest, in the fall of 1889 at Ed Corrigan’s West Side track,” he wrote in a passage entitled “How Not To Lose” in the original American Sporting Manual, in 1897, which he edited. “Before that I had only studied and written about trotters. I was under contract to The Chicago Tribune. The trotters had ended their Western work for the season, and to fill a term I was turned loose among the Thoroughbreds.
“It cost me $500 that fall,” he continued. “Seeing the necessity of studying the racing side of sporting I went keenly to the books during the winter.”
Like all great handicappers, Brunell steeled himself to win back his money. Perhaps if he had won at the West Side’s fall meet, he would have never felt challenged to unlock the secrets to handicapping Thoroughbreds. He might have taken his winnings back to the trotters.
Instead, he chased after his losses – first with more losses. In 1891, he lost $2,700. “Such financial punishment told me that some of my cogs were loose.” He had played favorites, information, and rumor. In learning from his mistakes, he wrote, “I came to the conclusion that form, dashed strongly with knowledge of the personality of the horse, was the true guide.”
* DRF WEEKEND: Handicapping roundups, Q&A with Charles Hayward
In 1892, he won $700 on the season. He cleaned up the next year with $2,800. In 1894, he won $6,400, mostly at Chicago’s famous Washington Park. “In nineteen days in the middle of that noble meeting I lost but seven bets and won $7,930,” he wrote.
Brunell calculated his own handicapping tables and had arrived at the conclusion that figures outclass all other methods in handicapping. “Time is an important factor,” he wrote. “Discard the Anglo-American argument about its general worthlessness.”
Then the sports editor of the Chicago Tribune, Brunell, 41, left there and went ahead with his idea of a newspaper featuring charts based on fixed points of call. The Daily Racing Form was entirely his idea, the sweat equity of five years of laborious mathematical and intellectual analysis of the sport. He was also buttressed by the work of the 23-year-old printer John Wolfe, as well as several former Tribune writers he brought with him.
Eleven years later, in 1905, with absolutely no fanfare, he started publishing horses’ running lines based on those charts. Horseplayers now had past performances. Except for differences in typeface and some additional statistics, they are virtually identical to the ones we use today.
Brunell understood the importance of statistics long before our sports culture became obsessed with them, eight decades before sabermetrics, Moneyball, rotisserie, and fantasy baseball.
Brunell was born in London, England. The site of his birthplace later housed a printing establishment, which he liked to tell in the years after his own publication had become a success. He came to the United States with his family as a boy and grew up in Cleveland. His entrance into newspapers was as a copy boy for the Plain Dealer, and he quickly advanced up the ranks to become the “sporting editor” of the newspaper. He was known for his expertise with trotters.
It is unclear when Brunell moved to Chicago, probably in the first half of the 1880s, but there he developed an even larger following than in Cleveland. He went to work for the old daily Inter-Ocean and then connected with the Tribune. The Tribune was the conscience of the city, a “genteel paper of record, a bulwark of taste in a bawdy frontier city,” wrote Christopher Ogden in Legacy, his biography of the legendary Annenberg family. Likewise known for his honesty and meticulousness, Brunell was a sporting fit for the newspaper.
Interested in all sports, Brunell left newspaperdom for baseball before the end of 1889, although he kept studying the Thoroughbred game on the side. The baseball war was on. The National League held a near monopoly and many of its stars were unhappy with its lopsided player-management relationship. Out of the American Brotherhood, the baseball’s first players’ union, came the Players’ League. Brunell was secretary of the Brotherhood and held that position in the new league. It attracted many greats of the era, such as Hoss Radbourn, King Kelly, and Ned Williamson.
Past Performances for the 1906 Kentucky Derby
The Players’ League lasted just one season and folded. It might have won the war, but its leaders didn’t know that the National League was ready to make overtures. Still, its influence was felt for many years; another competitor, the earlier American Association, weakened and soon folded, leaving the NL alone for the next decade. All the greats returned to the NL, and Brunell went back to the Tribune in the spring of 1891, in charge of the sports department and personally reporting racing. It was baseball’s loss and horse racing’s gain.
