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Right on Track: Crist Finds Joy in Being a Players’ Professional

STEVEN G. CRIST '78
STEVEN G. CRIST '78
By Andrew S. Holbrook, Crimson Staff Writer

"Copy!” a reporter hollered across the clatter of The New York Times newsroom.

Steven G. Crist ’78 ran to the reporter’s desk, snatched the finished page out of the typewriter and stuffed it in a pneumatic tube that led straight to the composing room, where the text was typeset in hot lead.

It was the spring of 1978, and Crist was working the night copyboy’s shift from 7 p.m. to 3 a.m.

It was also the spring of his senior year in college—and during the day, he was commuting back to Cambridge to take his final exams.

Crist sensed that being a copyboy was how all the legendary Times editors started out. So when the newspaper had called a few weeks earlier to offer him the job—on the condition that he start immediately—the son of newspaper and publishing parents, whose mother was a well-known movie critic, accepted right away.

He didn’t care about his exams because he had already given up his scholarly aspirations. One night late in his junior year, a friend who had beaten him for the presidency of the Harvard Lampoon took him to the dog track—“and that,” he says, “was the end of my academic career.”

After his first night at the races, Crist headed to various tracks almost every day. Indeed, before long, he had graduated from dogs to horses.

In horse racing, the undergraduate who had studied 17th-century metaphysical poets before dropping his English concentration to watch the greyhounds (he graduated with a degree in general studies) found a new subject to study. He bought and scrutinized a 100-volume collection of books on thoroughbred racing.

When the Times went on strike for three months starting in August 1978, he went to Belmont Park every day to study the art of handicapping.

What he loved was the numbers and the wagering.

Before each day’s races, he spent hours pouring over the columns of small print showing how each horse had done in its previous outings. In the earliest days of personal computers, he crunched this “past performance” data on his IBM PC.

Soon he was writing about horse racing for the Times, once researching a story by escorting a horse in the back of a cargo plane from race to race.

The city-savvy New Yorker, educated at the Upper West Side’s elite Trinity School and once so proficient at the piano that he lied about his age so he could play the storied Jimmy Ryan’s jazz club when he was 15 years old, has spent almost his entire adult life in horse racing.

The young man with literary aspirations, who published a collection of humor and fiction in 1980 called Off Track, eventually sat on a governor’s blue-ribbon commission on horse racing.

For two years he made a living off betting on the races, placing $1 million in wagers each year. Later, put in charge of marketing for New York’s horse racing association, he tripled the dollar volume bet on races at Belmont, Aqueduct and Saratoga.

Today, the man who once edited an upstart competitor to the age-old Daily Racing Form now calls himself publisher of the long-standing bettor’s bible.

He has written about horses, edited racing publications, even rewritten laws that regulate the sport. But for all he’s seen and done, he still considers himself a “customer” of the game.

Just last month, Crist received the proofs of a 240-page memoir about his life in racing and writing entitled Betting on Myself. And for the man who loves the sport—its spectacle and its statistics—that story starts at Wonderland.

It’s a Wonderland Life

One day in May 1977, George A. Meyer ’78 took Steven Crist to the end of the Blue Line subway—home of Wonderland Greyhound Park.

The two had become close after what, in Lampoon lingo, was called a “pus war” over the presidency of the semi-secret Sorrento Square social organization that used to occasionally publish a so-called humor magazine. (See Meyer profile above.)

“I didn’t know what Wonderland was. I didn’t know what a dog track was,” Crist recalls. “I went out there that night, and that was the end of my academic career.”

“I was immediately hooked,” he says. “I loved the scene, I loved the atmosphere. I loved the fact that if you studied all these numbers...and you were smart enough, you could correlate this with how the animals would perform and make some money at it.”

After they went once, they kept going back—almost every day. They visited all four dog tracks located within an hour of Cambridge and took chartered busses to the greyhound park in Seabrook, N.H.

They bet only whatever money they happened to have with them—and “if we had 50 bucks in our pockets, that was a lot,” Crist says. The one night they dipped into their bank account, they lost big—and vowed never to do that again.

Over the summer, their new obsession helped Crist and Meyer procrastinate from editing a catch-all collection of campus-related humor called The Harvard Lampoon Big Book of College Life.

A half-dozen Lampoon staffers had rented Thomas Professor of Divinity Harvey Cox’s house for the summer—smoking cigarettes, playing records and, once in a while, working on the book.

Most days, Crist and Meyer went to the races at night, came back with the next day’s lineup and studied it until dawn. Then they slept—often up to the time they had to head back to Wonderland.

So little work got done on the book that, when it still wasn’t done by Labor Day, their friends had to strand them at a remote hotel away from the dog tracks, where the only entertainment was the Jerry Lewis telethon.

In the Big Times

What got Crist noticed in the Times newsroom was an un-bylined story he wrote as a copyboy about the increase in the price of marijuana.

What got him a job as the paper’s horse racing columnist was persistence.

He had become a copy editor on the op-ed page in 1979. He took his vacation time in Florida, so he could file stories on the winter racing season there, and covered a race in Saratoga when the lead writer got sick.

Finally, when the sports page’s racing writer retired in 1981, Crist landed the job and began his nearly decade-long stint.

