Friday, May 18, 2012

A Sure Thing

Pimlico in Maryland, home of the Preakness Stakes
Most of my interest in horses began when, as a girl, I read such exciting stories as Anna Sewell's Black Beauty, Mary O'Hara's Thunderhead and even Marguerite Henry's Justin Morgan Had a Horse. Even now, I still read stories about horses when they cross my path. The best in recent years is Jane Smiley's Horse Heaven, in which two of the main characters are animals: a racehorse and a dog.

Racehorses are creatures of beauty, and I am old enough to have had the pleasure to see Secretariat cross that finish line as it happened––on TV, of course. And though I was in Baltimore when the second race at Pimlico took place, I also watched it from afar. This is a great time of year to read a racing story, as I'll Have Another, winner of the Kentucky Derby, goes into this Saturday's Preakness as a contender for the Triple Crown. There hasn't been a Triple Crown winner since Affirmed in 1978.

One very enjoyable mystery is Full Mortality by Sasscer Hill. It is about Nikki Latrelle, a jockey who finds herself at the scene of two separate instances of murder at a track. She has a habit of going to the racetrack when she has insomnia. This habit has landed her in hot water and jeopardized her livelihood because, naturally, being in the wrong place at the wrong time too often leads to warranted suspicion.

Nikki works out of the Laurel Park racetrack in Laurel, Maryland. She has worked her way up to a reputation as an excellent jockey. The night before she is due to ride a possible winner in the next day's $200,000 Venus Sweepstakes, she takes a past-midnight trip out to see the horse named Gilded Cage. She surprises a man who runs out of the stall and knocks her over, and finds "Gildy" dead.

Nikki's main job is as an exercise rider for Jim Ravinsky, who is a trainer at Laurel. He had given her a chance when no one else would. Fortunately, Jim still has faith in Nikki and believes what she says. There are other trainers and barns at the Park and it is at one of these that Nikki believes there is some skulduggery. When a second horse is found dead, along with a dead jockey, and they are discovered once again by Nikki, she is denied access to the park.

Big Brown, photo by Louisville Courier-Journal
Nikki recognizes distinctive characteristics of horses and she recognizes a few horses back at the track that she has seen at Dark Mountain, a place that is, for most horses, a stop on the way to the glue factory, so she believes that some form of fraud is going on. She also finds it suspicious that the two dead horses belong to two widows who will now be collecting the death benefits of the insurance paying out now for "full mortality." (Full mortality is a form of life insurance covering the horse if it dies from accidental causes, sickness, disease, humane destruction and theft.) Nikki needs to clear her name and solve this puzzle.

Sasscer Hill lives on a Maryland farm and has bred racehorses for many years. She is best known for her stories in the Chesapeake Crimes anthology series. She brings the racetrack and the surrounding characters to life. The books have a fast pace and the back story of the racing world draws the reader onto the racehorses' backs as they fly down the backstretch. I enjoyed Full Mortality immensely and I'm looking forward to reading the next in the Nikki Latrelle series, Racing From Death.

I'll Have Another and Bodemeister in the Derby
I'm lucky I'm not bow-legged from growing up on horseback. I love horses and racing, although the thoroughbred industry needs to improve issues with safety and its retired horses.

Condi, we were lucky to have the chance to see Secretariat run; some of Big Red's track records still stand, and he is ranked second only to Man o' War on Blood-Horse Magazine's list of Top 100 U.S. Racehorses of the 20th Century. Including Secretariat, only 11 horses have won the U.S. Triple Crown, and I'll Have Another will need a big serving of luck to beat Bodemeister and Creative Cause in the Preakness, the second of the Triple Crown races, this weekend. I doubt he's up to it.

I liked Jane Smiley's Horse Heaven, too. The 2010 National Book Award winner, Lord of Misrule, by Jaimy Gordon, set at a third-rate horse racing track, and Laura Hillenbrand's Seabiscuit: An American Legend are also excellent. For nonfiction books about thoroughbreds, a great source is Exclusively Equine, where the Thoroughbred Legends series and some of Barbara D. Livingston's beautiful books of photography are available.

Dick Francis steeplechasing
Dick Francis was an English jockey who rode for the Queen Mother, and his name is the one most closely associated with crime fiction involving horse racing. He wrote many mysteries (with the help first of his wife and, after her death, the help of their son Felix), both series and nonseries books. The stories vary in their connection to the business of horse racing. Francis's books are straightforward adventures/thrillers that are very well-plotted and paced. His trademark is good storytelling, without much extraneous description, featuring tough-minded protagonists and unique characters. It isn't necessary to like horses to appreciate his books; they aren't horse-centric. You might try Whip Hand (former jockey/PI Sid Halley is hired to investigate possible race tampering), Reflex (a racing photographer's death needs looking into), or The Danger (Andrew Douglas's job is to solve a series of track-related kidnappings). Since Dick Francis's death in 2010, Felix Francis has carried on.

