But where others saw camp, Crist saw something else, something he found ineluctably compelling. Soon, he was going to Wonderland every night. He stayed in Cambridge the summer before his senior year to write a lampoon on undergraduate life. He and a friend named George Meyer spent their time—and some of the project's money—at the dog track. While the rest of the staff worked, Crist and Meyer studied the dogs' past performances, or slept, resting up for the night's exertions. They finally did their part for the project in a marathon session the last week before deadline. That experience became the basis for the lead story in Crist's first book, a collection of short stories called Offtrack, which is also the title of the longest piece in the book, as polished a novella as any 23-year-old is likely to write.
As night follows day, dogs led to horses. Around Boston, Crist preferred the dogs, because "the thoroughbred tracks were all second-rate." But the thrill of racing had him in its spell. "It became pretty clear to me, by the middle of my senior year, that I was not going to be happy as a professor of Romantic Literature at some college," he says.
Upon graduation he reported to The New York Times as a copyboy. Shortly after he arrived, the Times was shut down by a strike. This presented Crist with a not unwelcome opportunity to find out if he could "really make it as a handicapper."
He studied the Form at night in his small West Side apartment. In the morning he took the subway to Penn Station and the Belmont Special out to the track, where he spent the afternoon. His strike benefits as a copyboy with seven weeks' seniority "amounted to something like $52 a week...and I also had a little stake from my dog-racing days in Massachusetts."
Like most sophisticated horseplayers. Crist had read Picking Winners. "I'm part of the generation of handicappers that was deeply influenced by Andy," he says. "In a way, we are all his protégés." But he had not yet been influenced deeply enough to start creating his own speed figures. Just the same, using the old, established conventions of doping out the races—"Handicapping 101," as he calls it—Crist was able to win at Belmont, and when the strike ended, after 88 days, he returned to work ahead of the game.
In his early days at the Times, Crist did some free-lance work with old Lampoon friends on projects like a New York Post parody called The Post New York Post, the front page of which carried the gigantic headline KABOOM! and a small picture of Michael Jackson over a story entitled "Goodbye Gloved One." It was quintessential Lampoon, and Crist, if he'd chosen, could have made a career of that sort of thing. His friends from Harvard now constitute the core of what he calls "the humor writing industry in America." They are on the staffs of Late Night with David Letterman, Saturday Night Live, Spy and other outlets for that sort of sensibility.
In the late '70s, he helped on the parody called Off the Wall Street Journal, but turned down a job offer from Saturday Night Live. "There is a certain preciousness about that world that was less and less appealing to me," he says. "The racetrack is so real by comparison."
And so was his next assignment at the Times, editing for the Op-Ed page, "specializing, more or less, in Latin American politics," he says. With his new responsibilities he was given access to the Times's data processing system and his very own six-letter password to the newspaper's central computer. He asked for Alydar, since he felt a keen sense of affection for that horse. A little later, an editor on the sports section requested the same password. When he found that it had already been taken, he said, "Who has it? I want to meet him."
This was the genesis of Crist's transfer from the Op-Ed section to the sports department and, eventually, to his position as turf writer for The New York Times before he had turned 25.
If Beyer writes with the intention of making horse racing into a participant sport, Crist writes about it like a critic. Involvement is Beyer's strong suit; for Crist, it is detachment. His early stories at the Times were discursive and intelligent, an attempt at a broad understanding of the contained universe that was his beat. He made a long-term project out of a horse named Devil's Bag, thought by many to be the new Secretariat. Things didn't go as expected, though. When Devil's Bag did not run well in his early starts as a 3-year-old, he was put out to stud after the 1984 Kentucky Derby, which was won by his stablemate Swale.