Andrew Beyer: Rebel With A Cause

by | 11.13.2016 | 11:59pm
Andrew Beyer (right) with actor Eric Lange, who portrayed Beyer in the movie "Secretariat"

There was no fanfare, no rapturous odes, no good riddance or heartfelt goodbyes. There wasn't even a traditional gathering in the newsroom, where a ranking editor might offer a rousing speech followed by a round of applause and icing on a cake spelling out the words “Thank You.”

When Andrew Beyer ended his career as a journalist after 46 years of covering horse racing, barely a soul outside his inner circle seemed to take notice. Perhaps the greatest public advocate horseplayers have ever known, one of the sharpest minds ever to focus attention on their game, and the man who practically singlehandedly yanked turf writing out of the musty, romantic mists and into clear-eyed – and often polarizing – modern language simply called an editor at the Washington Post earlier this year and said he was done.

The Beyer Speed Figures he created, of course, are now an industry standard, and they will continue, allowing horseplayers to easily compare runners by the assignation of a number that reflects final time, the track surface and its variations throughout the day.

They are part of the past performances of every North American runner in the Daily Racing Form, and are used by countless farms in advertising the precocity of their stallions. The speed figures demonstrated their immense value going into the Breeders' Cup Classic – showing that Arrogate had run faster winning the Travers than California Chrome had ever run in his life. Before the advent of the figures, horseplayers could only guess.

Beyer, working with a team, remains deeply immersed in daily figure making, but his retirement as a writer leaves a gaping hole in the already withered world of independent national horse racing journalism.

“As the end of 2015 approached, I thought, ‘You know, I've done it,'” Beyer, 72, said recently at his home in Washington, D.C. “Forty-six years of writing a racing column was enough. The Post, as you know, lost interest in racing a long time ago. So that certainly was a factor. Again, the figures were taking enough of my time and mental energy so that at this stage of my life I really didn't need two jobs. It was not like a wrenching thing. I didn't write about it or say I was retiring because maybe I'll wind up doing some writing for the Racing Form. In that case, saying you are having a farewell and then having my byline out there again would have looked stupid, so I just decided to go gentle into the good night.”

In withdrawing from the front lines of racing, Beyer still plans to do the things he loves best: betting on horses, managing his speed figures empire, cycling at least 20 miles each day through Rock Creek Park, pursuing a passion for contemporary art, and traveling the world each year with his wife Susan, preferably to a place where all these interests converge and also happens to be renowned wine country.

Yet with his written voice gone silent, love him or hate him, it's a tremendous loss for racing.

“He was a brilliant writer, a great authority on the sport and a wonderful colleague for more than 40 years,” said George Solomon, Beyer's longtime editor at the Washington Post. “He stood apart from the crowd. He was as professional in covering the sport of horse racing as David Broder was covering politics for the Washington Post.”

Steven Crist, the former publisher and columnist at the Daily Racing Form and racing writer at the New York Times – and, like Beyer, a great champion of the horseplayer – took his evaluation further.

“Andy rebelled and set an example for others of us to rebel in the same way against the old-timey sports writing,” Crist said. “Andy never believed – and it's correct – that if a jockey had a sick grandmother, that's why a horse won a race. Too much sports writing is about that, overcoming obstacles and character and all that kind of stuff.

“I said this at [my] retirement dinner a few weeks ago, and Andy was there: For all the progress that has been made in the horseplayer's lot in life at the racetrack, Andy doesn't get enough credit. He was 10 years ahead of the curve; things like being skeptical of overbet horses, and the way racetrack executives used to behave – like they were unaware gambling was taking place on the premise. A lot of us owe so much of what we do to Andy being the trailblazer, and this thing” – racing coverage – “deserves a different look and a different approach.”

That approach, as Howard Cosell liked to say, was “telling it like it is.”

 

Straight out of Harvard
Beyer, as his legions of followers know, bailed out of Harvard before graduating to play the horses full time and would develop his speed figures in the early 1970s.

