04/23/2008 11:00PM

It's almost time for last call

Email

One of the most vivid play-by-play racing reports ever read by these eyes was published right after the running of the 1975 Santa Margarita Invitational Handicap, a race that pitted the best fillies and mares in the West.

"Tizna broke alertly," the story began, "then eased back off the pace to be positioned on the rail, found a large opening into the three-sixteenths pole, responded to get the lead from Susan's Girl, drew clear and ran hard to hold and win in full stride."

It went on like that, a cross between early Faulkner and the rat-a-tat of a livestock auctioneer, eventually accounting for the performances of all 12 runners in the field, including champion Chris Evert (". . . had her best bid on the far turn, then faded") and Alabama Stakes winner Quaze Quilt (". . . took the lead from Move Abroad, then faltered") before running out of breath.

For those racing fans raised on Racing Form charts and the American Racing Manual, the style of the footnotes is unmistakable. Only a trackman could get away with such chopped and channeled prose, composed at a fevered pace in the moments just after a race. No headlines, no photos, just the facts, ma'am. Just the facts.

Jay Woodward, the California institution, wrote that Santa Margarita footnote and compiled the chart, just as Dick Carroll crafted Chicago charts for decades and Don Fair made the job his own in New York. Jack Smallwood, John White, Chuck Scaravilli, and Cliff Guilliams, who died last week at the age of 52, were other noteworthy names in a long line of respected trackmen, without whom the history of racing would be little more than a pile of sketchy recollections by distracted racing writers.

Whether in their old roles with Daily Racing Form or their modern equivalent with Equibase, it has been the job of trackmen to chart the placement of each horse in each race with rapid-fire guesstimates at various points of call, then expand upon those placings with a footnote that can take into account a more three-dimensional perspective in terms of gate and traffic trouble, positions relative to the rail, and extremes of effort on the part of horse or jockey. Trackmen, though, are soon to become dinosaurs if the Trakus technology is carried to its natural conclusion.

Jack Wilson figured it might happen someday. Wilson, who is 74, can rightfully be called the dean of America's trackmen, even though he is retired now after 40 years of chartcalling for Daily Racing Form. For the final eight years of his tenure, Wilson served as a field supervisor, charged with quality control and occasionally even stepping in to call a chart as a high-powered pinch hitter.

Wilson's name first appeared as a trackman at the long-gone Miles Park in Louisville in the late 1950s. By the end of his career he had done it all - trackman, reporter, columnist, supervisor - and by Wilson's count he worked at just a shade under 100 different racetracks.

There's no kind of race Wilson didn't call, from 14-horse Breeders' Cups, to 350-yard sprints at Los Alamitos, to the one-horse Woodward Stakes in 1980, featuring Spectacular Bid.

"No, that one wasn't a tough chart to call," Wilson said with a laugh. "But I was all alone that day, so I had to practically write the whole front page. What did I know about walkovers? There had't been one around there in something like 40 years."

Wilson has seen scores of trackmen come and go and for the most part admires their work.

"There were some that were awful, too," Wilson said. "If anything, it's numbers that gets them, the larger fields. While I was doing a column, not charts, I had one guy look at a stakes race one time with 13 or 14 horses and tell me there was no way he could do it. No way. I went downstairs and found a guy who could take a call, then went up on the roof and I called the race. Afterwards, I went downstairs. The regular calltaker showed me a blank piece of paper. I said, 'Here, use this one.' "

Trakus apparently won't blink in the face of a 14-horse field. And someday, even the footnotes probably will become redundant, since the new technology can deliver much of the material provided in traditional chart footnotes.

But let's see Trakus step up like Wilson did on Aug. 2, 1986, when he was at his post for the second race at Saratoga. That was the day the stewards mistakenly disqualified the winner, Allameuse, by confusing her with another horse who had caused interference and ultimately a spill involving jockey Robbie Davis.

"I wrote in the footnote that Allameuse was disqualified mistakenly," Wilson said. "My office called and said, 'What are you doing?' I said I was doing the same thing I do every day - call the chart and write a footnote. They told me I better make it 'apparently,' and I said no, and you'd better not change it. 'Okay,' they said. 'You'll hang for it if you're wrong.' "

Hours later, after the races were over, the stewards issued a statement admitting to the incorrect DQ. Wilson didn't bat an eye.

"I got a call from the office," he added. " 'Hey, we were right!' they said. 'We?' I said. 'We?' When did we get to be we!?' "