From his helm at Chicago’s leading rag, Brunell watched as the city filled into its great promise. By 1893, the year the city beat out New York for the World’s Fair, Chicago was home to a million people. It was the world’s most dynamic city; the Otis elevator made skyscrapers possible, the refrigerated freight car fostered a national meatpacking industry. “The first of the great cities of the world to rise under purely modern conditions,” wrote Henry B. Fuller, an early Chicago novelist.
Horse racing was one of the era’s great sports, and Chicago and New York its centers. The beautiful Washington Park opened in 1884 with its matchless 1 1/8-mile oval; its American Derby, twice the value of the Kentucky Derby, was the country’s richest race in 1893. Ed Corrigan, whose West Side track fostered Brunell’s genesis story, built Hawthorne in the Chicago suburb of Cicero in 1891. Chicago also had Garfield Park and the small Harlem track, and there was another track over the Indiana border in Roby.
His imagination stirred by all this activity, Brunell determined to start a small newspaper devoted exclusively to racing, with stories and statistics. He presented the idea of a statistical history of a horse race to Dan Murray, one of the Tribune turf writers, and the men talked about the idea of fixed points of call as the horses circled the track. Brunell became close friends with John Hervey, the well-known turf writer who wrote under the alias “Salvator,” and an enthusiastic Hervey signed on. As Hervey recounted in 1944, on the 50th anniversary of the Form, Brunell believed he’d find great success where other short-lived attempts in New York had failed.
At the beginning of 1894, Brunell left the Tribune, where he had won a national reputation for the excellence of his work, to prepare the resources for his newspaper. As word spread of his enterprise, Brunell was visited by the young Wolfe, a native of Cincinnati and once an exercise rider but at the time a printer who also followed the racing scene. He made several important suggestions and Brunell hired him. Without the money to buy their own printing presses, Wolfe set out to find a commercial plant at a low price.
Brunell and his wife, who was instrumental in the business side, leased a small, dingy old office at 126 Dearborn Street, the Daily Racing Form’s first headquarters. As Hervey once recalled, the flight of stairs were so rickety and ill-lit that one usually stumbled up to the second floor office.
Wolfe found a good commercial printer in Bentley and Murray on nearby Randolph Street. The chases of type would be made up at the office, carried by hand to the printer, and then the copies carried back to the office for distribution. The first edition came out Saturday, Nov. 17, 1894. The evening before, Brunell and Wolfe finished locking the chases around 10:30; on their way to the printer, Wolfe stood one of the steel chases on end and Brunell cracked a bottle of champagne over it, announcing, “I christen thee Daily Racing Form.”
The newspaper cost five cents, when dailies usually cost a penny. Within the four pages of the first edition were several news stories, some racing gossip, and the first charts of a horse race ever published, from the Roby, Ind., meeting.
In a statement on the second page, Brunell offered his abiding philosophy: “This newspaper will be published daily as long as it is wanted. Daily Racing Form is an experiment, the result of long observation and thought. It will be clean, up to the times, and as careful as possible. The quality will be increased in every way.”
The sailing was stormy in the beginning. Bitter winter nights often wreaked havoc on the transportation of the heavy chases between the DRF office and the printer. Circulation grew during 1895, but business flatlined that winter, and Brunell suspended publication for four months. The newspaper returned March 26, 1896, and Brunell disclosed the reason for the hiatus: There was “no sharp call” for the paper during that time.
That year, however, the public’s demand grew for the newspaper, and the office moved into an entire building, equipped with its own printing presses. The Daily Racing Form was now – and would remain – on steadier footing.
It was a “time of iron horses and iron men,” as legendary DRF columnist Joe Hirsch wrote in “The First Century,” an account of the newspaper’s history. The purses were modest in those days, and horses were campaigned long and hard. Outside Chicago, major changes in racing were afoot. The Jockey Club was founded in New York in the same year as the Form. In 1905, the biggest track in America, named for August Belmont, was opened.
Brunell fit right into this era. He was “a fighter, a man of dauntless energy, a man in whose lexicon there was no such word as fail,” Hervey recalled, and had Brunell been less determined in purpose the Daily Racing Form would have failed.
Brunell was reliable and honest, and he expected the same of his newspaper. His advertising policy was evidence. No one could advertise in the Form unless known to Brunell. Those who did and wanted to tout the winners they had given the previous day had to have submitted their selections before the races, so as to validate their claims.