Born in Carbondale, Ill., Beyer had been gambling since boyhood, in Erie, Pa., on games like pinball. He first talked his parents into a trip to the racetrack at age 12.

At Harvard, he wrote for the Crimson – the student newspaper – covering sports and making up rock and roll quizzes. His serious studying took place at Suffolk Downs, Lincoln Downs, Narragansett and assorted poker tables.

His failure to complete his English degree showed the depth of his obsession. He skipped a senior-year exam on Chaucer to drive to Long Island to bet on Amberoid in the 1966 Belmont Stakes. Beyer, whose father taught history at Southern Illinois University, finished out of the money at Harvard, but Amberoid came in and paid $13.

Beyer began his professional journalism career as a general sportswriter in 1966 for the Washington Post and left in 1970 when Dave Burgin, the sports editor at the Washington Daily News – the No. 3 newspaper in town – gave him a shot as a full-time racing columnist.

Beyer had two big breaks in his writing career, and the first took place in that role because of his fascination with a horse named Sun in Action.

Before Solomon became sports editor at the Post, he and Beyer were colleagues in the Washington Daily News sports department, and one cold December afternoon Beyer talked him into a drive to Philadelphia to play a horse at Liberty Bell Park.

“The racing column was back on page 62 or whatever,” Beyer recalled. “I spotted a horse running in Philadelphia that I fell in love with. I had never done anything like this, but I wrote a column saying, ‘Stop worrying about your Christmas money. Sun in Action in the second race at Liberty Bell can't lose.'

“George accompanied me and we went up to the track. It was an excruciating, head-bobbing photo finish. Sun in Action loses by a nose. There was a steward's inquiry and they disqualify the winner and put me up, and Sun in Action pays $43.20.

“The next day, the streamer headline on the front of A1 of the tabloid was, ‘Andrew Beyer's horse comes in.' That made me as a journalist in Washington.”

His second major break came four years later when an old Harvard classmate, who had become an editor at Houghton Mifflin, asked Beyer if he would like to write a book.

“I said, ‘Gee, yeah. I guess so,'” Beyer said.

Through the 1970s, Beyer was living a classically degenerate single man's life, betting on horses in the daytime, writing his racing column, and then mixing it up at night on the raucous Georgetown bar scene.

“There was no great expectation of success for this book,” Beyer said. “The first printing, the press run was like 5,000 copies for a major national publisher. I'll never forget a friend of mine called me up and said, ‘Have you seen the New York Times today?' I said, ‘No,' and he said, ‘Your book has been reviewed.' Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, the highbrow literary critic of the Times, wrote a rave review of ‘Picking Winners' and said this is a book that you'll read again and again if you get serious about the business.

“That put me on the map. It's still in print after 40 years.”

 

Blunt-force trauma
When “Picking Winners” came out in 1975 and revolutionized how bettors approached the racing game and unlocked the mysteries of the figures and speed handicapping, Beyer's column in the Washington Star-News and then the Post was like a master class for horseplayers.

"Picking Winners," published in 1975, revolutionized how horseplayers approached

“Picking Winners,” published in 1975, revolutionized how horseplayers approached the game

There was a tremendous amount of racing coverage in the Baltimore-Washington region at the time, with Dale Austin at the Sun, Bill Boniface and Charles Lang at the Evening Sun, Gerald Strine at the Washington Post, William C. Phillips and Tom Atwell at the Daily Racing Form, Charles Lamb and Clem Florio at the News American, and Joe Kelly at the Washington Star-News.

These men knew their stuff, but, save for Florio – an idiosyncratic genius whose tutoring of Beyer on observing horses took up an entire chapter of “Picking Winners” – they were locked in a bygone world, writing hoary columns like “Paddock Palaver” and “Bang Tales.”

Beyer and Florio didn't mingle with the horsey set. They wrote for the public, the horseplayers, and they came out guns blazing.

