And Down The Stretch They Come...

Robert Maxwell pursues Rupert Murdoch the way racehorses used to chase Secretariat: from several lengths back. So it seems apt that the British media baron is now challenging his rival's primacy at the track.

Maxwell has always shadowed Murdoch (table). Like Triple Crown winner Secretariat, Murdoch usually finishes first. His media empire includes Britain's largest tabloid, America's newest TV network, and its dominant horse-racing newspaper, the Daily Racing Form. Maxwell publishes Britain's second-largest tabloid, and on Mar. 5, he agreed to buy New York's ailing Daily News--15 years after Murdoch acquired, and later sold, the New York Post.

MAIDEN EFFORT. Maxwell's deal is contingent on reaching a settlement with the News's striking labor unions by Mar. 11. A spokeswoman says Maxwell was to meet with union leaders on Mar. 7. The paper's owner, Tribune Co., threatens to shut down the News if no agreement with Maxwell is reached by Mar. 15.

But whether or not Maxwell buys the News, he's busy challenging Murdoch on another front by launching The Racing Times, a daily newspaper to compete with the hugely profitable Racing Form. The rivalry persists at a time when their ambitious styles have been cramped by onerous financial problems. Maxwell recently sold his British TV holdings to pay down debt from his 1989 acquisition of book publisher Macmillan Inc. And Murdoch may be forced to sell off his U. S. magazines, which include Mirabella and Premiere, to reduce his $8.2 billion debt. Even the Racing Form is a question mark: Analysts speculate it too may be sold, though Murdoch's News Corp. denies any deals are brewing.

That's just one reason bettors are loath to put money on the outcome--even in a business where every clash is grist for the oddsmaker. "I'm not sure Maxwell can make any money from this," says Len Ragozin, who owns The Sheets, a betting publication that rates horses. But he hedges: "The Racing Form is very stodgy. So who knows?"

Maxwell's strategy is to use color and offer more serious editorial matter than the Racing Form. He has hired Steven Crist, former racing columnist of The New York Times, as editor-in-chief. And Crist has gathered top racing journalists from papers such as the Daily News and the Los Angeles Times. "We see this as a proper newspaper that prints all the news and reports the truth," says George White, managing director of The Racing Times and a longtime executive of Maxwell's Mirror Group, which will launch the paper on Apr. 5.

'RUNYONESQUE.' Racing fans agree the Racing Form doesn't offer highbrow journalism. But most bettors aren't looking for that anyway. What they want are reliable statistics on the past performances of horses. "Racing fans are Runyonesque figures," says Mike Warren, president of the Baltimore Bulletin, a betting publication. He wonders whether Maxwell's writers will lure such readers from the Racing Form's jaunty prose and exhaustive statistics. For 96 years, it has been as indispensable to railbirds as their binoculars.

What's more, the market--while still lucrative--has been eroding steadily. Nearly 70 million people went to the track in 1989, according to Christiansen/Cummings, a consulting firm to the gambling industry. That figure is down 7% from 1980. The increase in off-track and pari-mutuel betting has partly offset the decline: The total amount of money wagered on horses has risen 25% since 1980, to about $14 billion. But the growth hasn't kept pace with inflation.

Still, the Racing Form's grip on these bettors has made it rich pickings for Murdoch. With a circulation of only 100,000, analysts estimate the paper--which Murdoch acquired in his 1988 purchase of Triangle Publications Inc.--earns about $30 million a year. And because it is supported mostly by newsstand sales, the Racing Form isn't as vulnerable to advertising downturns as most publications. John Reidy, an analyst at Smith Barney, Harris Upham & Co., estimates the paper is worth $300 million. And he says it's going to cost a bundle to dislodge it.

Maxwell executive White insists he's keeping startup costs between $8 million and $10 million. He predicts that in mid-1993, The Racing Times will break even with a circulation of about 40,000. He blanches at comparisons with The National, a daily sports paper that has run into trouble because of its hefty production costs and editorial salaries. White says it didn't take big salaries to attract his writers. And he claims Maxwell's total investment before turning a profit will be a modest $20 million.

The Racing Times will initially cover 15 to 20 of the 40 major tracks in America, including Belmont Park, Santa Anita, and Churchill Downs. The paper will have the same price as the Racing Form: $2.50. By giving the tracks a cut of sales, White hopes to break into newsstands at tracks that sell only the Racing Form. Observers agree that The Racing Times's best chance of success is to persuade bettors its statistics are as sound as the Form's. "You're talking about a publication that people use for gambling," says Warren, "There's no loyalty." The Racing Times will use data from Equibase, a joint venture of the Jockey Club and several tracks. Editor Crist acknowledges that Equibase only began collecting statistics 3 1/2 years ago. But he says that with time, his data will be as complete as the Form's.

That doesn't impress the publishers of the Racing Form. "It's a finite market," says William H. Williams, the paper's national general manager, "and they'll find that out." Still, in recent months, the Racing Form has added color and gussied up its format. Williams insists the changes reflect Murdoch's influence, not Maxwell's challenge.

Crist predicts readers will like Maxwell's mix of solid journalism and fresh statistics. And he's betting that the mercurial Maxwell will stick by the venture: "The biggest security blanket is that he's going against Murdoch."

Crist has had a hot hand lately: On St. Valentine's Day, he won $53,949 playing the Pick Six at New York's Aqueduct racetrack. And now he thinks he has a sure thing: Robert Maxwell, to win.

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