Tracing racing’s roots in the northeast

Sep 9, 2003 7:46 AM

I hadn’t intended to review Steve Crist’s book, "Betting On Myself”¦Adventures of a Horseplayer and Publisher," but reading it was such a joyful experience I found I had to pass it on to others.

Crist, the chairman of the Daily Racing Form, writes so smoothly that you easily flow from one chapter to the next so that it’s hard to put the book down.

Especially, if you are a New Englander. Or, better still, a Bay Stater from the northeast section of Massachusetts. That’s because as a horseplayer you probably enjoyed the races at Suffolk Downs and Rockingham Park. And, with nothing to do at night, you may have found time to drive out to Revere Beach and check out the dogs at Wonderland Dog Track.

Crist did.

He was a bored student at Harvard in the mid-70’s. His only escape was editing the Harvard Lampoon and picking up a few bucks as a piano player in a local saloon. But then came a visit to Wonderland. It was the time of the exciting match races involving the great Downing and his local rival, Roster Cogburn. The experience set Crist on the road to a life of betting on horses.

Forget the dogs. Crist did. There was no greyhound racing in New York City, where he took a job as a gopher at New York Times. However, he soon was exposed to Beautiful Belmont, and, of course, the city’s glamorous OTB shops. He also was encouraged to write, an activity that moved him into a reporter’s role and later as the Times man at the track.

During this period, he cultivated his handicapping ability and soon realized that "pace makes the race." He saw the value of Andy Beyer’s speed ratings but determined that more was needed. He developed his early race speed ratings as a Beyer ratings enhancement and began applying these to his Pick Six selections.

Success followed and so did publicity. The latter was his undoing as a Times racing writer. A Sports Illustrated piece on two Harvard-educated racing writers and horse players — Beyer and Crist — caused a furor among Times executives and began Crist’s road toward temporary unemployment and a new career as a racing newspaper founder and editor.

The Racing Times, a brightly-edited, crisply packaged competitor to the Daily Racing Form, was born. Funding came from the irrepressible Robert Maxwell, the English newspaper magnate. But it all ended too soon when Maxwell perished while cruising the Mediterranean.

A stint at the New York Racing Association was followed by a suggestion that Crist consider purchasing the Daily Racing Form, which had developed serious financial problems for its new owners. Generating the necessary capital wasn’t easy, but like his many Pick Six hits, the money materialized.

However, the heady requirements and time constraints placed upon a CEO interfered with his handicapping and writing, so today you’ll find Crist serving the Form as its chairman, but also writing his columns and offering the results of his handicapping.

And, the trip from Harvard, with occasional stops at Wonderland, makes for wonderful reading.