On April 1, 1974, Florio opened both barrels on the Maryland Racing Commission for approving the liberal use of the diuretic Lasix without any plan to inform bettors which horses were using the drug.

“The commissioners, who were appointed to allegedly protect the public, think such important information is the exclusive property of the horsemen,” he wrote. “But the fans don't complain, so the bureaucrats, led by J. Newton Brewer, must take that to mean that we don't care. How did they ever get to be commissioners? We have seen more leadership in a game of Ring-a-Round Rosey.”

A week later, Beyer also took aim at Brewer – the racing commission chairman – in a two-part series.

“If the decision to withhold information about Lasix were the result of a conscious conspiracy, that would have been less maddening than the real reason – Brewer's arrogance and undisguised contempt for the betting public that makes the existence of horse racing possible.”

Besides delivering blunt-force trauma, Beyer also delighted at turning in Damon Runyon-style profiles of the degenerate characters he came across. Georgetown nightlife in the 1970s and the overabundance of wise guys at Laurel and Pimlico were for Beyer what the Moulin Rouge was for Toulouse-Lautrec.

In 1978, he opened a column like this: “As he left a poker game last week and contemplated the fact that he had no money, no permanent job and no prospects, Harry managed to think with bemused detachment about the cyclical nature of life. ‘Somehow,' he said, ‘This all seems disturbingly familiar.'”

Occasionally, though, Beyer could border on malicious, like when he wrote a column ranking the 10 worst jockeys in Maryland, but the audacity and certainty of his convictions were invigorating and blew the doors open to a more forthright racing coverage.

After Gate Dancer rode Pimlico's lightning rail bias to victory in the 1984 Preakness, Beyer began his post-mortem on the race like this: “Imagine that the Super Bowl were played on a field consisting half of hard artificial turf and half of ankle-deep mud. Or that the pro basketball championships were being decided on a court where one of the hoops had been raised to 20 feet.

“Such conditions would of course be farcical and unfair – about as farcical, in fact, as the 109th Preakness was.”

Even at his most rapturous when writing about, say, Easy Goer, Beyer never lapsed into treacle. He simply wasn't wired for romance about the game.

“I'm not,” he said. “I got into it as a gambler. The betting side of the game has always been the thing that held me to it. Obviously, I cherish the memories of the great moments of the sport that I've seen, the exploits of Secretariat and some of the great individual races. But I never had that warm and sentimental feeling about racing like somebody like Bill Nack has.”

Nack, long a friend of Beyer, is the lyrical author of the classic book “Secretariat: The Making of a Champion.”

So, with a gambler's detachment, Beyer ruthlessly sized up the regal and beloved Personal Ensign, the champion filly who never lost a race. He applied his speed figures, judged the quality of her opposition, correctly pointed out that the only time she faced males was in a three-horse Whitney Handicap, and let fly.

In a January 1989 column, Beyer cut through the contentious Alysheba vs. Personal Ensign Horse of the Year debate: “I have spoken to two voters recently who said they solved their dilemma by casting half a vote for the colt, half a vote for the filly. This is nonsense. There was no need for such indecisiveness, for there was no doubt about the year's outstanding Thoroughbred performer. Alysheba was the horse of the year – and any opinion to the contrary is sentimental claptrap.”

Many infuriated racing fans saw this as flippancy, and over the years Beyer cultivated as many detractors as followers.

Before her final race in 2010, Beyer wrote this about Zenyatta, who many already had canonized as one of racing's immortals: “When racing fans of the future look back at the record of a mare who excelled on long-forgotten substances called Pro-Ride and Cushion Track, they are apt to regard Zenyatta as a historical curiosity rather than an all-time great racehorse.”

Six years after the column ran, Beyer stood by it.

“I felt when I had opinions, I had confidence in them,” he said. “… when people were extolling Zenyatta as one of the great horses of all time, I wrote that many times, not to be controversial but because it was a fact. She was a phony.”

Beyer doesn't mince words about Horse of the Year Zenyatta.

Beyer doesn't mince words about Horse of the Year Zenyatta. “She was a phony,” he says.

