Got the Horse Right Here!

horse racing

photo: TNS Sofres, creative commons license

It’s Derby week, and attention turns to things equine. The horses are huge, but run on the most fragile of ankles. The jockeys are small, but mostly heart. Racing is a quick way to burn money. No wonder storytellers have capitalized on its dramatic potential. This is a repost of my favorite horse books and screen entertainment, with the addition of Triple Crown, a crime novel by Felix Francis, carrying on his late father Dick’s call to the post.

Horse Heaven – by Jane Smiley. Smiley won the Pulitzer Prize in 1992 for A Thousand Acres, yet I found this novel way more satisfying. She’s developed a stableful of engaging characters as you follow the fates of several horses bred for racing, a risky proposition in the best of times. As much about people and their passions and predilections as about horses, of course.

Lords of Misrule – by Jaimy Gordon. Winner of the 2010 National Book Award, this novel is set in the lower echelons of horse-racing, among people for whom the twin spires of Churchill Downs are a distant dream. She has an almost miraculous way of capturing the way horse people think and talk.

The Horse God Built – by Lawrence Scanlan. This one I haven’t read, but it was too tempting to include a book about Secretariat—“the horse God built.” Secretariat won racing’s Triple Crown (the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness, and the Belmont Stakes) in 1973, with track-blistering performances. This nonfiction book is Secretariat as seen through the eyes of his groom and a story of friendship. This is one of six great nonfiction books about racing compiled by Amy Sachs for BookBub.

Seabiscuit, by Laura Hillenbrand, was made into an Academy Award-nominated film starring Toby Maguire, Jeff Bridges, Chris Cooper, and real-life jockey Gary Stevens. A heartwarming story, this production includes footage shot from the midst of a race—an unforgettable view of why this sport is so dangerous. Rotten Tomatoes critics rating 77%, audiences 76%.

Luck – HBO. For the full immersion experience, try this nine-episode series, developed by David Milch. It’s all-star cast includes Dustin Hoffman, Dennis Farina, John Ortiz, Richard Kind, Nick Nolte, Michael Gambon and, again, jockey Gary Stevens (who raced in the 2016 Kentucky Derby at age 53). The three touts, convinced they’re on track for riches, are priceless.

****Triple Crown

horse-racing

photo: Tsutomu Takasu, creative commons license

By Felix Francis Carrying on his late father’s series of horse-racing mysteries, Felix Francis has now written his fifth about the most famous set of horse races in the world, the U.S. Triple Crown. The Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs is the first of the three, and the most prestigious. The Preakness Stakes at Baltimore’s Pimlico Race Course is the oldest, dating back to 1873. The mile-and-a-half Belmont Stakes at New York’s Belmont Park, which takes place exactly five weeks after the Derby, is the most demanding—an insurmountable hurdle in many Triple Crown quests. Francis effectively captures the excitement, behind-the-scenes anxiety, traditions, and pageantry of these iconic meets.

Protagonist and narrator Jefferson Hinkley is an investigator for the British Horseracing Authority invited to the States by a colleague from the fictional U.S. Federal Anti-Corruption in Sports Agency (FACSA) on a secret quest to identify a mole in the agency. Horse owners and trainers are being tipped off before FACSA raids. Hinkley, who misses his adrenaline-fueled days working undercover, is grateful for the change of pace.

A few days before the Kentucky Derby, the timing of a FACSA raid on barns at Churchill Downs is moved up several days, surprising even the agents and certainly the suspect trainer, and one of them shoots the trainer dead. It’s evident the mole is still at work, but worse is about to happen.

Two Derby favorites come down with equine influenza, leaving only one favorite, Fire Point, who wins both the Derby and Preakness. To speed up his investigation, Hinkley poses as an Irish groom, and gets himself hired by Fire Point’s trainer at his Belmont Park stables. Oddly, since author Francis is from the U.K., Hinkley’s speech doesn’t seem especially British, nor particularly Irish in word choice or rhythm when he’s acting as the groom.

Before long, there isn’t much mystery as to who’s is tampering with the horses and how they’re doing it—Francis provides a clue as big as Secretariat’s legendary 31-length win in the Belmont Stakes. Nor is there a puzzle regarding motive. Any Triple Crown winner will generate many millions in stud fees, well beyond his potential racing purses. But if a horse has had equine influenza, his stud career is over before it starts.

Francis’s plot effortlessly and admirably engages the ticking clock device that has become such a staple of thrillers. The rapidly approaching Belmont Stakes means some of the world’s most valuable equine athletes are at risk. And that mole is still out there.

In an unconvincing subplot, a young Puerto Rican groom is overtly hostile to Hinkley, which only adds to his unease as he works around the barns. Plus, there’s the risk he’ll be recognized, and he is well aware of the lengths to which people will go to make sure Fire Point becomes a Triple Crown winner.

If you liked Francis’s other novels or if you just love the pulse-pounding Sport of Kings, you should enjoy this latest entrant in a storied bloodline. Or watch the excellent television series Luck, starring Dustin Hoffman, alas, only one season.

The Winner’s Circle

horse racing

At Belmont, 2013 (photo: Vicki Weisfeld)

Horses, horse people, jockeys, trainers, and touts. Watching the Kentucky Derby—“the most exciting two minutes in sports”—last Saturday made me think of some of the great books about horses and the quirky, obsessive people who surround them.

The horses are huge, but run on the most fragile of ankles. The jockeys are small, but mostly heart. Racing is a quick way to burn money. No wonder storytellers have capitalized on its dramatic potential.

Horse Heaven – by Jane Smiley. Smiley won the Pulitzer Prize in 1992 for A Thousand Acres, yet I found this novel way more satisfying. She’s developed a stableful of engaging characters as you follow the fates of several horses bred for racing, a risky proposition in the best of times. As much about people and their passions and predilections as about horses, of course.

Lords of Misrule – by Jaimy Gordon. Winner of the 2010 National Book Award, this novel is set in the lower echelons of horse-racing, among people for whom the twin spires of Churchill Downs are a distant dream. She has an almost miraculous way of capturing the way horse people think and talk.

The Horse God Built – by Lawrence Scanlan. This one I haven’t read, but it was too tempting to include a book about Secretariat—“the horse God built.” Secretariat won racing’s Triple Crown (the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness, and the Belmont Stakes) in 1973, with track-blistering performances. This nonfiction book is Secretariat as seen through the eyes of his groom and a story of friendship. This is one of six great nonfiction books about racing compiled by Amy Sachs for BookBub.

Seabiscuit, by Laura Hillenbrand, was made into an Academy Award-nominated film starring Toby Maguire, Jeff Bridges, Chris Cooper, and real-life jockey Gary Stevens. A heartwarming story, this production includes footage shot from the midst of a race—an unforgettable view of why this sport is so dangerous. Rotten Tomatoes critics rating 77%, audiences 76%.

Luck – HBO. For the full immersion experience, try this nine-episode series, developed by David Milch. It’s all-star cast includes Dustin Hoffman, Dennis Farina, John Ortiz, Richard Kind, Nick Nolte, Michael Gambon and, again, jockey Gary Stevens (who raced in the 2016 Kentucky Derby at age 53). The three touts, convinced they’re on track for riches, are priceless. Rotten Tomatoes critics rating 87%; audiences 78%