07/22/2016 1:10PM

Hovdey: Now it's Crist who has left and gone away

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First it was David Letterman. Then Jon Stewart, and then Garrison Keillor. How dare they retire. How dare they voluntarily remove their voices from the public square. How empty certain hours have become without them.

Now it’s Steven Crist.

“The reason to retire is to try to avoid embarrassment,” Keillor wrote. “You ought to do it before people are dropping big hints. You want to be the first to come up with the idea. You don’t want to wait until you trip and fall off the stage.”

There was little chance of that happening with Crist. He has been on stage in so many ways and on so many stages that the thought of a racing game without his presence is pretty near absurd. He insists he is not slipping into a cold corner of isolated retirement. He is only 59 and in relatively good health in spite of recent setbacks. He says he will be involved in promoting the handicapping-tournament scene. His e-mail is still active, and his phone works. And yet …

I will miss the icy clarity of his journalism and commentary, honed with The New York Times and perfected with his deepening insights as the Thoroughbred industry evolved over the past 35 years. Crist has left a paper trail that includes not only the Times and Daily Racing Form but also The Racing Times, a great Spruce Goose of a publication that took flight in the face of impossible odds and crashed through no fault of the crew.

I was along for that ride and for the subsequent crusade with the new Racing Form, launched in 1998 with Crist as the driving force behind fresh ownership and a revolutionary approach to both statistical data and racing journalism. You can read about it in his memoir, “Betting on Myself,” which is not exactly Tristam Shandy goes to the races. But it’s close.

Whether they know it or not, horseplayers have never had a more dedicated advocate than Crist, not only in his calling as a publisher but also as a racetrack executive, a role for which he was genetically ill-suited, which means he was perfect for the job.

So, let’s everyone raise a glass and toast a career that could have gone astray had he pursued his earliest leanings toward the literary life. Even then, Crist dropped hints that his destiny lay elsewhere, as revealed in passages like this one from his short story “Offtrack,” part of the collection of the same name published in 1980:

“There was no dogmatic way of playing the races, no guarantee that chance and the infirmity of the animals wouldn’t vitiate everything that their past-performance lines indicated; but in the long run, there was some truth attainable and worth pursuing, knowledge rather than answer. Playing the horses was not a process of trying to beat a particular race, but of participating in an unending presentation of situations that afforded pleasure in the experience.”

Good luck to a good friend.

Songbird alights at Saratoga

Songbird is in New York for a race on Sunday, straying far from her home in California. This is what the Big East wanted Zenyatta to do all those years, when airplanes flew in only one direction, and held it against her all the way to the Hall of Fame.

This Songbird creature is a whole different piece of work, already 8 for 8 at a point when Zenyatta had yet to make a start. She gets to run against her own kind for now, which is the way the game is supposed to work, and then will start to climb big mountains later. As far as that goes, no one really knows what the Coaching Club is, how you become a member, or why it gets to run a race called the American Oaks. But that is where Songbird has turned up.

It matters not. You could name the race for a barstool at the Parting Glass, and Songbird would make it special. Jerry Hollendorfer treats her as if he’s got the Mona Lisa hanging in a stall halfway down the shed row. Rick Porter, her owner, wants to keep her around as long as possible. This is music to the ears.

“I just hope with all this hype, she doesn’t disappoint,” Porter said Friday morning from home in Pennsylvania. “There’s so much pressure on her, and I feel the pressure myself. But that’s part of the game.”

If Songbird ever gets stressed, she hides it well. Her default demeanor can best be described as a lazy curiosity. Porter received reports from Saratoga this week that sounded like Songbird was unfazed by her new surroundings.

“Jerry called today,” Porter said. “There were all kinds of reporters out there watching her walk. She stopped, looked at them, and posed for pictures, then made a turn and stopped again, I guess in case any of them missed the shot.”

The last time a 3-year-old filly based in California made an impact at Saratoga was in 2013, when Hollendorfer won the Test Stakes with Sweet Lulu. In 2010, Hollendorfer won the Alabama with Blind Luck, beating Porter’s Havre de Grace in an epic duel. Songbird will be facing the major stakes winners Carina Mia and Weep No More in the CCA Oaks, going 1 1/8 miles.

“I wanted to go there to meet the good horses,” Porter said. “I didn’t want to run away from them, that’s for sure.”

Then again, there might be no place to hide from Songbird.

Franck Rice 11 months ago
Say it ain't so Mr. Crist...say it ain't so.
Vince Piscitelli 11 months ago
Without admitting my age this morning, when I was 17 I used to go to the liquor store at 9:17pm every (racing) night and purchase the DRF for about $1.57. The first thing I did was flip it over and read Joe Hirsch's column.

Years later I purchased the DRF daily for about $5.77 and the first thing I would do is flip through the first 17 or so pages to find an article written by Steve. I think he wrote once or twice a week back then but I couldn't wait to read it.

Today I still but the DRF for about $11.77 but I do miss Joe and Steve a bunch.

Jay, you're closing fast on them.

Vince P

Andy Pinto 11 months ago
Jay- take a look at p.14 of today's Saratoga Special for some info about the Coaching Club and a stone that's been at Saratoga since 1864
Bill 11 months ago
I just heard about this today. My interest in racing began when I lived in NYC and Crist in the NY Times was the voice of racing to me. I have very fond memories of what he taught me about the game. Love his appreciation of Easy Goer as well! This major voice in this troubled sport will be very missed. I wish him well.
Cliff Amyotte 11 months ago
Andrew Beyer once told me his numbers were a "labour of love" so, I also think was Steve Crist handicapping prowess and writing skills over the years. Thanks for the entertainment and dedication to your craft and good luck in your personal handicapping and betting as we all know horse racing is a wonderful and frustrating sport that keeps you coming back for more!
Dave Oster 11 months ago
so who,s the Einstien that wanted the racing form printed in a "small" book format...it,s terrible,,,go back tp original larger paper print,,,,,,,,,thats #1 reason form is on decline,,,they only sell about 1/2 dozen during the week and lucky if a dozen sell on Saturday,s,,larger otb illinois
Tom Fleming 11 months ago
Dave, I am on the same side of the argument as you, but I see DRF doing this for this reason...to one day be able to cease printing the form altogether. DRF wants its customers/subscribers to print the form on their own - and save money on ink, paper, production, deliveries, etc.. That is why they are pushing the digital form -  to get their patrons accustomed to printing their own forms while DRF only has to download their PP's on a computer.
Richard Kennedy 11 months ago
To Rick Lamond:
Wow, Why so negative against Mike Watchmaker? Watchmaker was the ONLY DRF writer to have CREATOR, in the 2016 BELMONT.  Mr. Lamond, did you have him?
Rick Lamond 11 months ago
Well, good luck in retirement. I have nothing against Steven Crist, but something good may actually come out of this. Here's hoping the new boss will see fit to get rid of Mike Watchmaker with Crist no longer there to protect him.
Dale Tillotson 11 months ago
Though Steve's laptop was a major hit to stockholders of red paper mate flair pens his retirement will now destroy stock in red flair pens. Thanks to Steve for his contributions, and thanks to Jay for his eloquent article.
Robert Kaiser 11 months ago
To a horseplayer - like losing an older brother.