Winning books on horse racing

Down the stretch they come at this year’s Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs.
Darron Cummings /associated press
Down the stretch they come at this year’s Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs.

Everyone who’s won big at the track remembers the horse that came through. Mine was called, poetically, Et Tu Brute. This was at Aqueduct Racetrack, years ago, and I didn’t pick him for his record (an eventual 14 wins, 6 places, 14 shows), or his jockey (can’t recall), or his parentage (Proudest Roman and Crafty Foxie). I bet him for his name. All that week, we’d studied Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar” in Mr. Gluck’s English class, and that assassination where Brutus wields the unkindest cut of all. Wasn’t it fated? Didn’t I have babysitting money to burn? I bet $10 to win at 12-1. Yes sir, I bestrode that narrow world like a Colossus.

So here it is August, the peak of horse racing season, and it’s also the 150th anniversary of fabled Saratoga Race Course. It’s a perfect time for some fine equine books. And now at the gate is the classic “Laughing in the Hills” (Daily Racing Form, 2007, first out in 1980) by Bill Barich. Like several such titles, it poses an author who escapes a time of grief and discord by holing up at the track. In this case, it’s California’s Golden Gate Fields, where Barich hunches over the daily racing forms as if “parsing mystical texts.” He boils down his betting strategy to three horsey traits: speed, class, and condition, and reads various handicapping books like Andrew Beyer’s “Picking Winners.” Beyer says speed figures (they reflect the time of the race and the intrinsic speed of the track) are “the way, the truth, the light.”

Even with all these analytics, Barich is (like me) drawn to literary hunches: He bets a horse named Queequeg, for instance, because under Herman Melville’s desk was taped a scrap of paper on which he’d scrawled, “Be true to the dreams of your youth.” (It lost bad. So much for dreams. And youth.) Barich also links racing to writing. Everyone who wages has “a narrative element in his head, and these elements were being woven gradually into the prevailing fiction.” Such is the force that creates favorites and long shots.


Barich also reveals brilliant details of track life. Trainers sprinkle their horses’ bandages with paprika, for example, so they don’t chew them. Many horses scratch a race not because they’re hurt but because their handlers know they’re outclassed. Also, I learned things better bettors already know: a “bug,” it turns out, is the 5-pound weight allowance given to novice jockeys called “bugboys.”

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This next one is like drinking too many lime rickeys at a trackside bar with, say, Shecky Greene. Or maybe Tip O’Neill. “May the Horse Be with You: Pack at the Track” (Daily Racing Form, 2007) is by Harvey Pack, the longtime, Runyonesque New York radio and TV race commentator. Cowriter Peter Thomas Fornatale acts as amanuensis for this gent whose on-air signoff (thus the title) was “May the horse be with you.” There is much Yoda in Pack, actually: “Some days you don’t want to go to work. Watch the warm-ups. Maybe your selection feels the same way.” Or this: “Hardly a man is now alive who paid a mortgage at 2-to-5.” Such pearls are clasped with rhinestones. Take, for instance, Pack’s Psychics’ Challenge, a PR scheme for Aqueduct in the ’60s that pitted track handicappers against magician Uri Geller and some guy called the Thief of Thoughts. Then there are his colorful acquaintances, like the expert but disheveled handicapper known universally as Mr. Dirt.

More dirt gets kicked up in “Not By a Long Shot: A Season at a Hard-Luck Horse Track” (Public Affairs, 2007) by T. D. Thornton. The track is Suffolk Downs, built on an old East Boston landfill (and last year fined by the EPA for violations of the Clean Water Act). By the 1980s it had a “well-deserved reputation as the worst-run Thoroughbred facility in the country.” Thornton traces Suffolk’s up-and-down history (doping scandals run through this book and nearly all the others) and how it’s suffered under “a statutory straitjacket.” At least it’s still here, though: Most other New England tracks (Maine’s Scarborough Downs, Rhode Island’s Narragansett Park, to name just two) are long gone. Thornton tells some vivid vignettes of jockeys, including Josiah Hampshire Jr. and Rudy Baez, and also walks us through the arduous, unsung job of a valet — who must ready the saddle and silks, mend and waterproof everything in sight, scramble like mad — all for $45 a day. What Thornton says of Suffolk Downs applies to much of this gritty sport: “Splendor ain’t all there is.”

That’s certainly confirmed in “Horseplayers: Life at the Track” (Chicago Review, 2005). Writer Ted McClelland logs a season at Illinois venues like seedy Hawthorne Race Course near Chicago, trying to play with the big boys. He spends his $4,000 book advance on the “most mathematically unforgiving form of gambling in the world.” Along the way he meets the hardcore gamblers (virtually all single or divorced) and tries to put an end to his “schneid” (slang for “losing streak”). He hangs out with “The Professor” (aka Scott McMannis, who teaches finance at a community college, and on the side, handicapping seminars at a Howard Johnson’s and then to sold-out crowds at Arlington Park) and “Bob the Brain,” whose gift for calculating speed figures becomes obsolete once the Daily Racing Form began printing them in 1992. “You can make a life at the track,” McClelland finds out, “but you can’t make a living.” Still, he does tell you his secret sauce, as gleaned from an old-timer. It’s all about outsmarting the crowd’s reigning fiction. “You’re not playing horses, you’re playing people. When was the last time you went to cash a ticket and saw a horse behind the window?”

Yes, but what of the horse? Wonderful, now well-known books like Laura Hillenbrand’s “Seabiscuit: An American Legend” (Random House, 2001) must top everyone’s list. Same goes for William Nack’s “Secretariat: The Making of a Champion” (Hyperion, 2010, first out in 1975). Less famous, newer, and also compelling is “Eclipse: The Horse that Changed Racing History Forever” (Overlook, 2012). Indeed, Secretariat is from Eclipse’s bloodline, as are all but three of the Kentucky Derby winners from the past 50 years. Rowdy, ill-tempered, and tough as hobnails (back then a horse ran 4-mile races four times in a row, with only a half-hour of rest in between), he “represented the Thoroughbred’s abilities in excelsis,” according to author Nicholas Clee. Throw in the tales of Eclipse’s rapscallion Irish owner, Dennis O’Kelly, and the era (mid-18th-century) and it’s like “Tom Jones” with ponies.


“The Race for the Triple Crown: Horses, High Stakes & Eternal Hope” (Grove, 2001) gets raves from both Laura Hillenbrand and horse-happy novelist Jane Smiley. Author Joe Drape, a New York Times sports writer, covers the highest level of owners, trainers, and jockeys all locked on this elusive prize. We meet over-the-top moguls like Sheik Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum. And legendary trainers like D. Wayne Lukas and Jenine Sahadi, who babies her charges with peppermint candies and cups of oats laced with Zinfandel. I guess horse racing brings out the sentimental and crazy in all of us.

Maybe Shakespeare hit on this, somehow, in “Julius Caesar,” Act iii, Scene 2: “O judgment! thou art fled to brutish beasts/And men have lost their reason.” Then again, reason didn’t lead me to Et Tu Brute, and that thundering finish, and that payout, and that thrill I can still feel.

Katharine Whittemore is a freelance writer based in Northampton. She can be reached at katharine.