Imagine the despair of the parent who raises a child to work hard and score in the 99th percentile on his college boards. The payoff comes when the child is accepted at Harvard. But instead of preparing for a career in the State Department (with an internship under Dr. Henry Kissinger), the young man cuts classes to attend Suffolk Downs, where he makes some mildly successful two-dollar win bets and begins, after a while, to cash the occasional exacta ticket. Instead of reading Aristotle, Cicero and Montaigne, he stays up late with the Daily Racing Form. After graduation, things get worse. Instead of Harvard Law, Wall Street or Oxford, he sets off for Belmont, Aqueduct and Saratoga. One year after graduation he is spending every day at the track; his ambition is to hit the Pick Six.
On the other hand, the same prodigy could surpass his parents' fondest expectations by blossoming as a writer at that great institution on the edge of the Charles and going directly from undergraduate work to a position on one of the most prestigious newspapers in the land. He could, within a few years, become a columnist whose byline is recognized by millions, the author of books, a respected authority who can divine truth and order where others see only chaos and flux. A success, in other words, beyond his parents' wildest dreams. And then there is the long-shot possibility that you could have it both ways: Your child could be Andrew Beyer or Steven Crist, Harvard men who have become turf writers for, respectively, The Washington Post and The New York Times.
Crist and Beyer are—as they say—in a class by themselves. This is not to suggest that they are alike in temperament or personal style. Except for an obsession with racing, a genius for handicapping and the ability to write gracefully about the thoroughbred game, they have virtually nothing in common. Each is an original.
Beyer, at 45, is the senior of the two. Lean, intense, disheveled and voluble, he is to thoroughbred racing what John Madden is to professional football. Over the years, his book Picking Winners has been the siren that has called countless innocents to the racetrack. A large part of the book's appeal, especially to educated readers, is that it does not promise easy riches or some kind of surefire gimmick system. Indeed, Beyer argues in Picking Winners that handicapping is rewarding precisely because it is an art that borders on the inscrutable. It is the perfect avocation for someone with brains and a fondness for action, for the surge of adrenaline that comes when you solve the mystery. A pastime for the person who, in wartime, might go to work cracking enemy codes.
June 4, 1989
Beyer sensed at an early age that he was this sort of person. Growing up in Erie, Pa., he was fascinated first by slot machines, then by the track. He cashed his first two-dollar ticket at age 13, when he placed a show bet with the friendly neighborhood bookie, on Round Table in the 1957 Kentucky Derby.
But it was at Harvard, during the early '60s, that he came into his own as a horseplayer. Beyer discovered many things about himself at college, including a journalistic style, a love for the poetry of T.S. Eliot and an insatiable appetite for handicapping horse races. "Beyer was an embryonic version of what he became," says Hendrik Hertzberg, who was on the staff of The Harvard Crimson with Beyer and is now a senior editor of The New Republic. "He was a great sportswriter because, even then, he wrote short and he wrote funny. He was even a Republican conservative, and everyone thought that was very colorful." In his coverage Beyer consistently tried to invest mediocre Harvard teams with a measure of grandeur. Those were the Bill Bradley years at Princeton, and Beyer seemed to believe that if Harvard didn't have anyone in Bradley's class, he would have to make up for the deficit. Writing about a game in which Harvard's best basketball player, a guard named Keith Sedlacek, sank a few improbable jumpers, Beyer described the crowd as being "exophthalmic" over the performance. The word means "bug-eyed."
On a staff that included Donald Graham, current publisher of The Washington Post; Michael Crichton, the novelist and film director; the late Paul Cowan, who was a staff writer at The Village Voice; and C. Boyden Gray, the current legal counsel to George Bush, Beyer was unique. "Even then," Hertzberg says, "Andy loved action." He played poker and won; he played bridge well enough to earn master's points; he even fooled around in the stock market with some success. But Suffolk Downs was his abiding love. "We had this comment book in the newsroom," Graham remembers, "and you could always look in there and see a note from Beyer saying, 'Departing for Suffolk Downs at 11:00 a.m. with a mortal lock in the seventh race.' You would know that he'd been up all night studying the Form, and people would be scurrying around looking for him so they could give him two dollars to bet. The funny thing was, in those days most of Beyer's horses didn't come in. But his conviction was so strong that it infected everyone around him."
