Crist switched horses. His new central character, Swale, lost the Preakness but came back to win the Belmont. Then, eight days later, the horse dropped dead after a morning workout. Crist watched while the vets at Belmont carved up the horse's carcass, trying—unsuccessfully—to determine the cause of death.
"That was a pretty grim day," Crist says with typical understatement. "By then I was so involved with the story that I didn't want to drop it. I felt like I ought to see it through. I went to Kentucky when they buried the horse. I had spent nine months of my life on this story, and a few months after it was over, it was suggested that it might be a book." Crist's coverage eventually branched out into the entire world of breeding and, indeed, bore fruit as a book, The Horse Traders, a rich, lyrical account of this high-stakes game.
Crist's feeling for the sport comes through in the campaigns he has waged through his columns. He has written often and forcefully against the use of Lasix, a diuretic widely employed by trainers to treat horses that have been certified as bleeders (those that have evinced respiratory bleeding after the heavy exertions of racing).
"There is no evidence, no study anywhere, to prove that Lasix has any effect whatsoever on bleeding," Crist says. "But there is every reason to believe that a trainer could use it to flush a horse's system to remove evidence that he'd been given other drugs." The fact that New York remains the only major racing state that does not allow the use of Lasix can probably be attributed in part to the fact that the turf writer at The New York Times is so vigilant on this point.
It is impossible to imagine Crist writing about a "mortal lock." He does not write a handicapping column and, in fact, has an agreement with the Times that he will not bet on the races he is going to write about. Beyer's column, on the other hand, would be unimaginable without the handicapping hyperbole, some of which has come back to haunt him.
In his column on the day of the 1986 Preakness, Beyer led off with characteristic subtlety: "Mortgage the house. Hock the family jewels. Crack open the kids' piggy bank. Badger Land is a mortal lock to win the Preakness."
Badger Land finished fourth, 10½ lengths behind the winner, Snow Chief. Beyer says of such magnificent mistakes. "I try to write with conviction. I think people want to read strong opinions, argued forcefully. I know I do. If I'm interested in politics, I turn to George Will because he writes that way. I'm trying to do the same thing for my readers."
Like Crist, Beyer will take on the racing establishment if there is an issue at hand. His column fairly crackled with anger after last year's Preakness, when he believed jockey Pat Day rode Forty Niner not so much to win as to deny the victory to Winning Colors, the Derby winner. "In the wake of the Preakness," Beyer wrote, "one might have expected that mobs of irate citizens would be hanging Pat Day and [Forty Niner's trainer] Woody Stephens in effigy. After all, the jockey and trainer were responsible for the nasty strategy that brought about the defeat of Winning Colors." Most of Beyer's loyal readers were probably much more interested in the fact that he had called the finish perfectly. He wrote before the race that he was going to bet Risen Star, Brian's Time and Private Terms in an exacta box. Readers who followed his lead won $93.80 on a $12 bet.
The best available evidence suggests that Beyer and Crist both bet as well as they write. The press box of a racetrack is the best place to observe them as they put their handicapping skills into action. In late February, they were both at Gulf-stream for the Florida Derby, one of the early warmups for the Triple Crown season. Beyer had been in town for nearly two months. Crist had just arrived after a cross-country drive he had taken in order to write a series on the expansion of thoroughbred racing in the sunbelt.
The Gulfstream press box is arranged so that writers sit at desks along a wall of glass that keeps noise out and air-conditioning in. The amenities are all here: a snack bar, a photocopier, telephones, television replays and, most important, a parimutuel clerk behind a betting window where the writers can make the occasional wager.