In 2006, Beyer wrote a column about the Al Maktoum family, the rulers of Dubai, scoffing at their methodology for trying to win American Classic races while spending scads of money on the cream of the foal crop.

“Well, that was a piece of trash journalism because the man doesn't have a clue what goes on inside the Al Maktoum family,” said Rick Nichols, the Shadwell Stables general manager, in a blistering response to an interview question after Shadwell had won the Breeders' Cup Classic with Invasor. “He called all the trainers and managers a bunch of organizing men.”

The advent of the “here comes everybody” nature of the Internet further opened a Pandora's Box of malevolence toward Beyer.

“Andy Beyer made more money from his books and selling his speed figures to the Racing Times and the Daily Racing Form than he ever did betting,” one grumpy fan commented on Horseacinginsider.com. “He's still on the Form's payroll. He's about the worse (sic) handicapper there is [his absolutely horrible yearly Kentucky Derby picks are proof].”

The critics, hidden behind their computers, came in waves, and after getting a taste of them, Beyer stopped paying attention.

“My guess is plenty of journalists feel the same way,” he said. “People lurking in anonymity saying, ‘This guy is an idiot.' I have my own standards. I had a sports editor who held me to high standards, a newspaper that held me to high standards. I think a lot of people in the sport viewed me as a knocker, as a negativist. There's always been a lot of stuff in horse racing in terms of honesty issues, drug issues. The game is negative, and if you're a journalist you're supposed to write about it.”

Crist saw critics attack Beyer for everything, including the speed figures, which were perhaps the greatest gift ever bestowed upon horseplayers. If a fan thought a horse had run a tremendous race and Beyer accorded it a low number, they would attack him for playing favorites, disregarding the mathematical underpinning behind the given figure.

“There is this inexplicable hostility toward him that made my chest hurt every time I saw these things,” Crist said. “There is this anti-intellectual thing, and he's the enemy of people who like horseys. He's portrayed that way. Beyer doesn't go down and stand next to the track and look at the flowing manes.”

 

The ultimate goal
Besides his strong opinion, what also made Beyer's writing so imposing was its exactness. He cared about composition and sentence structure.

“My mother was a strict grammarian,” Beyer said. “Even as a child, any mistake would not go unnoticed in the Beyer household. I always thought about how to put sentences together properly, and I guess that shows what a dinosaur I am because not many people care anymore.”

Crist marveled at his writing while coming up and looked to Beyer as a model for his own work.

“Andy has always been underappreciated as a writer,” Crist said. “They think of him as the figs and an advocate for horseplayers, but he was such a good writer. His command of the language and sentence construction – he's a real, old-style professional writer. He still minds his whoms and whos. He sent me a note one time about the misuse of whom and who. Both of our mothers were teachers.”

Beyer's writing and opinions were based on practiced craft and rigorous thinking, yet they stood side by side with what was often his ultimate goal – to make a killing at the betting windows.

Beyer is a member of the National Racing Hall of Fame's Media Roll of Honor

Beyer is a member of the National Racing Hall of Fame's Media Roll of Honor

While Beyer already is a member of the National Racing Hall of Fame's Media Roll of Honor, John Doyle, the 2011 NHC handicapping champion, suggested in a column for the Horse Racing Nation website that Beyer should be the first horseplayer inducted as well. Beyer's swashbuckling gambling while on the job for the Post is legendary, and he often shared his betting plans and exploits with his readers.

One Preakness Day morning in the Pimlico press box, before the races had begun, Beyer was asked if he liked anything on the card.

“Not really,” he said in his measured, laconic drawl, “but there is a horse in the first race that I think is isolated speed.”

When the race was official, one of the mutuel tellers made a call downstairs to the money room. Beyer had won every dollar.

“There's something deeply satisfying about cleaning out the press box window in the first race on Preakness Day,” Beyer said, his pockets stuffed with money, sitting back down to do his actual job.