At that point Beyer's handicapping methods were not very polished. It was, he says, "a benighted era." He was guided in his handicapping by a predictable cynicism, along with universally accepted notions of class and the other insights common to horseplayers of that day. In 1966 he had finished his senior thesis on T.S. Eliot and needed only to take final exams to earn his degree. But it was June, and he had a horse he liked in the Belmont Stakes that was scheduled for the day of his Chaucer exam. His horse won, and Beyer never graduated.
He had worked for The Boston Globe one summer, and returned to the paper for a few months before moving to Washington to take a job at the Post, the paper published by Graham's mother, Katharine. He went to work covering Navy football, pro soccer and a variety of other sports. Because the sports editor did not think it was proper to send a man who liked betting to cover the races, Beyer seldom got to the track. He did, however, meet Dave Burgin, sports editor at The Washington Daily News, an afternoon tabloid. He would visit Burgin in the Daily News city room, which was a dirty, noisy, chaotic place, right out of The Front Page. Right away, Beyer fell in love with it. There were always at least two bookies hanging around at the Daily News, so he could get some bets down. Burgin, who is now the editor in chief of The Houston Post, recalls Beyer as "unkempt and disheveled, someone who talked like Harvard and acted like a two-dollar railbird."
Two years after he started with The Washington Post, Beyer was called—"kicking and screaming," he says—into the Army. He volunteered for an assignment on a military newspaper in Washington and made sure the Army was aware of his background in journalism. His request was granted, much to his relief, since draftees were being sent to Vietnam. Shortly before Beyer was discharged, in 1970, Burgin persuaded him to come to work at the Daily News. The paper was struggling and certainly lacked, in all regards, the cachet of the Post. But Burgin made the offer irresistible by promising Beyer the job of racing columnist. "I told him I didn't want to read anything about the hard-boot aristocracy. Nothing about trainers and owners. I wanted a column that would be for the guy who liked action."
"Perfect!" Beyer said.
Beyer's column was an immediate hit. He wrote, he says, with the idea that handicapping was "a participant sport" He used the kind of gambler's language that he loved. The "mortal lock" became the trademark of a Beyer column. "I always loved that phrase," he says. "I got it from watching pro wrestling on TV." He would also advise his readers to "bet both lungs" or "mortgage the house." The readers loved it. Graham was working as a beat cop to learn more about the gritty side of the city before he went to work at the Post, and he recalls that while his fellow policemen were thoroughly unimpressed by the fact that he was the son of Katharine Graham, "they were literally awed to learn that I actually knew Andy Beyer."
About a year after he had begun his Daily News column, Beyer—notwithstanding all his bravado as a writer—was down to his last $200 as a handicapper. But he had spotted a 2-year-old colt whose change in running style over his only two starts convinced Beyer that the horse was a solid bet, though he had finished fifth and seventh in those races. Beyer shared his insight with his readers. "I wrote that this was the bet of the year and, since it was December, I said that you should take your Christmas money and bet it on a horse called Sun In Action."
On Dec. 9, 1970, Beyer drove to Liberty Bell track in Philadelphia with his last $200 and another $200 that had been given to him by colleagues back at the Daily News. "Andy was so sure, and when Andy is sure, it's irresistible," Burgin says. "People in the advertising department, circulation, the mail room all gave money to Andy to bet on this cheap claimer."
Beyer made his bets, and back in the newsroom, people gathered around to watch the wire. The horse went off at 20 to 1. After three quarters of a mile, he was 14 lengths behind, and Beyer was tasting a kind of metallic despair much more bitter than his financial loss. But the horse rallied and began to close in the stretch. The consolation of a close finish, at least, appeared possible. As Beyer watched, filled with that helpless sense of hope that all horseplayers know, Sun In Action sprinted to a photo finish.
Beyer and his allies back in the newsroom awaited the results of the photo. Finally, after an excruciating interval, the results were posted. Sun In Action came in second. It was better than abject humiliation—but not very much. Almost immediately, the board flashed the word OBJECTION. Again, Beyer and the newsroom waited. When the numbers went up this time, Sun In Action was declared the winner on a disqualification. Beyer won $4,000 in money and vastly more in the elusive coin of confidence.
