Everybody who knows anything about gambling knows this: you can't win betting the horses. Too big of a house takeout, too much "vig." No matter how sharp your handicapping, no matter how foolproof your system, the oppressive mathematics of the game (about a 20 percent disadvantage) eventually grind up even the wisest guy. Damon Runyon, who wagered on a pony or two in his time, put it this way: "All horse players die broke."
Andrew Beyer is not broke. Andrew Beyer is not well on his way to dying penniless and bitter, raving about the sure-thing nag who quit in the back stretch. Andrew Beyer, in fact, is quite comfortable and happy and financially secure.
Which, as horse players go, is saying something. It helps, of course, that Beyer is considered by many in the business to be the best--and most important--handicapper in America.
Ask Michael "Roxy" Roxborough, the man who sets the Vegas line (Cigar Aficionado, Summer 1995) and an avid horse player:
"When Andrew Beyer walks through the grandstand of anyracetrack in America, he's the most recognizable person in the crowd. He has more enthusiasm for betting on horses than anyone in the sport."
If you don't know who Andrew Beyer is, you probably don't bet on horses. If you do, you're probably aware that Beyer, 52, the author of four best-selling books on handicapping, is the syndicated horse racing columnist for The Washington Post, a position he's held since 1978. To those who regularly peruse the Daily Racing Form, the horse bettor's bible, his name is legendary: he is the eponymous creator of the revolutionary Beyer Speed Figures, possibly the most powerful tool in horse handicapping since the invention of the stopwatch.
Not long ago, Cigar Aficionado spent a day at the track with Beyer, getting an insider's view of how he computes his figures, how he picks the ponies and, ultimately, how he beats one of the toughest games in the world. In the course of analyzing, betting and, yes, agonizing over, a full card of races, Beyer reveals why he is one of the most interesting characters in the world of gambling.
When you arrive at Beyer's house in a woodsy, embassy-speckled neighborhood in northwest Washington, D.C., you become immediately aware that it is not the home of a degenerate gambler struggling to come up with enough spare change to bet the daily double. Beyer and his wife, Susan Vallon, an interior designer, live in an airy, modern place--"one of the 20 houses in Washington that isn't a colonial," Vallon jokes. Filled with tasteful furniture and beautiful art, there's only one painting in the house that has anything vaguely to do with horse racing, a Post-Impressionist blur of color and motion depicting a group of ponies charging for the wire.
Andy Beyer's home office is similarly devoid of tacky equine posters and portraits of Triple Crown winners on black velvet. Bookshelves filled with hundreds of old Racing Forms and a small library of handicapping tomes sit opposite a large desk containing all manners of computers and other electrical accoutrements. The only memento adorning Beyer's otherwise spare workplace is a framed horseshoe, worn by the legendary Secretariat when he won the Bay Shore Stakes at Aqueduct in 1973.
"I'm a numbers guy, not a real visual type," Beyer says. "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."
It is this disregard for all that is extraneous and irrelevant--Beyer, in fact, seldom refers to a horse by its name, only its racing number--that has made him a handicapping success.
When Andy Beyer was 12, his parents took him to a now defunct track called Randall Park, outside of Cleveland. Since that day, he has been captivated by handicapping horses. But not because he was intoxicated by the romance or beauty of the sport. His love was born, he says, of the "puzzle aspect" of picking winners. "I've always enjoyed games and puzzles. I went through a chess phase and a bridge phase and a long poker phase. I always liked games that had a mathematical component," Beyer says as he settles into the press box at Baltimore's Pimlico, home of The Preakness. "But I never had world-class ability at any of them. Even at that young age the gambling bug was germinating. Pinball, cards, whatever--I liked playing games. As soon as I had my first look at the Daily Racing Form, I was entranced."
In high school, Beyer dabbled in horse racing with an indulgent bookie, who took his one- and two-dollar bets. When he went on to Harvard, where he was supposed to be majoring in English literature, Beyer spent most of his class time playing the ponies at Suffolk Downs, getting an advanced degree in going broke. Instead of reading Homer and Shakespeare, he immersed himself in Herbert O. Yardley's classic, Education of a Poker Player, and financed his horse racing habit with all-night card games. "I was flying blind," Beyer recalls, making handicapping notes with a red magic marker. "There was little published literature on betting horses at the time. I decided that if I ever learned enough about horse racing I would try to become the Yardley of horses."
Beyer never did graduate. His final exam on Chaucer fell on the same date as the Belmont Stakes.
