Five decades ago, right about this time of year, there was a boy, Lewis and Clark High School, class of 1973, who took his studies so seriously that, twice a week, in addition to schoolbooks, he carried one of those yellow and brown Pee-Chee folders.
Tall, slender and serious, son of Indian Canyon’s course superintendent, Jon White had a secret. His folder hid a regional edition of Daily Racing Form. The Form, as those who have been to the track know, includes past performances for a current day’s horse races. In Spokane, back then, Playfair Race Course was the place.
Jon White was trying to pick winners. And, in a fashion, he was still doing that when the Southern California fall season began last weekend at Santa Anita.
Chances are you’ve missed a lot of White’s career. He didn’t stick around. He said he’s gone to the races at 64 tracks spanning the U.S. and eight other countries. On the job, he’s almost done it all, and that has made him one of the country’s top racing journalists.
Starting as a chart caller – creating the raw materials that become the PPs – he’s been a writer, a columnist, a publicist, a steward and a host and analyst for a national cable TV channel. One way or another, he’s been involved in quite a few Breeders’ Cup championships. On Friday, he began his 11th season setting the morning line odds at Santa Anita, the West’s premier thoroughbred venue.
Once in a while, he cashes a bet.
It must be said that White’s dad, Quentin, fancied the races before him. In fact, he became part of the money-room crew during the Spokane season while his older son hung out with dad’s adult friends, a program in his back pocket and the racing form under his arm.
Sometimes Jon had walked the 6 1/2 miles downtown to P.M. Jacoy’s and back just to buy the Form.
On Wednesdays and Fridays at LC, at lunch and between classes, he pored over the day’s card. “After all,” he admitted, “one can’t really do a good job of trying to pick winners when a teacher is talking.”
When school let out, he rode the East Sprague bus to Altamont and walked the several hundred yards past The Flame and under the railroad viaduct to Playfair, usually arriving in time to catch the first race.
Although he missed opening week in 1968 with the chicken pox, he became a regular. In 1973, when the Form sent veteran chart-caller Bud Lyon to Spokane, one of Jon’s dad’s friends told Lyon there was a high school graduate hanging around who envied his work. Next thing Jon knew, he was at Lyon’s side, an apprentice of sorts, as Lyon, binoculars in hand, rattled off horse names and margins to his call-taker.
A year later, when Playfair opened, there was Jon White, 19, in Lyon’s stead. And he developed deep affection for a chestnut gelding named Lak a Boss, a sprinter with an aversion to starting gates. When he broke properly, Lak a Boss usually went right to the front, but there were no guarantees. So it was, late in the fall Yakima Meadows meet, Lak a Boss had a shot at his 10th victory, a win that would put him among the year’s national leaders.
White, despite his youth, seldom lacks the courage of his convictions. “I felt confident that if Lak a Boss began well, he was a cinch,” he said. So he bet $800 to win. But he couldn’t bear to watch. Turning his back to the gate, he listened for announcer Gary Henson’s call.
“And there they go,” Henson sang out. “Lak a Boss is going to the front.”
With the race continuing, White walked to a cashier’s window and laid down his tickets. “The race isn’t over,” the cashier said. “Oh, yes it is,” White said.
Lak a Boss paid $3.90. The $760 profit helped White buy his first car, a 1969 Pontiac Bonneville that thereafter was known by the name of his benefactor.
For the next two decades, Daily Racing Form gave White assignments from coast to coast. In 1979, at age 24, he went into the judge’s stand at Yakima and became one of the youngest stewards in American racing history.
He became the Form’s Southern California columnist in 1981 and, 1986-93, as chart-caller for the three Southern California tracks, including Hollywood Park and Del Mar. Twice during that period, he called charts for the annual Breeders’ Cup cards. Then for 20 years, he handled commentary for Santa Anita’s simulcast television coverage. In 2002, he became the first on-air commentator for HRTV.
On Dec. 28, 2003, following its usual practice, HRTV displayed a recommended betting ticket for a multirace proposition on the day’s Santa Anita program. White’s $120 Pick Six selection was it. Deciding he might look like a piker and end up sadder but wiser if he didn’t, he placed the bet. Six consecutive winners later, he took home $45,981.
White’s also proud of last year’s $100 Kentucky Derby 100-1 future-book bet on Justify, who went on to win the Derby and the Triple Crown.
White took over the morning line at Santa Anita in 2009, developing the starting win odds that are printed in the program for each horse in every race. Each day’s card involves five to eight hours of work that ranges from research and analysis to number crunching.
“My task is to predict as accurately as possible what the final odds will be,” he wrote in an e-mail last weekend. “I am attempting to forecast what the bettors are going to do, not how the race is going to turn out.”
Noting that accuracy is a key aspect of the job, he said he has achieved 70 percent or higher at each of the meets since he began. On Nov. 1-2, he’ll be on the job for his sixth Breeders’ Cup card.
White has written a weekly online column for Xpressbet.com since 2004. For many years, he has been a regular guest on SiriusXM radio’s program “At the Races.” He’s also a regular on KJR’s “Win Place Show” during the Emerald Downs season. Occasionally, he returns to the steward’s stand at one of the secondary California meetings.
In 2003, the Washington Thoroughbred Breeders and Owners honored him with the Mark Kaufman Media Award.
His wife, Tracy Gantz, a longtime magazine writer, is the West Coast contributing editor for California Thoroughbred.
Although, in the flesh, White has seen a pair of Triple Crown winners, he still identifies Spokane’s greatest thoroughbred, Turbulator, as his all-time favorite. And in his Playfair days, he was an owner, joining other reporters and broadcasters in Media Madness, a one-horse stable that won a few races.
The boy with the folder, of course, couldn’t have seen this far down the track. But he continues to cherish the journey.
“When I look at my career, in a sport I still love, I do so with a sense of pride in terms of my dedication and hard work,” he wrote. “It has been an honor to make the official morning line for the Breeders’ Cups, and while I never expected to be a steward or a television broadcaster, I am very grateful that those opportunities presented themselves.”
Community historian Jim Price, retired writer and copy editor for The Spokesman-Review, received the Kaufman Award in 2013.
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