By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
The career path that led Crist to his current position was truly unique. Soon after graduating from Harvard ("Not easy seeing as how school took a backseat to the horses during the day and the dogs at night"), Crist, then 25, was named the racing writer for The New York Times. In 1991, after nine years covering the industry from the press box, Crist teamed up with financier Robert Maxwell and created The Racing Times, a publication intended to compete directly with the Form, which had been bought in 1988 for around $400 million by Maxwell rival Rupert Murdoch. "We felt, somewhat arrogantly I admit, that we were a superior product doing some revolutionary things," recalls Crist. "But when Maxwell fell off his yacht, we were pretty much finished as well, and the Formfinally bought us out on February 5, 1992. They actually had people come into our offices and physically shut us down. It felt like having your homeland invaded with armed guards."
The ensuing years saw Crist, a self-proclaimed "degenerate horse player," go back to full-time handicapping. As a bettor, Crist favors exotic wagering, a riskier but potentially more profitable form of betting. Exactas require one to pick who will finish first and second, trifectas mean you have to pick them 1-2-3, and the ultimate gamble is the Pick Six, a fairly new bet that requires the handicapper to pick the winners of six consecutive races. Crist loves the Pick Six. "I hit a Pick Six for $160,000 once; that's the best so far."
Next on Crist's CV was an executive position with the New York Racing Association (from 1995 to '97), a job that he refers to as a "real eye-opener. I learned so much doing the NYRA job it was incredible. Not that I enjoyed everything I learned, but I found out how the industry works from the inside and saw the backroom business side of the game, which has come in very handy as it turned out."
Crist quickly learned that what one sees as a horse player is only the tip of the racing iceberg. "There are lots of disconnected units operating at a racetrack, and in New York the political issues were huge. To its detriment, racing is so wired into the political system that the corruption is pervasive. It's like a giant poisonous tree with insanely deep roots, and it prevents almost all innovative, customer-friendly ideas from ever reaching the public. The industry has to go to Albany every year and beg/bribe the politicians for even the most basic stuff in the business that you end up with just hideous legislation. It's a terrible situation."
Meanwhile, in 1991, Murdoch had sold the Formto Primedia, taking around a $150 million hit in the process. After leaving the NYRA in 1997, Crist formed a group to try and buy the Formfrom Primedia for around $52 million, but the bid fell apart late in the game.
According to Crist, "At the last second, the lawyers started bitching at one another and ultimately fumbled the deal at the goal line. After that I never imagined there was a way to resurrect the bid, but one day I bought the Formand saw a blurb about Primedia looking to sell again. Karmically it felt like there was unfinished business there, so I put together a whole new group and we ultimately got the deal done for about $40 million. It didn't feel like it at the time, but I guess it was worth the wait."
And now he runs the show. Asked if his current role makes him part of racing's inner circle, Crist laughs. "There's no danger of me becoming the establishment, no. I still think of myself as the long-haired guy in the corner throwing rocks."