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Check It Out

Courier Articles by Sandy Schultheis
Sunday, May 6, 2001

These Books Are Fascinating All the Way to the Finish Fine.

Yesterday's Kentucky Derby marks the start of Triple Crown season and recently I've read some really outstanding books on the subject of horse racing. My older sister was a horse-crazy teenager and when we moved to the country she persuaded my folks to buy her a horse; later she convinced them that I too needed to learn to ride and have a horse of my own. Maybe she had an ulterior motive in not wanting to share her horse, but I was thrilled, and from age 8 to 12 the only books I would read were ones about horses. I'm happy to report that my reading interests have broadened since then, but I'm glad to find youngsters still asking for those old horsy classics such as "Black Beauty" and "King of the Wind". I haven't ridden in years but I still get a thrill from watching a horse race. Today's books are all winners and you will find them at your public library.

Seabiscuit: An American Legend by Laura Hillenbrand (Random House, 2001).

The memory of Seabiscuit was still alive when I was a child in California, but I didn't know his full story until I read this book. The "Bisquit" wasn't a Kentucky Derby winner, he had a poor start because his first trainer decided he was lazy and needed the assistance of a whip. By the time he was purchased by Charles Howard he had already run in more than 50 races and didn't like the experience. Somehow this ungainly little horse appealed to Howard, who started his business career as a bicycle repairman and had gone on to make a fortune as an automobile dealer in San Francisco. He found a trainer named Tom Smith who was one of the last of the old-time cowboys. Smith didn't talk much to humans but communicated perfectly with horses. A jockey named Red Pollard who had been abandoned at a racetrack as a child and sustained severe injuries in his riding career became Seabiscuit's primary rider. These three men brought out the best in Seabiscuit whose game spirit captured the hearts of a huge public at the height of the Great Depression. Hillenbrand has created a captivating story, not just about a great horse but about ordinary people who became winners through perseverance and some luck as well. I don't often write about books that are at the top of the New York Times best seller list but in this case I want to encourage readers who think they wouldn't be interested in a horse story to take a gamble on this sure-fire winner.

The Race for the Triple Crown by Joe Drape (Atlantic Monthly Press, 2001).

Why have only 11 horses won the famed Triple Crown--the Kentucky Derby, the Pimlico Preakness, and the Belmont Stakes? Why hasn't any horse been able to capture the crown since 1978 when Affirmed beat his rival Alydar in all three races? These are the big questions that are addressed by Drape as he follows last year's most promising three-year-olds from their days as yearlings. Why does a colt that sold for $4 million get beaten by one who was purchased for a mere $9 thousand? What is the lure of horseracing? What do Japanese businessmen, Arab sheiks, Indiana farmers and a host of other human types have in common that pulls them into this business where millions can be lost with a single misstep or minor accident. As a New York Times reporter, Drape has a deep understanding of the sport and the skill to describe the huge obstacles facing a young horse. It takes not only breeding but stamina, luck and character to win these three successively longer races over a period of only five weeks. Last year the highly favored Fusaichi Pegasus won the Derby but lost the Preakness and didn't even compete at Belmont. An interesting book with lots of human interest as well as information about the Sport of Kings.

Horse Heaven by Jane Smiley (Knopf, 2000).

For fiction aficionados I want to recommend a novel from the author of A Thousand Acres. Don't be put off by its size (561 pages) or it's theme. Most horse fiction is aimed at pre-adolescent girls, but this is a satirical novel for grownups and once you get acquainted with the huge cast you will keep turning the pages and chuckling to yourself. Everything you never knew about horse breeding, racing and track life as well as the behind-the-scenes politics of the racing world is touched on.. Smiley is a horse owner and her knowledge of the subject as well as her love of animals shines through. A horse named Justa Bob, an aging gelding who stoically passes from owner to owner and Eileen, a feisty Jack Russell terrier with a mind of her own are just two players in the memorable cast of a wonderfully-entertaining book.

Sandy Schultheis is a librarian with the Evansville-Vanderburgh Public Library. The opinions expressed in this column are personal and do not reflect policies or official recommendations of EVPL.