"The newsroom went wild," Burgin says, "and Andy became a celebrity." Shortly after this coup, Burgin left the Daily News for the other afternoon paper, The Washington Star. He immediately offered Beyer a job. "But Andy felt like the Daily News had made him," Burgin says. "So he stayed." Both papers were struggling, and it was clear that both could not survive. The publisher of the Star called Burgin into his office one day. "He asked me who we could hire away from the Daily News, the one person it would break them to lose. I named a few people and then I said, 'But if you want my recommendation, the one who would hurt them the most is Andy Beyer,' and he just said, 'Get him.'
"So I called Andy and told him I had an offer he couldn't refuse. He would be doing the same thing, only there would be some money for him to travel, do Florida every winter and Saratoga in August, and the salary would be more than he would ever have dared to ask for. When he came over, we saw it right away. Andy was good for selling another 3,000 or 4,000 papers, just like that."
Burgin showcased Beyer's column, and his celebrity grew. "Andy was the kind of guy who enjoyed it and played the role," Burgin said. "He'd go to restaurants and be seen, and he was great at the talk. He'd write about Bernie the Bartender and his misfortunes at the track, or George the Russian. He was a Runyanesque character in a town that wasn't used to that. He described all his dates as 'leggy blondes," whether or not they were leggy or even blonde. He had a wonderful way of enjoying himself. Andy is one of those rare people who has the ability to be genuinely happy."
The Burgin-Beyer alliance and friendship flourished. But when Burgin left the Star for the San Francisco Examiner in 1978, Beyer moved back to Donald Graham's powerful Post. By that time, Beyer was not only a celebrity in Washington but was also known to serious horseplayers everywhere. He had expanded his audience vastly with the publication of Picking Winners in 1975. The book was a distillation of all he had learned by then as a handicapper. The lessons were framed in anecdote and aphorism, delivered in the clean, rapid-fire prose that is a Beyer trademark.
The book had wit and flashes of erudition. It was certainly the first handicapping book to use the word apostasy. The sheer energy of Picking Winners made it. like its author, irresistible even to people who were not likely to go around the bend about thoroughbred racing. Christopher Lehmann-Haupt wrote a glowing review in The New York Times, comparing the book with Herbert Yardley's Education of a Poker Player. This came as no shock to Beyer, since he had read Yardley avidly while at Harvard and had consciously set out to do for racing what Yardley had done for cards.
Three chapters of Picking Winners were devoted to a rational route to handicapping success. This system was called "the speed figures." It was a mathematical system that allowed the horse-player to factor out differences in tracks, track conditions, distances and all other variables and reduce a horse's performance to a single figure that represented how fast he ran. The race would go to the swift or, more prosaically, to the horse with the best figure, other things being equal, which—Beyer was careful to point out—they never were. That is what kept the game interesting.
But Beyer was sold on the figures, and he imparted this conviction to readers of Picking Winners with his usual restraint: "So the reader must accept this on faith for the time being: Speed figures are the way, the truth, and the light. And my method of speed handicapping is. I believe, without equal."
Speed handicapping had been around for many years, first gaining notoriety in the '50s when a small group of New York sharpies came to be known in racing circles as the Speed Boys. And though Beyer never claimed to have discovered the system, Picking Winners certainly popularized it. Speed handicapping was immensely appealing to a generation growing up on computers and other tools of modern life. There was elegance in the precision of speed figures, the elegance of a machine built to fine tolerances. A generation of Beyer disciples was born.
One member of this generation was a young Harvard man named Steven Crist. A New Yorker to his core—his mother is Judith Crist, the former film critic for TV Guide and the now-defunct New York Herald Tribune—Crist experienced no youthful infatuation with the track or with gambling in any form. He was intellectual, bookish, and his only brush with the earthier side of life was a result of his virtuosity on the piano. At 15 he lied about his age in order to join the musicians' union and got a job playing intermission piano at Jimmy Ryan's Dixieland club on 52nd Street in New York. The waiters brought the kid orange juice whenever a customer said, "I wanna a buy a drink for the piano player."
When he arrived at Harvard in 1974, Crist's intentions were strictly literary. He had been powerfully influenced by a high school English teacher who saw great things ahead for him in the world of scholarship and criticism. And Crist did well at Harvard. He discovered Alexander Pope and the joys of parody, and became a member of The Harvard Lampoon staff, a Pooney, one of those raffish young men who can dash off effortless parodies of anything from James Joyce to Playboy. He also developed an enduring fondness for the National Enquirer. "It was deep camp," says Mark O'Donnell, a Poonie in those days, now a playwright and frequent contributor to Spy magazine. "Sort of like yuppies going bowling. We were all into that stuff back then."