While working as a sportswriter--which subsidized his losses at the track--Beyer realized what he wanted to do most was write about racing. And learn to win. In 1970, both dreams started to come true when an editor at the Washington Daily News let him write a horse racing column--and he began experimenting with speed figures.
Previously, like so many desperate horse players, Beyer had stumbled down any number of blind alleys: a system that graded horses on their winning percentage versus number of times in the money; a system that charted the "Z" pattern in a horse's running line; a system that assigned power points based on a horse's pedigree. "All my handicapping was based on angles, not fundamentals. None of these angles ever addressed the key issue: Who is better than whom? The orthodoxy back then said that 'class' was the measure of a race," Beyer says, while making hieroglyphic notations in the margins of his race program. "For instance, if a $10,000 claimer was running against a slower $200,000 claimer, the assumption was that the slower but 'classier' horse would win. I was looking for a way to verify--or contradict--that assumption."
The concept of speed figures by no means originated with Beyer. A number of now-forgotten handicappers fooled around with them in the 1950s. But nobody had ever produced a reliable model that could be trusted over the long run, one that could tell you, for example, if one horse runs six furlongs in 1:11 and another runs seven furlongs in 1:24, which is a better time.
Beyer took a stack of old Daily Racing Forms and did the laborious math by hand, sifting through years of data, applying the analytical skills he had developed as a games-playing child. "'Six furlongs in 1:13 equals seven furlongs in 1:26 and a fifth' was my E=MC2," Beyer says, laughing. By 1972 he had managed to construct a reliable speed chart that incorporated the important element of track variance, a measure of track speed and bias, which was previously calculated by an antiquated--and, in most cases, inaccurate--system. Beyer devised a highly specific, sophisticated method for determining track variances, a method that accounted for the times turned in by different types of horses.
By combining his newly minted speed ratings with his fresh perspective on track speed, the young columnist invented the Beyer Speed Figures.
"As crude as they were, the speed figures were a revelation," Beyer remembers, gazing happily at the Pimlico track below, watching the horses load into the starting gate for the first race. "Newton couldn't have been more excited. You've got to understand, class was still the big deal. For example, a horse wins a $10,000 claiming race and moves up to $20,000 and nobody would touch him. And according to my figures, this long shot sometimes was actually the fastest horse in the field. There were times when I'd be one of three guys out of a thousand that knew this. It was like having the Rosetta stone."
In those giddy days, Beyer not only made a handsome profit, but more important to the inveterate horse player, he understood. "I had hit on the core truth of the game. I had a way to measure every horse! Now, the rational decision would have been to forget my job, keep quiet about my discovery and bet as much as possible," Beyer admits. "But I wanted to be Yardley."
In 1975, Beyer wrote a book outlining the theory and practice behind his speed figures. "With a system so complex, I didn't think anyone would be particularly interested." His book, Picking Winners, received a rave review from a closet horse player at The New York Times; Sports Illustrated wrote that "a generation of Beyer disciples was born." He suddenly had the best-selling horse book of all time.
Beyer sees an interesting value in the second race at Pimlico and bets the three horse (Fuelonthefire) in an exacta box with the six horse. "The three is a legit four-to-one going off at nine-to-one," Beyer says. "And the six is the second best horse in this race." Per his prediction, the three runs a valiant race, finishing second to the favorite. The six, though, is never in contention. Beyer nods thoughtfully and continues his story.
Before 1987, when Beyer started selling his speed figures to the public, and especially before 1992, when the Daily Racing Form started publishing them, Beyer cashed tickets on a lot of 20- and 30-to-one shots. "Them were the days, as they say," Beyer jokes. "But I've never been an entrepreneur. I liked being a writer and a gambler." As the years passed and the Beyer Speed Figures became a widely accepted concept, their creator no longer felt like "the one guy at the track with a magic code."
Indeed, these days the Beyer Speed Figures have become an omnipresent factor in the horse game, so popular that, according to Roxy Roxborough, "The figures are not only used by handicappers but by trainers and owners as well. They've become a standard part of the industry."
Beyer admits that using his figures alone is no longer an adequate method for beating horse racing. Beyer's formerly proprietary information is already built into the odds, lowering the "price," often making certain horses overbet and overvalued. Ponies that once might have gone off at 25-to-one are being bet down to three-to-one. "I compensate for the increasing difficulty of finding good betting values," says Beyer. "Instead of merely looking at the number, the Figure, I look for other factors to stay ahead of the crowd, such as what kind of circumstances were in place to earn that number."
