Thursday, May 5, 2011

The Winners' Circle

The Kentucky Derby is heralded as the "most exciting two minutes in sports" and post time for the 137th running is Saturday at 6:24 p.m. ET.

Lord of Misrule, the 2010 National Book Award written by Jaimie Gordon,
doesn't cover Derby horses. Instead it follows a handful of miscreants frequenting a seedy track - where the feature race is a $2000 claimer - and the horses they run into the ground. Gordon worked at similar tracks and captures its unique and gritty atmosphere and language, but confuses the narrative with disjointed perspectives and an unbelievable dose of Mafia and murder. The only sympathetic characters are Little Spinoza, a dreamy bay with soft eyes and a shiny checkerboard butt, and Pelter an old Stakes horse run down the Grades. In the racing world, the term "quality" refers to an individual that stands out in the field. For my money Lord of Misrule, while good, falls short of quality.

Pulitzer Prize recipient, Jane Smiley is another horse enthusiast and wrote a quality racing novel called Horse Heaven. She regularly introduced new characters - with lots of quirks, vices and agendas - placing them at different tracks and barns around the country. Throughout the narrative she educates by weaving in horse and racing lore and lingo. Again, my favorite character is an old claimer Just a Bob - named because his style is to win by, well you can guess.

One horse that never won by just a bob was Secretariat; I still
remember where I was when he won the Belmont Stakes by 31 lengths over 35 years ago. He was my first true love and his life is beautifully chronicled in Secretariat by William Nack. When Secretariat died, the autopsy revealed a heart 250% larger than average. After reading his writing, my guess is Bill Nack, too, possesses a massive heart.

Laura Hillenbrand writes from the heart also. Seabiscuit, though non-fiction, reads like a novel as it follows the misfits and mismatched players - including temperamental Seabiscuit - race their way to the winner's circle and the hearts of America. Hollywood snatched up both books and, while the beautiful language is lost, both are enjoyable viewing.

Racehorses breathe a story in every stride. Raise your mint julep and toast to only happy endings.

Find these and more good horse racing books at your Library.

Vicki Ann

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