Shoemaker on racing great Spectacular Bid
If asked to name an American jockey, many people would probably say "Bill Shoemaker." By 1991, Shoemaker had retired and was working as a race horse trainer. That year, he rolled his car in a solo drunk-driving accident and was paralyzed from the neck down. He continued to train horses from his wheelchair, however, and in 1994 he published the first of three Coley Killebrew mysteries, Stalking Horse, featuring an ex-jockey who now owns a restaurant in southern California. Shoemaker retired from writing and training horses in 1997 and died in 2003. He left racing fans many wonderful memories and three books of crime fiction. These books create a vivid picture of horse racing and are surprisingly good.

Good luck if you're betting on the Preakness tomorrow. Nothing besides death and taxes is a sure thing, but one of the books we've mentioned today might be a winner for you.


  1. Georgette, MC, did either of you read Walter Farley's Black Stallion series as kids? I think I memorized them, and have loved horse stories ever since.

  2. Peri,

    Yes I did read that series and later I really was impressed by the movies. The scenery and the beauty of those arabian horses was out of this world. Another of the best horse movies was The Man From Snowy River. Did anyone ever see the movie about Phar Lap the great Australian race horse. I would love to see it come out in a DVD for the US market.

  3. Speaking of Secretariat (you were, weren't you?) ---did you see this in HuffPost on May 3, 2012? I love horses too and this article was so on point:

    At the Kentucky Derby, Chasing Traces of a Champion

    (Did I say I love horses? Actually I REALLY, REALLY love horses!)

  4. Cave76, that must have been a bit like meeting royalty. I still watch starts with my heart in my throat - can't forget Barbaro.

  5. Peri, I loved Walter Farley's Black Stallion series.

    It's hard to love horses and completely enjoy racing. Barbaro, Pine Island, and Ruffian are just a few horses euthanized after racing injuries. There are a number of things the industry needs to do to improve safety. Then there's the issue of horses post-racing.

    cave76, thanks for the link to the Huff Post article. I've been to the Breeders Cup races in Santa Anita and already have my tickets for the Cup this fall. Seeing super-horses like Curlin and Zenyatta in the flesh is heart-thumping stuff. Many top-notch horses look and act like hot shots, but some aren't that way. I saw the French mare Goldikova win the Turf Mile twice against some of the world's best males. She was the shortest but most powerfully built horse on the track and sprinted like you wouldn't believe.

  6. *****It's hard to love horses and completely enjoy racing****

    I agree! I know too much about the racing business. (That may not apply to the great race horses who are probably treated with much love and care.)

    I stopped going to races. I stopped going to zoos and rodeos. Call me too soft-hearted---but I'll take that as a compliment.

    Henry Beston quote:

    “We need another and a wiser and perhaps a more mystical concept of animals.

    Remote from universal nature, and living by complicated artifice, man in civilization surveys the creature through the glass of his knowledge and sees thereby a feather magnified and the whole image in distortion.

    We patronize them for their incompleteness, for their tragic fate of having taken form so far below ourselves. And therein we err, and greatly err. For the animal shall not be measured by man.

    In a world older and more complete than ours they move finished and complete, gifted with extensions of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear.

    They are not brethren, they are not underlings; they are other nations caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendour and travail of the earth.”

  7. Material Witnesses,
    I was so very sorry to see "I'll Have Another" scratched from the Belmont Stakes tomorrow. Such a shame and I don't know much about it but it was maybe best for the horse. Only 2 others apparently have one the Derby, Preakness and then not run in the Belmont. What a long time it has been since Affirmed won the Triple Crown, 1978?. I remember Smarty Jones a few years back coming in 2nd in the Belmont and then another hopeful Big Brown fading into last. Both had won the first 2 races of the Triple Crown. I used to read Marguerite Henry's "Misty of Chincoteague" books when I was a young girl. Have loved the mystique about horses ever since.

    1. Anonymous, I loved Misty of Chincoteague, too.

      I was also disappointed to see I'll Have Another pulled out of the Belmont, but I'm glad he won't be running with tendonitis. In 1969, Majestic Prince was undefeated going into the Kentucky Derby; he then won the Derby and the Preakness, narrowly beating Arts and Letters each time. His trainer didn't want to run Majestic Prince in the Belmont because he had ligament problems, but he was overruled by the horse's owner. Arts and Letters then beat him by five lengths. Despite several attempts to bring him back to racing form, the Prince was never able to race again.

      This year's Belmont field isn't strong, but there are a few good horses running: Paynter, Union Rags, and Dullahan.