Always a customer of the game, he continued to bet on races even as he now covered them. When the Times’ management confronted him, he successfully convinced them that a reporter had to wager—“people who didn’t bet weren’t paying attention,” he says.

In 1988, he drove from Los Angeles to Miami, stopping off at every racetrack along the way, from a “dusty dirt fair” in New Mexico to more major establishments. He visited 10 tracks in 15 days and wrote an article about the pilgrimage.

But mostly Crist filed a steady stream of straight racing results pieces, and his copy editor remembers him as a “really clean writer” and reliable reporter.

“He was very facile,” says Richard Rosenbush, who had an 18-year career at the Times. “If there was a problem with a story we could work it out over the phone. If he was given a story assignment that wasn’t particularly to his liking, he could still do a pretty good job on it.”

Once, editors asked Crist—“somewhat to his consternation,” as Rosenbush recalls—to obtain a recipe for a mint julep. He didn’t like it, but he did it.

Banking on NYRA

When he arrived in 1994 at the New York Racing Association (NYRA), the company that runs the state’s three largest horse racing tracks assumed that if you wanted to play the horses you would go to the racetrack.

Crist changed all that.

Over his reporting years, he had come to feel the horse racing industry didn’t care about the bettors—the people like himself.

“I became increasingly sympathetic to the customers and less sympathetic to the owners,” he says, “and began to take up the customers’ cause on things.”

He left the Times in 1990 to serve a hectic six months as the founding editor-in-chief of the Racing Times, started by the colorful British publisher Robert Maxwell.

Crist viewed the new project as an alternative to the Daily Racing Form, which he saw as a mouthpiece for the industry. After Maxwell’s publishing empire collapsed with his death, however, the Racing Times was bought out by the Form.

Crist spent the next two years as an “unemployed horseplayer”—passing $1 million “through the windows” and spending hours each day studying the statistics in preparation for the next day’s races.

“It’s a very tough way to make a living,” he says. “There’s no lazy man’s way to riches in horse racing. It’s like Wall Street or any other 14-hour-a-day job with a lot of numbers. Betting is much better as a hobby than as a way to support yourself.”

Eventually, he earned an appointment to NYRA, and he found himself on the other side of the counter. The lifelong customer of horse racing now helped to run the industry as vice president of communications and development.

NYRA was lagging behind on a technology called simulcasting which was changing the face of the racing industry.

Simulcasting allows a race at one track to be seen over television sets at other tracks across the country. Bettors at these satellite locations can wager on horses at the home track, which means money flows into NYRA races even if the bettors aren’t in New York.

More simulcasting meant more money, so Crist negotiated deals with many tracks to start carrying simulcasts of NYRA’s races. In 1994, the total amount bet on NYRA races—or the “handle” in racing parlance—was $205 million. The next year, it was $589 million.

“Steve got it,” says Bill Nader, a NYRA senior vice-president who served as director of simulcasting and television under Crist, “and he got it not because he went to Harvard, not because he’s a highly intelligent guy, but because he had great business sense in thoroughbred racing.”

True to the Form

The Daily Racing Form has been around since 1894. Beside its red logo, the paper proclaims itself “America’s Turf Authority.”

Crist never liked the Form. As a bettor, he spent hours supplementing its statistics on horses’ past performance as he handicapped the next day’s races. As a journalist, he thought its coverage was shallow and its reporters were cheerleaders for the racing industry.

But several months after he left NYRA, frustrated by the lack of change in the heavily-regulated world of horse racing, the legendary paper was put up for sale.

Crist assembled a group of investors and bought it for about $40 million.

That put the lifelong racing devotee in charge of what he considers a “classic American brand”—the name in horse racing second in recognition only to the Kentucky Derby.

Taking over the Form has made him “a steward and a caretaker” of the racing tradition, he says. “It’s been a great goal to have a good, honest, sophisticated, accurate publication for people who love the game.”

Hiring his former copy editor Rosenbush to be editor-in-chief, he brought in new senior editors. He also beefed up the past performance statistics and expanded coverage of industry issues such as performance-enhancing drug use and government regulation of gambling.

“Really there’s no genius at work here,” Rosenbush says. “We cover this sport the way any newspaper would cover baseball, football or basketball.”

Crist also founded the Form’s book-publishing business, DRF Press, which will issue Betting on Myself this fall.

After finishing that manuscript, Crist says he has been spending more time at the racetrack again. Currently that means passing days at Belmont Park, where the New York racing circuit competes in the spring.

When he went to Belmont for the first time in October 1977, Crist watched a horse named Affirmed edge out Alydar in a photo-finish. Without knowing it, he witnessed the early stages of what would become one of horse racing’s greatest rivalries.

The next spring—that of 1978—Affirmed won the Kentucky Derby, Preakness Stakes and Belmont Stakes to nab the famed Triple Crown.

Not since Affirmed has a horse achieved that feat.

This year, a horse named Funny Cide won the Derby and the Preakness. Pending a win in the Belmont Stakes this weekend, he stands to become the first New York-bred horse in history to capture the Triple Crown.

The Daily Racing Form keeps a six-seat box at Belmont, and that’s where Crist will be on Saturday—always a customer of the sport.

“I’ll stay out of the pressbox,” he says. “I always hated it when the bosses would show up on the big days...I just sit out in the box.”

—Staff writer Andrew S. Holbrook can be reached at holbr@fas.harvard.edu.

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