I will always envision Pete Axthelm standing in the Florida sunshine, with a beer in his hand and binoculars draped around his neck, preparing to watch the horses warm up before a race at Gulfstream Park. This was his favorite track, and the conviviality of the gambling world was his favorite environment, and he said to a friend recently, "If I had to live any other way I'd rather be dead."
All of his friends have known, for at least a year or two, that such a statement was not mere rhetoric; it was a prophecy. And on Saturday afternoon, Axthelm died of liver failure at the age of 47.
The people who knew Pete only from his role as a television sports analyst, or just as one of the boys in the local barroom, would not have appreciated the range and depth of his talents. He had gone to Yale, and as an undergraduate he had written his first book, an analysis of the confessional novel. Yet he was not tempted to pursue such a strait-laced path in life as scholarship. Upon graduation he went to work covering horse racing for the New York Herald-Tribune, and then spent 20 years writing for Newsweek. He wrote about sports at least as well as any member of his generation; his book about basketball, "The City Game," is a classic. And he could write adeptly about such diverse topics as country music or runaway kids. Yet nobody ever heard Pete pontificate, publicly or privately, about the craft of journalism; he seemed to take his enormous skills for granted. What stirred his passion was the action life.
He loved the whole subculture of gamblers, bookies, hustlers, loansharks, touts, crooks and assorted wiseguys. He might moralize in print about the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, or about the propriety of playing the Super Bowl in the midst of the war with Iraq, but he'd never condemn a con man or a hustler.
Conventional society bored him. Years ago he had had a long relationship with a woman who took no interest in sports or gambling, but they managed to coexist happily until they took a romantic trip to Hawaii. Pete would describe it as if he had been subjected to physical torture: "No racetracks. No casinos. No sports. No action. Just walking on the beach picking up shells." The relationship was doomed after that.
But if he could only grimace when he thought about walking on the beach, Pete relished every moment of the gambling life -- even the perverse twists of fate that would befall him and every other bettor. This is what made him such a popular football prognosticator on NBC and ESPN. Ax never was especially polished in front of a camera -- he was a distinct contrast to all of his neatly coiffed colleagues -- but he communicated the sheer joy of playing the game as well as the exquisite agony of seeing your team fumble away the point spread in the last minute.
Pete might never have boasted about his writing skills, but he did have an ego where his handicapping was concerned. At the track his self-anointed nickname was the Great Beader -- this being his term for one who appraises horses on the basis of their appearance in the post parade. He boasted for years how he "beaded" and bet the two horses who produced a $7,000 exacta payoff that remains the largest in Gulfstream Park's history. His friends debunked this achievement by pointing out that Pete always liked the looks of horses whose jockeys wore yellow silks, and both horses in the exacta were carrying his favorite color. We would all relish opportunities to deflate his ego as a handicapper, for Pete's own preferred form of communication was the good-natured insult. (If we were together at the track, and somebody approached me to say that he read one of my books on handicapping, Pete would gaze at the ground and note that it was unusual to see one of my followers who was still able to afford shoes.)
His gibes would have a hard edge only if he was confronted by one particular cardinal sin. If Pete's team was winning a football game by 21 points in the third quarter, and a friend assured him, "You've got this one in the bag," he would deliver a stinging rebuke. Every gambler's fate, he would say, lies in the fickle hands of the Goddess of Wagering, and he once wrote: "The Goddess must be appeased, soothed, tithed. She must never be affronted by statements hinting that a gambler has taken fate into his own firm grip."
When I reread those words yesterday, they had a special poignancy, because Pete had so clearly chosen not to take his own fate into his own firm grip. The natural habitat of the people he liked to associate with was the barroom, and three years ago he had his first brush with death because of alcohol-induced liver problems. Doctors told him in no uncertain terms that even an occasional social drink could kill him. Yet his efforts to quit were always half-hearted and short-lived.
It would probably be an accurate judgment, if a harsh one, to say that Pete was blessed with brains and great talent and carelessly threw it away. As a friend, I would prefer to say that Pete loved life enormously but wanted to live either on his own terms or not at all.
A public wake for Mr. Axthelm will be held at Mackens Mortuary in Rockville Centre, N.Y., from 7 to 10 p.m. Tuesday, with a mass at 10 a.m. Wednesday at St. Agnes Church in Rockville Centre. The funeral will be private.