At some point while he was at Harvard—Crist himself can't remember the exact circumstances—someone said one evening. "Hey, let's go to Wonderland."
"The dog track."
Well, what could be more camp than greyhound racing? So Crist went.
But where others saw camp, Crist saw something else, something he found ineluctably compelling. Soon, he was going to Wonderland every night. He stayed in Cambridge the summer before his senior year to write a lampoon on undergraduate life. He and a friend named George Meyer spent their time—and some of the project's money—at the dog track. While the rest of the staff worked, Crist and Meyer studied the dogs' past performances, or slept, resting up for the night's exertions. They finally did their part for the project in a marathon session the last week before deadline. That experience became the basis for the lead story in Crist's first book, a collection of short stories called Offtrack, which is also the title of the longest piece in the book, as polished a novella as any 23-year-old is likely to write.
As night follows day, dogs led to horses. Around Boston, Crist preferred the dogs, because "the thoroughbred tracks were all second-rate." But the thrill of racing had him in its spell. "It became pretty clear to me, by the middle of my senior year, that I was not going to be happy as a professor of Romantic Literature at some college," he says.
Upon graduation he reported to The New York Times as a copyboy. Shortly after he arrived, the Times was shut down by a strike. This presented Crist with a not unwelcome opportunity to find out if he could "really make it as a handicapper."
He studied the Form at night in his small West Side apartment. In the morning he took the subway to Penn Station and the Belmont Special out to the track, where he spent the afternoon. His strike benefits as a copyboy with seven weeks' seniority "amounted to something like $52 a week...and I also had a little stake from my dog-racing days in Massachusetts."
Like most sophisticated horseplayers. Crist had read Picking Winners. "I'm part of the generation of handicappers that was deeply influenced by Andy," he says. "In a way, we are all his protègès." But he had not yet been influenced deeply enough to start creating his own speed figures. Just the same, using the old, established conventions of doping out the races—"Handicapping 101," as he calls it—Crist was able to win at Belmont, and when the strike ended, after 88 days, he returned to work ahead of the game.
In his early days at the Times, Crist did some free-lance work with old Lampoon friends on projects like a New York Post parody called The Post New York Post, the front page of which carried the gigantic headline KABOOM! and a small picture of Michael Jackson over a story entitled "Goodbye Gloved One." It was quintessential Lampoon, and Crist, if he'd chosen, could have made a career of that sort of thing. His friends from Harvard now constitute the core of what he calls "the humor writing industry in America." They are on the staffs of Late Night with David Letterman, Saturday Night Live, Spy and other outlets for that sort of sensibility.
In the late '70s, he helped on the parody called Off the Wall Street Journal, but turned down a job offer from Saturday Night Live. "There is a certain preciousness about that world that was less and less appealing to me," he says. "The racetrack is so real by comparison."
And so was his next assignment at the Times, editing for the Op-Ed page, "specializing, more or less, in Latin American politics," he says. With his new responsibilities he was given access to the Times's data processing system and his very own six-letter password to the newspaper's central computer. He asked for Alydar, since he felt a keen sense of affection for that horse. A little later, an editor on the sports section requested the same password. When he found that it had already been taken, he said, "Who has it? I want to meet him."
This was the genesis of Crist's transfer from the Op-Ed section to the sports department and, eventually, to his position as turf writer for The New York Times before he had turned 25.
If Beyer writes with the intention of making horse racing into a participant sport, Crist writes about it like a critic. Involvement is Beyer's strong suit; for Crist, it is detachment. His early stories at the Times were discursive and intelligent, an attempt at a broad understanding of the contained universe that was his beat. He made a long-term project out of a horse named Devil's Bag, thought by many to be the new Secretariat. Things didn't go as expected, though. When Devil's Bag did not run well in his early starts as a 3-year-old, he was put out to stud after the 1984 Kentucky Derby, which was won by his stablemate Swale.
Crist switched horses. His new central character, Swale, lost the Preakness but came back to win the Belmont. Then, eight days later, the horse dropped dead after a morning workout. Crist watched while the vets at Belmont carved up the horse's carcass, trying—unsuccessfully—to determine the cause of death.