Even more Beyer-esque was his cockeyed crushing of the 1989 Kentucky Derby, the year he was at the heart of the great East-West debate, with his speed figures insisting on the superiority of Easy Goer over Sunday Silence.

“As a degenerate gambler, I tend to remember certain bets more vividly than classic moments of racing drama,” Beyer said in an interview for the website Kentucky Confidential in 2012. “Las Vegas then took bets on the last-place finisher, and Western Playboy, the well-regarded winner of the Blue Grass, was 20 to 1 to trail the field. He looked good on paper, but he was training dully at Churchill Downs – five furlongs in 1:03 – and his trainer, Harvey Vanier, seemed to be exuding pessimism. So I bet him to trail the field.

“As 122,653 people roared for the first of the epic duels between Sunday Silence and Easy Goer, my binoculars were trained on the rear of the pack for the head-and-head duel between Faultless Ensign and Western Playboy.”

Chris DeCarlo, in his first Derby, rode his heart out on Faultless Ensign. Veteran Randy Romero, on Western Playboy, just wanted to get the race over with.

Easy Goer lost, but Beyer had won.

“Andy's gambling had so much to do with his writing,” Crist said. “He was the first racing writer I knew of – other than charlatans and frauds – that wrote that ‘I'm betting on racing and I'm winning.' That pissed off a lot of people. He was not the most popular guy in the press box because he won. I don't think most of his colleagues were rooting for him.

“You sit up in a press box for 30 years and along comes this guy with his crazy numbers and he wins and you haven't.”

As Crist points out, without gambling Beyer may never have developed into the writer he became. He took the core premise that horse racing should serve the bettors that supported it and extrapolated that into journalistic inquiries of horsemanship, track management, medication and industry governance. Along the way, he told a lot of great stories, knocked down sacred cows, tweaked noses and reveled in his own mischief.

“At the Post, you had to be journalistically responsible, and if there was controversial stuff, the lawyers would get into it,” Beyer said. “So George [Solomon], like any good editor, made sure that I covered all the bases; if I was criticizing somebody or accused somebody of malfeasance, I picked up the phone and got a comment, or got a ‘Fuck you, Beyer.' I rather just pop off, but, you know, working for the Post, you had to [make those calls].”

There are strict rules against conflicts of interest at major newspapers, and betting is one of them. A football beat writer would be thrown off the staff if caught betting on games. At the Washington Post, Beyer turned those rules inside out.

In 1990, he made the two greatest scores of his life, writing a column about and then hitting an exotic wager called the double-triple. In April, he won $134,682 by hitting the bet at Pimlico. Six months later, he hauled in $195,070.50 on the double-triple at Laurel.

Before the score at Pimlico, the Post published a column titled, “A Beyer's Guide to the Double-Triple” in which Beyer explained, technically but succinctly, exactly how to win the bet.

Post racing reporter Vinnie Perrone wrote about the second bonanza for the paper.

“He placed his wager in the press box and raced down three floors to the Sports Palace, intent on sitting in the same seat and watching the same TV screen he had employed in his double-triple conquest last April,” Perrone wrote.

Beyer's final quote in the piece is a gem.

“The Sports Palace applauded when I went to the window,” he said. ‘It was a touching moment.”

“He was always honest with his readers,” Solomon said when asked if he ever had an issue with Beyer's gambling. “He told readers from Day One he was a horseplayer and a writer. He would share opinions with the readers, which led to some of them doing quite well at the window.

“He never let his gambling get in the way of the journalism. He knew how I felt and how the Post felt, and we knew how he felt. The only jealousy or envy among other writers toward Andy was many wished they could write as well.”

Asked if he has taken time since his retirement to reflect on his writing career, Beyer waved off the question.

“I'm very busy with and engaged by the figures, so I'm not in my dotage looking back over my professional life,” he said.

Yet he expresses dismay that in the 46 years he wrote about racing, the sport failed to eliminate the dramatic form reversals brought on by trainers he believes clearly cheat by using banned drugs. The collapse of the newspaper industry and independent reporting, so essential to putting a spotlight on bad actors, only compounds the problem.

