07/22/2016 1:10PM

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


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.