"That was a pretty grim day," Crist says with typical understatement. "By then I was so involved with the story that I didn't want to drop it. I felt like I ought to see it through. I went to Kentucky when they buried the horse. I had spent nine months of my life on this story, and a few months after it was over, it was suggested that it might be a book." Crist's coverage eventually branched out into the entire world of breeding and, indeed, bore fruit as a book, The Horse Traders, a rich, lyrical account of this high-stakes game.
Crist's feeling for the sport comes through in the campaigns he has waged through his columns. He has written often and forcefully against the use of Lasix, a diuretic widely employed by trainers to treat horses that have been certified as bleeders (those that have evinced respiratory bleeding after the heavy exertions of racing).
"There is no evidence, no study anywhere, to prove that Lasix has any effect whatsoever on bleeding," Crist says. "But there is every reason to believe that a trainer could use it to flush a horse's system to remove evidence that he'd been given other drugs." The fact that New York remains the only major racing state that does not allow the use of Lasix can probably be attributed in part to the fact that the turf writer at The New York Times is so vigilant on this point.
It is impossible to imagine Crist writing about a "mortal lock." He does not write a handicapping column and, in fact, has an agreement with the Times that he will not bet on the races he is going to write about. Beyer's column, on the other hand, would be unimaginable without the handicapping hyperbole, some of which has come back to haunt him.
In his column on the day of the 1986 Preakness, Beyer led off with characteristic subtlety: "Mortgage the house. Hock the family jewels. Crack open the kids' piggy bank. Badger Land is a mortal lock to win the Preakness."
Badger Land finished fourth, 10½ lengths behind the winner, Snow Chief. Beyer says of such magnificent mistakes. "I try to write with conviction. I think people want to read strong opinions, argued forcefully. I know I do. If I'm interested in politics, I turn to George Will because he writes that way. I'm trying to do the same thing for my readers."
Like Crist, Beyer will take on the racing establishment if there is an issue at hand. His column fairly crackled with anger after last year's Preakness, when he believed jockey Pat Day rode Forty Niner not so much to win as to deny the victory to Winning Colors, the Derby winner. "In the wake of the Preakness," Beyer wrote, "one might have expected that mobs of irate citizens would be hanging Pat Day and [Forty Niner's trainer] Woody Stephens in effigy. After all, the jockey and trainer were responsible for the nasty strategy that brought about the defeat of Winning Colors." Most of Beyer's loyal readers were probably much more interested in the fact that he had called the finish perfectly. He wrote before the race that he was going to bet Risen Star, Brian's Time and Private Terms in an exacta box. Readers who followed his lead won $93.80 on a $12 bet.
The best available evidence suggests that Beyer and Crist both bet as well as they write. The press box of a racetrack is the best place to observe them as they put their handicapping skills into action. In late February, they were both at Gulf-stream for the Florida Derby, one of the early warmups for the Triple Crown season. Beyer had been in town for nearly two months. Crist had just arrived after a cross-country drive he had taken in order to write a series on the expansion of thoroughbred racing in the sunbelt.
The Gulfstream press box is arranged so that writers sit at desks along a wall of glass that keeps noise out and air-conditioning in. The amenities are all here: a snack bar, a photocopier, telephones, television replays and, most important, a parimutuel clerk behind a betting window where the writers can make the occasional wager.
Beyer and Crist sit at adjacent desks. Beyer's is a picture of chaos: old programs, Forms and reams of computer printouts in apparently random stacks. Beyer's speed figures are now available to subscribers through a data base, which he and four other handicappers keep supplied with fresh figs for horses running at major tracks around the country. With the help of data provided by computer, Beyer spends an hour or so a day working up his numbers, which he then calls up and prints out. It all adds to the considerable clutter on his desk.
Crist's work space is as tidy as a tax lawyer's desk. He folds his Racing Form precisely along the creases and writes his speed figures in a neat hand, using a red felt-tipped pen, across each horse's past performances. "These days, I'd say the figures are indispensable," he says. Speed figures alone are no longer the way and the truth and the light—not even for Beyer. He still arms himself with the figures but these days they are just one weapon in his arsenal: he is also what is known as a trip handicapper. This means that he watches races intently, analyzing the way a horse runs—what kind of "trip" he gets around the track—looking for clues as to how he might run in his next race. It is so esoteric and complicated that Beyer devoted his most recent book. The Winning Horseplayer, to its explication.