True to his word, as circulation increased and Brunell turned a profit, he added features and improved the newspaper’s quality. In 1896, the Daily Racing Form issued its first monthly chart book. Brunell published the American Sporting Manual the next year, which became devoted exclusively to racing in 1906. The inaugural edition was the size of a small moleskin notebook, a modest publication dwarfed by today’s version.
The greatest new feature was, of course, past performances. Brunell was still a keen judge of racehorses and racing, and he concluded that a horse’s past record was predictive of his next performance.
This was a mammoth undertaking, as type was still set by hand, and necessitated another move to larger quarters and their first linotype machines. It also led to the newspaper’s modernization.
On June 27, 1905, the Tuesday edition contained the first past performances to appear in the Form, for the Coney Island track in New York. Brunell displayed the information horizontally – track, distance, time, points of call with margins, and best company. The information was easy to digest and satisfied all the major contents of a race. Like the charts Brunell invented, nobody has ever come up with a better way to display this information.
The past performances were revolutionary – except one would have had no way of knowing at the time. They appeared from nowhere. Brunell never told readers to expect them and, except for a brief paragraph above the original PPs, there was no explanation on how to use them. The next day that paragraph disappeared. Brunell had great faith in his fellow handicappers.
Coney Island was the only track with past performances until July 8, when sets for Brighton Beach and Latonia appeared. By the end of 1905, the paper looked remarkably similar to its layout decades later: news on pages 1 and 2, charts on pages 2 and 3, and past performances the rest of the way.
There was no turning back for the Daily Racing Form. It expanded in the Midwest and into New York and became incredibly profitable. But the unending work extracted its toll on Brunell.
“I was a pretty tough guy in those days,” he testified in court many years later, in 1922, facing an alienation suit filed by a woman named Beatrice Kulleen, who said he had promised to marry her. “I got to drinking pretty heavily – starting out with cocktails, filling up with miscellaneous stuff of any kind and usually winding up at Mrs. Kulleen’s apartment – paralyzed. It was a sort of ‘drunkard’s retreat’ for me.”
In 1922, Brunell was 69, exhausted, and his wife was ill. Twenty-eight years after he started the Form, he was a millionaire in a time when such a distinction was rare. He and his wife had one daughter, Marion, and $6 million invested in bonds. He wanted to sell the paper and retire.
Brunell called only a few people, and the buyer was Moses Annenberg, whom Brunell had met on business trips to Milwaukee. Annenberg, then working for newspaper titan William Randolph Hearst, loved newspapers and had money to spend. Annenberg spent much of his childhood in Chicago, and he used to sell newspapers in the shadow of Washington Park at the turn of the century. The men liked one another.
The selling price was $400,000, which covered the Form’s headquarters, an office in New York, and an outpost in Buffalo, which served customers in Canada. At their meeting in New York, Brunell opened his books and showed Annenberg that he had been clearing between $175,000 and $200,000 a year, according to Christopher Ogden’s Legacy.
“How do you want the money?” Moses asked. “Cashier’s check?”
“No,” Brunell replied, “I want cash.”
Annenberg called Peter Brady, a respected banker and the manager of both his personal and corporate accounts for Hearst, and told him that he needed $400,000 in cash. “Wrap it up in newspaper and my son and I will be over to pick it up.”
With great laughter, Brady asked, “You’re going to carry four hundred thousand dollars over to Frank Brunell’s like a fish under your arm?”
Moses laughed, too, though he corrected Brady. It was his 14-year-old son Walter, not Moses, who would carry the cash to Brunell. An hour later, Moses picked up the package, handed it to Walter, and they walked four blocks to Brunell’s apartment, where Moses signed the papers and took over the Daily Racing Form.
It was the passing of the baton from one great Chicagoan to another. And the Daily Racing Form would make the Annenbergs wealthy. In the first year alone, Moses Annenberg cleared the purchase price.
Brunell retired, quietly, and spent his winters in Magnolia Springs, Ala., and his summers in Manhattan Beach, Long Island. His wife died several years before him, and in 1933, at 81, he died at his winter home. His newspaper was well on its way, and he might have known that his legacy would continue in the ink-stained hands of all those millions of people who in the years to come would pick up the Daily Racing Form.