The Washington Post ran a nice horse racing feature yesterday, which served as a preview for the 2017 Kentucky Derby. For the second year running, that preview wasn’t written by Andrew Beyer.
Beyer is likely history’s most important turf writer, a legendary figure in the racing realm for his coverage of the sport at the Washington Post and Daily Racing Form as well as for his game-changing books on handicapping (1975’s Picking Winners is his first and most transformative) and for inventing the Beyer Speed Figures. He stopped writing about racing for the Post in 2015, 49 years after he started at the paper, and after American Pharoah became the first Triple Crown winner in 37 years. Beyer had also covered the last horse to accomplish that, Affirmed, in 1978, for the Post.
It probably says something about the diminished place that either newspapers or horse racing or both now hold in our culture that almost nobody noticed Beyer’s absence. Well, almost nobody but John Scheinman.
“I knew he had quit and I stewed over it,” says Scheinman, a Baltimore-based freelancer. “How can a guy this legendary not be getting talked about anywhere? It bothered me. It ate at me.”
So Scheinman decided he would write about racing losing perhaps its greatest voice. Earlier this year, Scheinman’s tale, “Andrew Beyer: Rebel With A Cause,” won the Eclipse Award—a turf writer’s Pulitzer—for feature story of the year. The piece, which appeared in the Paulick Report, one of the last independent news outlets in racing, brought Scheinman his second Eclipse in the last three years.
Beyer, a reserved, Harvard-educated brainiac, has never been the sort to just talk to anybody, especially about racing or himself. Scheinman had learned that the hard way in 2000, when he started writing about racing for the Washington Post.
“Andy wouldn’t talk to me when I met him,” he says.
Scheinman didn’t take Beyer’s aloofness personally; only a few track hardcores were allowed inside his circle. But everything changed about their relationship a year later, on Maryland Million Day, an event for horses bred in-state and the second biggest event on the Free State’s racing calendar behind the Preakness Stakes. Scheinman, routinely the loudest voice in the Pimlico press box, spent the day touting a longshot named Jorgie Stover in the Maryland Million Sprint to everybody within earshot.
Scheinman’s pick went off at 17-1, and won in a rout. By the time the horse reached the winner’s circle, Scheinman’s idol was his friend.
“Jorgie Stover comes in, and Andy comes over to me and says, ‘How did you know that?’” Scheinman says. “I became a person of substance who was worth his time. It was great to have access to his mind. He’s got a great mind. And he’s also a degenerate!”
Scheinman’s degenerate nature, and stature in Beyer’s world, got another boost in 2005, when he hit the last Pick Three (correctly selecting the winners of three consecutive races) of the Kentucky Derby Day card while in the press box at Churchill Downs, a $14,972 payday. He remembers filing his Derby story for the Post that day under deadline with “149 tightly folded-up $100 bills in my pocket.” The big score put him in company with Beyer, who according to racing lore also met his deadline while writing up the 1984 Belmont Stakes after making an $80,000 score by loading up on the Swale–Pine Circle exacta.
Scheinman was asked to leave the Post when the paper downsized its racing coverage in 2009, but he stayed in touch with Beyer through habitual visits to the racetrack. And when Scheinman told him he wanted to write up a career appreciation, Beyer said yes. (Read it all here.) And Scheinman’s got another Eclipse to prove it.
“The point I tried to make with my article, the point of Andy’s departure, is that it’s not just the end of Andy Beyer, it’s the end of an era where horse racing was covered hard. Andy took chances. He looked for the truth, and he was not afraid to tell it, about anybody. And if they don’t like it, fuck ’em. Now, nobody does that! You look at all the money that’s going to be wagered tomorrow at Churchill Downs. An industry of this size, it’s irresponsible not to cover it.”
Yesterday’s Washington Post preview, written by Neil Greenberg, held that this year’s Derby will be won by Gunnevara, a 15-1 shot. Greenberg based his tout, according to the article, on an analysis of the horse’s Beyer Figures. The Post’s Derby story did not run in the print edition of the paper.
(Disclosure: Scheinman replaced the writer at the Washington Post sports section after Tony Kornheiser got him fired from a $75-a-week gig covering Maryland racing for writing something mean about him.)