AAAAAAND THEY’RE OFF!
Whether you’re a lifelong railbird or only tuned in to see American Pharoah win the Triple Crown last year, horse racing has something for everyone–tension, excitement, color and pageantry, bitter rivalries and at its heart, majestic animals otherworldly in their grace.
While most of us might come no closer to a racing Thoroughbred than a TV screen at our favorite Derby Day party, we can all enjoy some of the fascinating stories the Sport of Kings has brought us. Here is a sampling of some of the best horse racing books on offer, to last you long after the final colt crosses the finish line:
SEABISCUIT: An American Legend by Laura Hillenbrand
Even if you’re not a horse fan, you’ve heard of this book. And even if you’re not a horse fan, there’s something in it for you–Hillenbrand does a masterful job of faithfully exploring the career of this underdog of a Thoroughbred and extrapolating from one little horse to the shifts and struggles of a nation on the brink of war. (For bonus fun, watch the movie and look for real-life champion jockey Gary Stevens as George Woolf, who stepped in for Seabiscuit’s regular jockey Red Pollard for the famous match race with War Admiral!)
DUEL FOR THE CROWN: Affirmed, Alydar and Racing’s Greatest Rivalry, by Linda Carroll & David Rosner
Until last year’s dramatic victory by American Pharoah, we hadn’t seen a Triple Crown winner since Affirmed in 1978, a thirty-seven-year drought. As opposed to fellow Triple Crown winner Secretariat, who had romped away with the prize five years before, Affirmed had to battle another “superhorse,” the highly-bred Alydar, neck and neck all the way to the closest-fought Triple Crown in history. Duel shows us that this David-and-Goliath story reached past the horses themselves to their owners, trainers and fans. Do you root for the scrappy victor, or for the perpetual runner-up who would have been champion in almost any other company?
WHIP HAND, by Dick Francis
Nonfiction not your bag? Then try former steeplechase jockey and mystery writer Dick Francis, the only author ever to win three Edgar Awards. You can’t go wrong with any of Francis’s books, but we particularly recommend Whip Hand (for which he won his second Edgar), featuring one of his few recurring protagonists, Sid Halley. Even if you’ve never heard of steeplechasing, or don’t care about racing, you’ll be compelled by this noir-ish story of a hero who’s been knocked around, but isn’t quite out of the running yet.
NOT BY A LONG SHOT: A Season at a Hard Luck Horse Track, by T.D. Thornton
Sure, things look glamorous on that first Saturday in May, but of the 20,000-plus foals registered with the Jockey Club each year, maybe 8,000 of them will make it to a starting gate as a two-year-old…and most of those will never appear on the headlines of your sports section. Not by a Long Shot is a sentimental pick for this Boston-bred gal, since it takes a very un-sentimental look at the hardscrabble life of the just-getting-by trainers and jocks at Suffolk Downs. For realists who aren’t distracted by racing silks or garlands of roses.
STUD: Adventures in Breeding, by Kevin Conley
All those pretty horses have to start somewhere, and Kevin Conley shows us that often, “somewhere” is in the imagination of a visionary breeder and in the deep pockets of a wealthy oligarch or syndicate. Great stories of the ultra-pedigreed and the came-outta-nowhere “freaks of nature,” revealing the mysteries of this billion-dollar business.
A YEAR AT THE RACES: Reflections on Horses, Humans, Love, Money and Luck, by Jane Smiley
Jane Smiley has proven herself to be a masterful novelist many times over, but fans of her work know that she’s also horse-crazy (she even writes a kid’s series now!). We could have recommended the expansive novel Horse Heaven or even one of her early, pre-A Thousand Acres books, Barn Blind…but here we feature Smiley’s gift for nonfiction that reads like fiction.
BLOODLINES: A Horse Racing Anthology, edited by Maggie Estep
So you know someone who likes horse racing, but you have no clue what they like to read? This could be the perfect choice–an anthology of twenty short stories all related (somehow) to racing…
This "Little Horse Who Could" was all heart, and this epic biography captures not only his story, how one crooked-legged horse came to represent the sociocultural identity of a nation.
Duel for the CrownLinda Carroll & David Rosner
Like Seabiscuit & Man o War before them, Affirmed and Alydar were competitors so perfectly matched that they seemed destined for the record books...ending in Affirmed's Triple Crown victory, unmatched since 1978. This puts you right on the rail for every step!
Whip HandDick Francis
One of Dick Francis's best books, this is the second featuring injured steeplechaser Sid Halley (who first appears in ODDS AGAINST). More detective machismo than horses in this, but Sid's rage and grief over his lost career is poignant and compelling.
Not by a Long ShotT.D. Thornton
A look at the real down and dirty life of horse racing below the glamorous world of graded stakes, written by the racing reporter for The Boston Globe and the Thoroughbred Times. No kings here!
All those pretty racehorses have to get made somehow...it might be a cushy retirement for the top stallions, but for the thousands of people employed at all levels of the thoroughbred industry, the world of breeding top racehorses is anything but relaxing.
A Year at the RacesJane Smiley
Let this survey of racing life at all levels lead you down the rabbit hole of Smiley's masterful writing about horses...and, sure, maybe some of her other Pulitzer Prize-winning stuff, whatever.
BloodlinesMaggie Estep, ed.
Estep, known for her work as a poet and spoken word artist, was also the author of a series of mysteries set in horse racing's seamy underbelly--so she's a perfect editor for this collection of "degenerates" including Lee Child, Laura Lippman, Jane Smiley and more.