The one thing required of trip handicappers, above all else, is that they watch the videotaped reruns of the races. Dressed in khakis and a polo shirt, nicely tanned from riding his bicycle—"to relax, 10 to 12 miles on race days, 40 to 50 on non-racing days"—Beyer stands in front of a press-box monitor, intently watching the horses and scribbling on his program in a shorthand known only to him. As he watches and writes, he contorts himself as though trying to influence, through body English, a race that has already been run. Crist, meanwhile, sits at his desk, studying the Form and writing notes. He is dressed in a clean white shirt, a paisley tie and a suit with a distinctly English cut. He could be in the library stacks, researching a dissertation on John Donne. While he, too, studies trips. Crist likes to do so in relative quiet, an hour or two before the day's races begin, when the monitors replay every race from the previous day's card.
On this day at Gulfstream there is a carryover of nearly $200,000 in the Pick Six pool. Both Crist and Beyer have bets spread out all over the place, and both are alive in the Pick Six after four races. Beyer's adrenaline is beginning to surge. He checks his tickets, the tote board, his Form. He talks to friends. "This is the one I'm worried about," he says excitedly to Harvey Pack, SportsChannel's racing commentator. "I've got the three, the six and the eight. I'm worried about the four. He's a speedball and he's got inside position with a golden rail. But if I get past this one, I've got a real chance."
Crist makes a note or two, lights a cigarette and looks up at the monitor. He could be waiting for an airline to announce his gate.
For both Beyer and Crist, going for the big score is a crucial part of successful handicapping. Neither is inclined toward the prudent, patient wait for just the right bet on a horse that seems certain to win. Both men bet the exotics—exactas, trifectas, the Pick Six—and go for the big payday. In Picking Winners, Beyer defended the exotic bets disdained by traditionalists. Crist considers the Pick Six—meaning selecting the winners of six straight races—the ultimate challenge for the serious handicapper; in fact, his nickname is King of the Pick Six. Perhaps Crist's most amazing streak came at Saratoga last summer, when he held six winning Pick Six tickets in seven days.
Beyer, too, bets the Pick Six but says, "Steve is the master in that area. He's got some sort of special insight into the strategy, with key horses and backups and how to put them all together."
Crist says the basis of his system is "to not be in a situation where you lose the whole bet because your third-favorite horse wins the fifth or sixth race." He explains, willingly, how he uses key horses so that he has to be "terrifically right in one race but can be very well spread and have just about anything happen in another." And it all seems easy and not particularly involved, which is the way chess no doubt seems to Bobby Fischer. Friends who have watched Crist put together his Pick Six cards say that he simply visualizes the possibilities better than anyone else—and that cannot be either taught or learned.
The Pick Six and other exotics tend to result in big payouts, and what everyone wants to know about any horseplayer is, Does he win? If so, how much? Reticent as usual, Crist says only that he is "a lifetime winner." Beyer is more expansive. His second book, published in 1978, was entitled My $50,000 Year At the Races. "That was 12 years ago. Even allowing for inflation, I've had no reason to revise that figure downward in 11 of the last 12 years," Beyer says. "The IRS will no doubt back me up." Beyond that, how much they win is between them and their accountants. But nobody who regularly watches Beyer and Crist doubts that they bet big or that they win.
But if they both go for the kill, Crist and Beyer react in vastly different ways to success and failure. Jay Privman, turf writer for the Daily News of Los Angeles, remembers sitting next to Crist one day when his picks had won the first five races in a Pick Six: "He was absolutely calm when the horses came out for the sixth race. They went into the gate, and he just sat there. He had three horses in that race, and when they came down the stretch, they were one, two and three. Steve didn't jump up and start screaming or any of that stuff. He just looked over at me and said, real quiet, 'Easy game.' He'd just won about $90,000."
Beyer is demonstrative, to put it mildly. For years, there was a hole in a wall of the press box at Gulfstream. It was called Beyer's Hole, because it had been created by his fist. When fortune smiles on him, he is likely to fall on his knees and declare for all to hear, "I am the king of the world!" The Beyer rule of handicapping etiquette is that a bettor may do this only when he has just won a sum equal to or exceeding 10% of his annual income.
