Keith Knight puts down his binoculars and gets out his reading glasses to suggest some Christmas books
A selection of equine books for Christmas reading
Damon Runyon, that most quotable of writers when it comes to the dry word on racing or more appropriately gambling, said “I long ago came to the conclusion that all life is 6/5 against”. He also advised “you can become a winner only if you are willing to walk over the edge”.
Runyon is best known perhaps as a writer of racy short stories,depicting life in the underworld of New York, with his collection Guys and Doll attributed immortality when it was adapted for the Broadway stage and later into a film musical starring Frank Sinatra. Although the purist may not care to admit to it,I suspect Runyon portrayed the New York racetracks as they were in his day. Unfortunately succeeding writers when setting their work in the world of horse racing have continued to portray the sport as if in modern times it remains a replica of Runyon’s more lawless era.
Horse racing, I believe, is not well served by fiction,although I doubt if even the greatest of novelists could write a novel, or perhaps a short story, that can do justice to the sport of horse racing as it is today.I would go as far as to say that it is beyond the human imagination to better depict the twists, turns and excitement generated by even the most modest of horse races. There are just too many tendrils of possible scenarios, characters and emotions for any writer to give the reader a true insight into the nature of horse racing.
I am a purist, wearing rose-coloured spectacles; I cannot countenance plotlines that suggest to the reader, people who perhaps have no first-hand knowledge of either horses or racing, that the sport goes hand-in-hand with criminality, gambling addiction, everyday horse dopers and horse-stealers, that jockeys will commonly fix races or that every girl groom is either virginal to the point of sainthood or a sex siren that would make a prostitute blush. It seems that publishers and the market only want racing depicted in ways that can only be categorised as ‘scandalous’.
The Dick Francis novels are as well written as any equine related fiction but in every one criminality is associated with racing. With Lynda Sasscer Hill every novel is a murder-mystery, with Jason Beem it is the evils of gambling,with Marguerite Henry and Walter Farley it is either a text laced with saccharine or it is the fictionalising of past events. With the former it is Black Gold, the winner of the 1924 Kentucky Derby and with the latter it is the life and times of Man O’War,though Farley, to be far, is better known in America as the writer of The Black Stallion series of books.
Having researched the subject I believe I can recommend the following racing related novels as Christmas reading material: Horse Heaven by Jane Smiley, Derby Day by D.J.Taylor, Harmony by William Fain (this novel was published in 1934 and may prove troublesome to find) and for the young at heart National Velvet by Enid Bagnold, perhaps the most famous book ever written about horse racing. A small, insignificant fact: if you had bumped into Enid at the races you would have to refer to her as Lady Jones.
In the non-fiction category there is no better book than Battleship by Dorothy Owers, a racing story that redefines how the genre should be written. Nicholas Clee’s book on Eclipse is as much a book about society and social mores as it is about racing and the first truly great racehorse yet is made more interesting because of its historical content.
I am presently reading Richard Pitman’s book written with and about Martin Pipe,a book that unusually for autobiography or biography remains illuminating.We hear so much about Aidan O’Brien being a
genius, which perhaps he is, but he is a little bit behind Pipe in the genius stakes. Published in 1992 Pipe prophesied that one day someone would invent a way of galloping horses without riders (I dare say he has worked on the idea himself) and though the machine (resembles a carousel ride) presently undergoing tests is mega expensive and requires a covered ride the size of Chester racecourse, the foresight of genius is beginning to see reality.
Incidentally, and in no way wishing to nudge anyone towards the groaning stalls of e-book vendors, I have relaunched my collection of racing short stories Going To The Last which are now edited by a horse riding professional editor and should make for a better read.I have also undertaken a smidgen of rewriting, brought some of the older stories up-to-date and generally polished and buffed to make the collection finally fit for publication.Oh, and priced incredibly reasonably at £2.99
In a top five horse-related books as prescribed by Horse & Hound, Jilly Cooper’s Riders was given the distinction of topping the list.This may have been a case of lazy journalism or the fact that Riders out- sold every other horse-related novel by a country mile but I just cannot accept that it profits racing to be depicted as an image to prove Mankind is going to Hell in a handcart. My fiction unashamedly verges on the sentimental and the historic. I desire only to show the reader the beauty of the sport and the love of the horse.
Whether the stories are worthy of the genre, though, is for others to decide. As Runyon is also famous for saying: “The race may not always be to the swift nor the victory to the strong.But that’s how you bet.” As a writer I am neither strong nor swift but I continue to bet (self-publishing is way too similar to betting on 1,000-1 shots) with a strength of purpose unsupported by approbation or sales figures and with the repetition of the runaway galloping toward the edge.