Rac­ing mat­ters

Keith Knight puts down his binoc­u­lars and gets out his read­ing glasses to sug­gest some Christ­mas books

Racing Ahead - - CONTENTS -

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.

Martin Pipe

Na­tional Vel­vet

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