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Andrew Beyer his own words

As soon as I got to Harvard, I tried out for the Crimson (newspaper) and started doing general news stories. In 1963, I went to the opening of the Crimson hoops season and started covering the team.

About This Project

In his 1973 book "No Cheering in the Press Box," author Jerome Holtzman chronicled the lives of the greatest sports journalists of his generation. Four decades later, students at the University of Maryland Philip Merrill College of Journalism are updating his work with a series of interviews with the best sports journalists of the last 40 years.

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The chapter was produced by George Solomon.

About Andrew Beyer

Andrew Beyer wrote horse racing columns for the Washington Post and created the Beyer Speed Figure.

HOMETOWN: Carbondale, Illinois
EDUCATION: Harvard University
OCCUPATION: Retired columnist, The Washington Post

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In 1965, I became sports editor of the Crimson, a job Don Graham (now of Graham Holdings and former CEO and chairman of the board of The Washington Post Company) had the year before me.

Harvard was a subway ride from Suffolk Downs. At night, I would take the bus to Lincoln Downs and Narragansett. I was betting the horses when I wasn’t playing poker all night. I was a good poker player, but the horses were a long learning curve. In the spring of my senior year, I kind of blew everything off.

But I was still thinking I’d pursue an academic career, applying for a secondary school (teaching) job that spring. I didn’t have any money and when I dropped out of school, I said ‘geez, I better get a job.’ I took the MTA to the Boston Globe in the summer of 1966 and got a job. That fall, I got a call from Shirley Povich, the sports editor of The Washington Post, offering me a job in the sports department. I took it.

At The Post, I covered Navy football, professional soccer and college basketball. It wasn’t much fun. I wanted to cover racing. But The Post had Walter Haight. I went into the Army from ’68-’70, stationed at (Fort) Leslie J. McNair in southwest Washington putting out the newspaper for the military district in Washington and Pentagon. I also was working part-time in sports for The Post.

In 1970, I got out of the Army and went to work for Dave Burgin at The Washington Daily News (now defunct) to cover racing and write columns and get into my betting and handicapping. My idea was to write about racing from the standpoint of the gamblers as a participant sport. I would go the track every day. It was a great fun-- a scene with colorful characters; a gambling sub-culture that I became deeply immersed in. Characters with a tale of woe or larceny that would be column fodder. Many of the others writers covering the sport were house-men who didn’t know the nuances of the game that as a gambler I was looking for.


Beyer’s reputation began to flourish on a cold December day in 1970 when he asked me to drive him (he didn’t drive a car at that point in his life) to Liberty Bell Park, a small race track outside Philadelphia to bet a horse named Sun In Action. – George Solomon


In December 1970, I spotted a horse, Sun in Action, who was going to be entered in a race at now –defunct Liberty Bell. I fell in love with that horse and wrote that the readers can stop worrying about their Christmas money and that I had the best bet of the year in an obscure race in Pennsylvania.

People could bet this horse and they did. The horse lost by a nose, but the winner was disqualified and Sun in Action was declared the winner at 20-1.

The Daily News stripped the news across the front page; and it made me as a journalist. I bet $200 of my own money and a couple of hundred for people in the office. I won $4,000 and $4,000 for the office. That was my big break.

My second big break was in the spring of 1975 when Christopher Lehmann-Haupt gave my book “Picking Winners” a marvelous review in The New York Times. To get recognition from a serious literary critic legitimized me.

I started experimenting with speed figures in about 1970 or 1971. The number took into account the horse’s previous race times, distance and condition of the track. I realized I had found the “Rosetta Stone.”

But I look back to that time and debate whether or not it was in my self-interest to write a book about this method; I was pretty much giving it away. But it was a great system and the book created a hardcore group of speed figure zealots and Beyer disciples and crept into the consciousness of the general racing public.

The process was laborious and time-consuming and the average horseplayer did not have time or resources to do it.

(In an interview with Cigar Aficionado, Beyer said: “I’m a numbers guy, not a real visual type. I have no skill at all judging the physical animal. I can’t tell if a horse is feeling badly, or if he’s ready to run the best race of his life, just by looking at him. My focus is on the fundamentals.”)

In 1991 when Steve Crist started the ill-fated Racing Times, he asked me to do my speed figures for the newspaper and assign a number for each horse entered in every race, at every track.

I have a business partner, Mark Hopkins, and we have eight people around the country calculating the performances for every horse coming into every race for The Daily Racing Form. The figure – known as the Beyer Speed Figure – has become widely accepted as a tool for evaluating a horse’s performance.