“The Post has abandoned [racing] as have most newspapers around the country. It's kind of the major development, the major thing that's happened to our sport, and it's demoralizing,” Beyer said. “There just isn't much serious racing journalism left because it really takes a serious, professional newspaper to do the right kind of investigation.

“How many websites, how many editors in this day and age, call you and challenge a story or say, ‘We need to have a lawyer look at this,' or, ‘You need to investigate this a little more thoroughly'? That's how the Washington Post operated. Again, the drug thing is very tough to deal with because you can't uncover the truth. All you can do is look at what's happening and how certain trainers are performing and say, ‘Gee, here are all the signs of somebody who is a crook,' but [writing just that is] a little hard to get away with.”

Asked if he had any thoughts on what would be good for racing journalism in the future, Beyer simply said, “No,” and then cracked up laughing. “I've moved on.”

 

Broader interests
Beyer is a very private public figure. He has conducted handicapping seminars at tracks for years but is not one for a lot of idle chitchat with strangers.

“If someone comes up to Andy and starts telling him some boring betting story, he'll just say ‘excuse me' and walk away,” Crist said.

When Crist was with the New York Times, Beyer treated him politely until one day Crist showed he had been hard at work with par time charts, making his own speed figures. That changed the dynamic between them.

“When he saw you'd done the work and took it seriously, he would let you into his circle very quickly,” Crist said. “He is so intimidating at first and forbidding. You want to say something smart and impress him, and he's aloof, but when he approves of you, he's a great friend.”

In the 1980s, fully established at the Washington Post, Beyer began to broaden his palette of experience and fell in love with contemporary painting while dating a woman before he met his wife who took him to an art opening at the Hirshhorn Museum.

“I'm looking around – contemporary art wasn't on my radar screen – and I look at this one painting, a street scene, a cityscape in SoHo, and I said, ‘Holy shit, this is just great,'” Beyer recalled.

He approached the artist at the reception, and before long he was at a gallery in New York negotiating to buy a piece by the Chinese American painter Han Hsiang-ning.

“Except for the houses I've owned, I've never gotten such a sense of satisfaction from a material possession in my life,” he said. “So, that sort of got me interested in contemporary art, and when I married Susan, who comes from a very artsy background, that became one of our common denominators.”

In Susan Vallon, a successful interior designer who loves art, theater and dance, Beyer had met his match. One of her grandfathers was a lifelong gambler.

Beyer didn't marry until he was 43. Nack tells a story about having lunch with him before he met Vallon and asking why he hadn't settled down.

Beyer looked across the table and said, “When I meet a woman who I can come home from the track to and say, ‘I lost $5,000 today,' and she says, ‘That's OK, Andy, you'll get ‘em tomorrow,' that's when I'll get married.”

Beyer and his wife continue to collect paintings and recently were featured in an article in Smithsonian magazine about their legacy bequest to the Hirshhorn and Smithsonian.

Together, they try to take one major international trip each year. In 2015, while in Provence, in southeastern France, Beyer rode his bicycle up part of one of the most famous mountains in cycling, Mont Ventoux. He also has climbed Alpe d'Huez in the Central French Alps.

“As long as these old bones hold up I'll want to keep pedaling my bicycle as much as I can,” Beyer said. “Also when we travel, I'm always looking for racing adventures, and so we've been to racing in some obscure locations.”

These journeys have taken him to tracks in Chile and Uruguay and to Phu Tho Horse Racing Ground, in Ho Chi Minh City, the lone organized racetrack in Vietnam.

On a trip to Japan, Beyer got a true sense of his influence and renown. He and Susan emerged from their hotel in Tokyo for their first walk through the city, and a middle-aged Japanese man approached him and began bowing furiously.

Beyer watched dumbfounded until the man finally rose and said, “Mr. Beyer, the handicappers of Japan are all your children.”

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