It took less than the two minutes, four seconds of this year’s Kentucky Derby for the cliché to kick in. As they’d done with the gelded winner of last year’s Derby, Funny Cide, sportswriters rushed to anoint the scrappy Pennsylvania-bred Smarty Jones “this year’s Seabiscuit.” Forget the fact that the undefeated chestnut is already, at a very green age, the sixth-highest money-winner in the venerable history of thoroughbred racing. Or the devastating way he crushed the best 3-year-olds in the world. Or that, when the horses reach the starting gate for tomorrow’s Preakness Stakes, he’ll likely go off as the heaviest favorite since Spectacular Bid in 1979. Seemingly only the allegory of the gutsy Seabiscuit could validate his achievement.
Whatever the value of the mobilizing conceit, it clearly resonates with a public that tunes in once a year to plumb the mysteries of handicapping an 18-horse field. Where Secretariat (aka Big Red) for decades stood as the sole pop-culture equine reference worth his oats, Laura Hillenbrand’s monster of a book Seabiscuit: An American Legend, published in 2001, has opened up a wide margin on Big Red as the yardstick of equine greatness. In its wake, too, the publishing industry has responded with an unprecedented slew of racing titles in the last few years. Just recently, Jane Smiley’s A Year at the Races: Reflections on Horses, Humans, Love, Money, and Luck has been published, as has former Harper’s senior editor * John Jeremiah Sullivan’s Blood Horses: Notes of a Sportswriter’s Son. Joe McGinniss’The Big Horse is due out this July.
These books and others that have appeared since Seabiscuit stormed the best-sellers list differ markedly from the occasional gem of racing literature that readers might have encountered back when Secretariat was still the king. Classics of the turf writer’s bookshelf—William Nack’s Big Red of Meadow Stable: Secretariat, the Making of a Champion (1975), William Surface’s masterful The Track: A Day in the Life of Belmont Park (1976), Jane Schwartz’s Ruffian: Burning From the Start (1991)—were penned with a keen knowledge of the long pedigree of the sport and its scribes. They added to a genre that had its own rules yet was addressing an adult nonfiction reader, and they genuflected before the greats of the past, from Red Smith to Joe Palmer. The racing books flooding the market today are by contrast more self-consciously literary and offer a return to the memoir fever of a few years back. In them, racing isn’t itself of intrinsic interest but becomes a vehicle for exploring oneself. Even the just-published Funny Cide: How a Horse, a Trainer, a Jockey, and a Bunch of High School Buddies Took on the Sheiks and Bluebloods … and Won!, ghosted by veteran sportswriter Sally Jenkins and reportedly auctioned for a million dollars, focuses more on the personalities—the upstate yahoos who lucked into ownership of America’s favorite nutless New Yorker—than on the pony.
One unlikely offshoot of the Seabiscuit phenomenon, though, was a lovely reminder of the way horse-racing writing used to be done: Ralph Moody’s Come on Seabiscuit! was recently brought back into print by the University of Nebraska Press. Originally published in 1964, when memories of the small overachieving thoroughbred were still relatively fresh, Moody’s short bio of the animal’s trials and triumphs was written for a juvenile audience. To many, it was the first book on horse racing they read—although there was certainly no lack of contenders. Take, for example, Marguerite * Henry’s collection of kids books, published from the mid 1940s through the 1970s, which included Black Gold, the story of the ‘24 Derby champ; King of the Wind, the Newberry Award-winning story of the Godolphin Arabian, the third and final foundation sire of the modern thoroughbred racehorse; and, for those budding Yonkers Raceway degenerates, Born To Trot. Or Walter Farley’s popular Black Stallion series, which began to appear in 1941; his Man O’ War, a much-read bio of the first great American horse. Or Mildrid Mastin Pace’s Kentucky Derby Champion, which told the story of Exterminator, the champ of 1915; and of course Enid Bagnold’s National Velvet. Books for children dealing with the track in one way or another made up a cottage industry, one that seems even more remarkable when you realize that many of these titles remained in print year after year. What’s more, few adult nonfiction titles on racing emerged from the period, with the exception of the occasional jockey bio like Eddie Arcaro’s I Ride To Win and how-to-win-money-on-the-ponies titles.
Structurally, Come on Seabiscuit! was not unlike many other books in the genre: A plucky story of failure and redemption, in which the colt overcomes misunderstanding and brutal treatment through the compassion and love of a set of humans who realize his extra-equine greatness. Maudlin as this may sound, what is remarkable about the book—and what makes it rewarding even decades after reading it the first time—is the level of detail about the scrawny racehorse. Juvenile readers are assumed to have a considerable amount of knowledge about racing and gambling, from being cognizant of the fact that “ten-to-one” equals “long shot” to understanding how jockeys’ weight influenced the outcome of a race. And they’re expected to be able to follow the ins and outs of the training of 2-year-old ponies. Moody, like Hillenbrand, manages to make Seabiscuit’s trials and triumphs motor the story. If the narrative is decisively pitched to young readers, the story told is no less compelling—and, like all great juvenile books, it’s totally lacking in the self-consciously writerly indulgence that seems virtually requisite for memoir authors. Ultimately, the reason Come on Seabiscuit! a nd King of the Wind and Black Stallion are so memorable is that they are outstanding children’s literature, not just outstanding children’s literature about racing.
Just as racetrackers never forget the great horses, we never forget the books that left a mark on us. A link between young people’s racetrack stories and the recent vogue for track-related memoirs may sound tenuous, but is it a stretch to see the latter impulse growing out of childhood memories of Black Gold, Exterminator, and Man O’ War? After all, the irony of the post-Seabiscuit publishing bonanza is that it takes place at a time when conventional opinion holds that racing is a dying sport, obsolescent in an economy that provides easier and faster ways to risk the house. But for many of today’s adults, these tales of thoroughbreds overcoming adversity to become champions were the first “chapter” books to which they were exposed. (I devoured almost all these books during a boiling Arkansas summer in 1975; I remember, halfway through Come on Seabiscuit!,listening with my father to the radio broadcast of the tragic match race between Ruffian and Foolish Pleasure, in which the filly broke her leg and had to be destroyed.) The nostalgia tinging a book like Blood Horses has distant echoes of these children’s tales. In that sense, at least, maybe the Seabiscuit effect wouldn’t have been possible without books like Come on Seabiscuit!
Correction, May 14, 2004: An earlier version of this piece mistakenly referred to John Jeremiah Sullivan as a senior editor at Harper’s. Sullivan was a senior editor until recently, but is currently a contributing editor at the magazine. (Return to the corrected sentence.)