So when Beyer's horse wins the fifth race of this day's Pick Six, he runs from his cubicle to the monitor, shouting, "We got a chance, baby! We got a——chance!" Crist, who is also alive, continues working on his word processor. He is writing a story on Kentucky Derby favorite Easy Goer, and his deadline is less than an hour away. He needs to concentrate on his prose, not the $180,000 he may win in the next 15 minutes.
The sports editors of the Times and Post—Joe Vecchione and George Solomon, respectively—have nearly identical things to say about their turf writers: entirely reliable about deadlines; the copy never needs help. Each editor also claims that his man is "the best in the business."
Beyer, however, is unimaginable in any other role. "I asked him once if he'd be interested in writing a general sports column," Solomon says, "and he looked at me like I'd asked him to write a five-part series on the Federal Reserve System." Crist is equally unmoved by any other role in sports journalism. "I have no interest in going into locker rooms and interviewing athletes," he says. "I just don't like human sports." Vecchione says he would not be surprised if, in five years, Crist was writing about something besides racing. "The job is his, as long as he wants it. But he's so talented and has so much range, I could see him doing just about anything." For now, Crist is satisfied. "I can't think of a better job," he says. "You get to go to races every day. And what could be better than that?"
On some of those days, you hit big, and this could be the day. At post time for the sixth Pick Six race, both Beyer and Crist are out on the balcony. Crist is serene. Beyer paces and, when he stops, grips the railing hard enough to turn his knuckles white, as though he were fighting an impulse to jump. He has the favorite.
By the time the horses are in the stretch it is clear that this will not be the day for either one. Crist shrugs as a long shot comes in. Beyer throws up his hands. The favorite loses by a length. After a moment or two, he trudges back inside to watch the replay and torture himself all over again. Crist goes back to his desk to finish his story.
After the last race Beyer drinks a beer with some of the other writers. He is reminded of another Pick Six, when he had won the first five races and had five of the seven horses in the last race. The two he had not bet were impossible dogs. Someone suggested that he take out some insurance by buying tickets on the two long shots.
"Insurance?" Beyer shouted indignantly. "Insurance? I'll tell you what I'm going to do. I'm going to box the five horses I've got." That exercise in hubris was vintage Beyer. When one of the long shots came in he missed a chance to win $100,000. Even when he reveals a bit of the excitement he must feel when everything he envisions beforehand actually happens on the racetrack, Crist does so in an extremely laconic fashion.
When an old friend bumped into him during that six-day Pick Six streak and asked how it was going, Crist confided, calmly and very quietly, "Just don't touch: I'm sizzling."
He and Beyer leave the Gulfstream press box separately. Beyer heads for a house he has rented. He will dine with his wife, Susan, then study tomorrow's card and go to bed early. "This is as intense as it ever gets for me," he says of the Florida racing season. "After a month of this, I'll need to back off for a while before things start picking up with the Triple Crown."
Those races have not been good to Beyer. "My record in the Kentucky Derby is a chronicle of public humiliation. I failed to pick Affirmed, Seattle Slew and Secretariat...among others," he says. (Two months later, in a column extolling the virtues of Easy Goer the day before this year's Derby, Beyer would write, "There is, in fact, only one strong argument to suggest that Sunday Silence can upset the favorite: I am picking Easy Goer.")
He is wrong a lot, Beyer says, but he is also right a lot. And he does it with his own money, in public, in the toughest game of all: "Every political expert in the country was wrong about the Republican nomination when it was a two-horse race. They said the nominee would be Bush before Iowa. Then they said it would be Dole before New Hampshire. So I don't feel too bad about making a few bad calls in a 20-horse cavalry charge at Churchill Downs."
Crist leaves the track for a beachfront hotel where he is staying with his wife, Robin Foster. Later on, he will spread out his notebooks and his Racing Form in his hotel room and work on tomorrow's card. But now, he relaxes for an hour, then goes to dinner—at the dog track. He wins a Double Q—back-to-back races in which he correctly selects the first-and second-place finishers—before the salad is served.
It is a long way from Tristram Shandy to "Here comes Swifty!..." But Crist, like Beyer, has managed the change with remarkable grace. Proving, perhaps, that a Harvard education need not be an obstacle to happiness and fulfillment in life.
Except for an obsession with racing and graceful writing, they have little in common.
The best available evidence suggests that Beyer and Crist both bet as well as they write.