I concentrated solely on horse racing as a journalist because I like racing and knew it. I didn’t care enough about other sports to do all the work to be a good sportswriter.

Horse racing is the ultimate game with so many layers of complexities in analyzing a race. If you can figure it all out, you can actually make money. The great thing about the racing beat is the accessibility of the people in racing.

I hear all about the people in other sports being difficult. You never had that in racing, although a lot of people in the game are not on speaking terms with me. But that was my own issue.

People like to read columns with opinions. I try to avoid feature-type columns, or profiles. I always try to have something with an edge.

At a big race you just walk to a trainer and owner and talk. Owners who are normally hard to interview in their chosen fields are quick to talk to you when it comes to talking about their horses.

An entertainment writer would probably have to go through layers of PR people to get an interview with Burt Bacharach, but when he had a colt bound for the Kentucky Derby, I called him at home, he answered the phone and immediately started talking about his horse.

I’ve always took my winning and losing in stride. After an initial burst of cursing and screaming over a frustrating race, I wipe the slate clean.

It’s extremely counter-productive for a gambler to be duly affected by the result of a race. You can’t get emotionally unhinged and I pride myself that I have never missed a deadline in my life. That includes the time I made my memorable score on the 1984 Belmont when I picked the Exacta in print that had a payoff that well exceeded my annual salary.

When I write a column, I always want to have a point of view. I know enough about racing that I have opinions that I’ll stand by.

People like to read columns with opinions. I try to avoid feature-type columns, or profiles. I always try to have something with an edge.

There are so many things wrong with racing; it’s not hard to write opinion columns. I’ll write a critical column and go the person I wrote about and say ‘sorry, this is my opinion.’

I was tough on D. Wayne Lucas when he was on top, larger than life. We’re good now; time heals. But I lot of people hate me because I’ve been so critical of the industry and the big players. It goes with the territory.

I liked to write short, compact columns with clear prose. Twenty inches (in length) is my norm. If I write 25 inches, I’ll take out the weakest five inches.

I’ve always liked the idea of pruning my columns. I think I’m one of the last sportswriters drilled with a knowledge of grammar, sentence structure and English usage. I just want everything to hang together to the extent that the column would get an A in grammar class.

The vitality of day-to-day racing gone. The social life of a racetrack that was my fodder doesn’t exist anymore. There are so many other forms of gambling available to people.

Betting by computer, phone and from television are the reasons there is no longer a need to haul out to a racetrack. A lot of idiots run tracks, with crooked trainers operating, I have to restrain myself from being too negative.

The sport will never come back to 50,000 men wearing hats in the Aqueduct grandstand. But it should be stronger than it is.

The sport has an exceptional history. For me, Secretariat has to be on the top of anybody’s list of great horses. Secretariat ‘s Belmont (1973) may have been the greatest single performance by a racehorse. In that era, there were so many sensational horses: Ruffian, Forego. Affirmed, Alydar.

The Affirmed-Alydar rivalry (1977-79) was not as dramatic as Sunday Silence and Easy Goer in 1989. I can still hear Tom Durkin’s call of Easy Goer winning the Breeders Cup Classic that year over Sunday Silence ‘with one final surge.’

But the story I loved most was Canonero II, just about the most implausible horse to win a big race, winning the 1971 Kentucky Derby. He was dismissed as a fluke. And when he busted out of the gate at Pimlico in the Preakness, a race he won, that was as an electrifying a moment as any I’ve ever seen.

The sport will never come back to 50,000 men wearing hats in the Aqueduct grandstand. But it should be stronger than it is.

American Pharoah winning the Triple Crown for the first time in 37 years was an admirable achievement, but none of his individual performances were exceptional. To compare him with the greats of the sport was widely off the mark.

The jockey I most admired was Angel Cordero, Jr. He was the best rider I ever saw, with a ruthless streak. He also was a great talker.

My favorite trainer was Bud Delp during the Spectacular Bid era because he was honest, larger- than-life and not one of those Kentucky hardboots.

For owners, I never had more fun than covering Louie Roussel and Ronnie Lemarque’s Risen Star in the 1988 Triple Crown. Lemarque was a loosey-goosey car dealer from New Orleans and Roussel was a guy with self-doubt. I had a blast with these guys.

I still gamble all the time and have never lost my enthusiasm for it. That sometimes had been an issue for The Washington Post; having someone covering a sport that he bets every day. But it’s legal and part the game.

The readers know what I do and who I am. I don’t go to Louisville for the Kentucky Derby anymore because it got to be the same old stuff. It became my least favorite part of the racing year. But I still want a live racing experience in my life. So I go to Saratoga or Del Mar.

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