04/08/2004 11:00PM

When racing was king of sports


NEW YORK - What were you doing 62 years ago?

Don't say you were shaking a rattle or hadn't been born yet. By "you," I mean the Daily Racing Form readers of 1942, a group profiled in a fascinating and nostalgic document recently unearthed from the DRF archives. This primitive piece of market research, from an era when that term had yet to be invented, was carefully typewritten on 40 pages of durable onionskin by Daniel Starch and Staff of New York City, who proudly announced that the survey "turns the laboratory searchlight, for the first time, on the social habits, reading preference, spending power and economic status of the average Turf patron."

Starch's group conducted interviews with 1,034 horseplayers, all of them men - 400 at Belmont Park in New York, 318 at Sportsman's and Hawthorne in Chicago, and 316 at Tanforan in San Francisco. A heartening 83.3 percent of them bought Daily Racing Form or its sister publication, The Morning Telegraph, at least once a week, and 17 percent of them regularly bought at least one other racing publication, choosing from titles such as the National, Armstrong, Turf Digest, Racing Record, Cards, Collyer, Master Clocker, and Turf Flash.

Over 79 percent said they "did their own handicapping" using the Form or Telegraph past performances as opposed to relying on tip sheets and public selectors, and 19.8 percent clipped charts for future reference. About 33 percent attended the races at least once a week, and 65.8 percent went one to four times a month, with fewer than 1 percent attending less than once a month. There was no simulcasting then, but 65.5 percent said they followed the races at tracks other than the one they regularly attended.

The survey selection on "other activities" illustrates that one of racing's strengths then was a lack of competition for leisure time, with club membership and nightclub and theater attendance the only subjects of inquiry. Over 37 percent belonged to a club or fraternal organization, and 74.1 percent attended nightclubs, with over 35 percent going clubbing at least once a week. Fifty-five percent attended stage plays, with 15.6 percent seeing 6 to 12 or more shows a year.

Seventy-six percent owned a car, with the most popular brands being Buick (15.6 percent), Ford (11.2), Chevrolet (10.6), Cadillac (7.4), Pontiac (7.0), Packard (5.9), Oldsmobile (5.5), and Plymouth (5.1). Just over 86 percent of the horseplayers made at least one trip of 100 miles each year, 74 percent by automobile, 54 percent by train, and just 22 percent by airplane.

A spirited 80 percent enjoyed alcohol at home or on the town, with Scotch (56.4 percent) the favorite flavor, way ahead of beer (18.1), bourbon (14.3), and rye (10.0). Wine got a paltry 7.3 percent of the vote and vodka did not even make the list. Twenty-nine different brands of Scotch were cited as personal favorites, led by Haig and Haig and Black and White. Canadian Club was the favored rye, Old Grand Dad the bourbon of choice, and even then Budweiser was the king of beers at 21.2 percent, trouncing Ruppert, Pabst, Schlitz, Schaefer, Regal, Acme, Ballantine, Rainier, Rheingold, Trommer, Miller, Olympia, Fox DeLuxe, Keeley, National, Monarch, and Michelob.

Even more of you, a whopping 84.7 percent, smoked cigarettes (73.3 percent), cigars (33.6), pipe tobacco (15.4), or some combination thereof. Chesterfields topped the cigarette preference at 24.9 percent, followed by Camels (22.1), Philip Morris (16.0), Lucky Strike (15.4), and Old Gold (5.9). Marlboro was far back at 0.8 percent, not far in front of Omars (0.4) and Spuds (0.3). Garcia y Vega nosed out Corona and Optimo among 42 brands of cigar, and Half and Half was the most popular pipe tobacco.

Not surprisingly, you were younger then. Only 9.1 percent of you were 55 or older, compared with an estimated 30 percent today. Most (54.9 percent) earned between $2,000 and $5,000 a year, with 8.1 percent earning less and 15.7 percent in the high-income bracket of $10,000 or more. Just over 42 percent of you owned a home and only 15.7 percent of you lived alone.

"The Turf has continued to increase its popularity with the American public," Starch wrote, "until today's annual audience represents a national attendance fifteen million strong. Cheerfully cooperating with all war restrictions, public attendance at the tracks has increased, enabling the Turf to contribute $3,000,000 to war relief, a sum greater than the total of all other sports contributions."

Starch didn't ask how much people were winning or losing at the races, but it seems a safe bet that the numbers would have been cheerier than they are today: You might not have had speed figures, video replays, superfectas, or trainer statistics 62 years ago, but the takeout in 1942 was just 10 percent.