Even so, he admits, the game is becoming increasingly difficult to beat. "The track used to be the place to play a lucky number. Now there's slots and state lotteries and so forth. So the people who are left are a pretty sophisticated crowd. The margins have shrunk. Still," Beyer says, "with full-card simulcasting, you can still find five or six overlays a day. And this game still has one redeeming virtue: you can still make huge scores on relatively small investments."
To illustrate his point, Beyer bets a twin trifecta--picking first, second and third in two consecutive races--on Pimlico's third and fifth. He invests $250 on the number two horse (Chocolat Delight) boxed with the numbers one, three, five and six horses, giving him 84 possible winning combinations. "The two horse's last three races have been very good until his last one, where he was lousy. I'm willing to dismiss the results on account of mud that day." Beyer is particularly fond of twin trifecta bets. In 1990, at the Laurel track in Maryland, he hit the Double Triple for $195,000. A year later he hit it again for $134,000.
On this day number two runs well, as Beyer had hoped. But "an inscrutable performance" from the seven horse, a nag Beyer completely discounted, kills the trifecta chances.
"At heart I'm an exotic bettor," Beyer says. "I get more of a rush. I make some straight bets now and then, or with small exactas, but I prefer to go for the big-paying long shot. I tide myself over with singles and doubles, but I'm really going for the home run."
Such a strategy requires a placid, almost phlegmatic temperament. Beyer has one. "The worst thing you can do in betting horses is to be thrown off-kilter by emotional highs and lows. You must totally erase close losses and go on," he counsels. "Near misses are an inescapable part of the game."
As his odds-on favorite in the fourth race at Belmont--which is being simulcast at Pimlico--falters in the stretch, Beyer smiles as if to say, "See what I mean?" He sighs lightly. "Not off to a very auspicious beginning."
At lunch in the clubhouse, Beyer scans his program and announces, "I've got an opinion on the fifth race. This might be the most interesting situation of the day." According to the master handicapper, only three horses (the three, four and five) of the eight-horse field have any real speed; the others are plodders. Beyer bets a $40 exacta box with his three picks. "If two of the three can get the lead from the start, they should run away with the race," he predicts. The four is the favorite; the three and the five, how-ever, are coming off bad races and are paying long odds. If Beyer's analysis is accurate, the payoff should be large. As the horses go to the post, the four goes up to four-to-one, the three is bet down to 10-to-one and the five is the public's least favorite at 16-to-one.
Per Beyer's prognostication, the four and the five break early and fast, taking a two-length lead by the quarter-pole. "This looks good," Beyer says, nodding.
As they pass the half, the two speed horses have opened a three-length lead and show no sign of tiring. "We're in this one," Beyer says. "We've definitely got a shot. This is the scenario I had hoped for."
As the ponies make the turn towards home, a pack begins to gain ground, but it's essentially a three-horse race: Beyer's four and five, and the pesky number one, who's making a late stretch drive. Proving he is human, Beyer, the composed, intellectual numbers guy without much visual acumen, stares at the charging horses and begins to hum nervously, emitting a high-pitched tone quivering with anticipation.
As the horses approach the wire he can contain himself no longer. "Four-five! Four-five! Four-five! Stay right there! Die right there!"
The horses cross the finish line in a tight pack. But the results are clear: the five by a neck. And in second, the four. "Yes!" Beyer whoops, slapping high fives. "Yes!"
He checks the tote board. The exacta pays $162 for a $2 bet. Beyer's ticket is worth more than $3,200.
For about 30 seconds.
The track announcer instructs the bettors to "hold all tickets." There's been a steward's inquiry. And it involves the five horse.
"I'm a jockey hater. No professional athletes have as poor a tactical understanding of their sport," Beyer grumbles. "The guy on the horse's back has no concept of your perfect diagnosis of a race. All he can do is sabotage you, which I'm afraid is about to happen."
After an excruciating 10-minute examination of the race tapes, the stewards conclude that the five horse swerved off its line near the finish, blocking the path of the charging number one. The five is disqualified.
"Damn," Beyer says quietly. "That would have made our day."
He does not fume long. There are other races to look at, other "opportunities" to consider. To Andrew Beyer, one day at the track does not make or break him; it's all one big game.
He begins to assess the next race when an adorable little girl, perhaps six or seven, costumed in a print dress and bonnet, approaches Beyer's table, presents a racing program and politely asks for his autograph.
"For my daddy," she says, shyly. "He says you're the best."
Contributing editor Michael Konik is Cigar Aficionado's gambling columnist.