01/18/2017 3:30PM

Hovdey: Parallel minds intersect at Eclipse Award of Merit

Email

Joe Hirsch won the Eclipse Award of Merit for 1992 because he was a tireless ambassador for Thoroughbred racing, because he was instrumental in the birth of such events as the Arlington Million, the Japan Cup, and the Dubai World Cup, and because he spent most of his career as a one-man Michelin Guide for any young reporter who needed a crash course in the game.

He was also a journalist.

Jim McKay won the Eclipse Award of Merit for 2000 because he was a passionate owner and breeder of Thoroughbreds who deployed his celebrity clout to be the driving force behind the creation in 1986 of the Maryland Million, a landmark regional celebration that has been copied in more than two dozen racing states since.

He was also a journalist.

Clearly, it takes something extra for a journalist to rise above the ranks in the eyes of those who decide who deserves an Eclipse Award of Merit. Andrew Beyer and Steven Crist are respected, award-winning journalists whose coverage of Thoroughbred racing for two of the nation’s great newspapers was incisive, stimulating, and dripped with a crystal clarity that left their readers informed, refreshed, and hungry for the next helping.

They are also the co-recipients of the Eclipse Award of Merit – an honor that lives only slightly south of Horse of the Year – and both men will be front and center Saturday night at Gulfstream Park when the Eclipse Awards dinner honors the champions of a very memorable 2016 season.

The encomiums heaped upon them will be heavily laden with their lifelong dedication to the handicapping craft, but not simply in terms of “picking winners” – also the name of Beyer’s watershed book of 1975 – but also in advocating for the customers invited to play at a challenging table. Crist, whose career encompassed publishing and racetrack management, was asked what it was like for most horseplayers before Beyer went public with his speed figures.

“Darkness, ignorance, confusion,” Crist replied. “Then along came Andy, saying that the figures were the truth, the light, and the way.”

Though half a generation apart in age, their biographies have intertwined for the past 40 years. Both were Harvard men with literary ambitions who also were drawn by some weird magnetic pull to the parimutuel puzzle of the racetrack. They found a way to satisfy both as racing writers – Crist with The New York Times and Beyer with The Washington Post. Their paths inevitably crossed.

“We first got to know each other at Gulfstream Park, and we were rivals as much as we were buddies,” Beyer said. “We were playing the pick six against each other, as well as writing for two major, competing newspapers.”

Crist recalls an earlier encounter at a New York soirée thrown by a common acquaintance.

“I had just discovered Beyer, and horse racing, and I was really pumped up to meet him,” Crist said. “I’d worked real hard to come up with an interesting horse to impress him. But he was in a crappy mood and left the dinner early, saying something like, ‘I’ve got some real work to do.’

“We really got to know each other a few years later when I got the full-time racing-writer job at The Times,” Crist said. “I was making my own figures by then, and he was the only one I could really talk to in those terms. We were kind of the Navajo Code guys.”

Their mutual admiration bore fruit when Crist spearheaded the creation of The Racing Times in 1991 and secured exclusive use of Beyer’s increasingly popular speed figures.

“Steve recognized that racing is a complex game, and to succeed at the track, you’re not going to do it with a dumbed-down version,” Beyer said. “He was determined to give readers what they needed, whether they knew what that was or not.

“He essentially reinvented the past performances and gave American horseplayers the greatest package of information compared to our counterparts anywhere in the world,” Beyer said. “That gave me a lot of satisfaction, as well as a job. I never forget that I owe this to Steve.”

Crist also provided his readers with Beyer’s Washington Post columns in Daily Racing Form when the Form was purchased by Crist and a group of investors in 1998.

“He doesn’t get anywhere near enough credit for being as good a writer and commentator that he is,” Crist said. “He’s a terrific prose writer, an old-fashioned writer like I like to think I am. And he wrote critically about racing at a time when no one else in that kind of position at a major newspaper was really looking at things from the customer’s point of view. That was as trailblazing as his handicapping contributions.”

For the past 16 years, Crist has presented the award to the Handicapper of the Year at the Eclipse dinner. Now, he’s on the receiving end.

“It’s pretty basic,” Crist said. “If you’re going to give me the award, you’ve got to give Andy one. He inspired me to get into the game in the first place and did what he did for the customers and readers before anyone else.”

As for Beyer, this will be his very first Eclipse Awards ceremony, which is a pretty good way to start. He was asked about any prepared remarks.

“I never like to be too windy,” Beyer said. “So, I’m aiming for Kelso’s winning time for the Jockey Club Gold Cup, somewhere around 3:19.”