I’ve compiled my favorite horse racing books together to help fellow readers learn a little bit more about the Bluegrass State’s unofficial favorite holiday- The Kentucky Derby! Derby day comes with a lot of fun and hoopla, but the athletes that make this event happen are what it’s all about! Unfortunately due to COVID-19, the race has been postponed until September, but you can still experience the thrill of racing with these great reads.
Ruffian: Burning from the Start by Jane Schwartz
Published: April 30, 2002, Ballantine Books
Trigger Warning: This novel and review discuss the following: graphic imagery, death.
April 17, 1972, one of the racing world’s most impressive athletes was born. Her bloodlines traced back to equine royalty. Born a big, strong, healthy foal who later grew into an impressively built yearling, her connections started to take notice of her. And as she was just learning the ropes of being handled and ridden, a certain relative of hers swept the 1973 Triple Crown (cough*Secretariat*cough). As 1974 approached, the filly made her way to North Carolina from Kentucky to learn how to become a racehorse. Trainer Frank Whiteley knew after a few sessions that he had something special in his care:
“The speedball, the beauty, the female, the freak.”
Shipped to New York, she began her racing career at age two (as many do), and gained her name, Ruffian. She began blowing competition away and setting track record after track record, eating up the ground. 1974 gave way to high hopes for her three-year-old season in 1975. She came back with vengeance, sweeping the filly Triple Crown.
That year, Foolish Pleasure, a three-year-old colt, took the Kentucky Derby and became a heavy favorite for the rest of the Triple Crown series. Due to their successes, there became a cry for a match race between Ruffian and Foolish Pleasure- a battle of the sexes. As the end of the season drew near, the date was finally set and the race was on. Tragically, nobody would ever know the outcome.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that these magnificent animals have heart beyond comprehension. That horse loved to run. That horse fought her own body to finish that race. Everyone in the stands and following the race that day was impacted because they witnessed immense greatness followed by immense destruction. Schwartz successfully reconstructs the brightest and darkest moments of Ruffian’s life. Anyone who reads this novel comes as close as I think they can to understanding how that felt.
Duel for the Crown: Affirmed, Alydar, and Racing’s Greatest Rivalry by Linda Carroll
Published: April 1, 2014, Gallery Books
One of the greatest rivalries in equestrian sport, Duel for the Crown tells the story of Alydar and Affirmed, two racehorses who battled for the win throughout the three jewels of the 1978 Triple Crown.
Why focus on a bunch of old races? Well, these two machines of horse flesh went head to head, but only one horse won- and Affirmed stole the Triple Crown that year. After that, a 37 year drought followed, where no racehorse managed to claim all three Triple Crown races (until American Pharaoh in 2015). Although Affirmed ultimately took the trophy, Alydar went to the wire with him in the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness, and the Belmont stakes. Not only is this an amazing athletic feat, but horse racing was in it’s prime during that era, and these two horses drew impressive crowds.
Carroll recreates the tension and drama between the two legends, and shares their backstory, the connections behind each horse, and their drive for glory.
Affirmed: The Last Triple Crown Winner by Lou Sahadi
Published: March 29th, 2011, Thomas Dunne Books
Although this novel covers most of what Carroll describes in Duel for the Crown, Sahadi maintains focus on the complete backstory behind Affirmed, his connections, and the strategy they pursued in order to defeat Alydar. Breeders Harbor View Farm, jockeys Steve Cauthen and Louis Pincay Jr., and trainer Laz Barrera all become household names in the racing industry as Sahadi shares how Affirmed carried them all to victory.
Wild Ride by Ann Hagedorn Auerbach
Published: April 1994, Holt Paperbacks
Trigger Warning: This novel and review discuss the following: abuse, assault, corruption, graphic imagery, death.
The byline of Wild Ride is “The Tragic Fall of Calumet Farm, Inc., America’s Premier Racing Dynasty”, but Auerbach doesn’t just rehash the demise- she delves into the history of Calumet from the very origins of it’s founder, William Monroe Wright.
The reader learns about the self-made businessman who eventually decided to move from Chicago to the Bluegrass and start his own harness horse breeding operation. From there, his son Warren takes over the family operation, despite being at odds with the way his father ran the place. He converts what becomes Calumet Farm into a thoroughbred operation, and an empire is born.
Through the will of Warren Sr., the farm is finally turned over the Wright children, and because of their disinterest in the farm due to all the past heartache, an in-law name JT Lundy takes over in care of the Wrights. From here, as secretary Margaret Glass notes, Armageddon begins with the fall of Calumet.
If you live in the area, you can still drive past the farm, and see for yourself the images that Auerbach describes- the white double fencing, the devils-red trim on white washed barns, the acres of famous Kentucky bluegrass dotted with horses. But the Calumet you see isn’t the dynasty that existed prior to 1990, and reading about the fall brought chills to my spine. There’s family drama, glamour and grandeur, and tragedy all within Calumet’s backstory and this juicy tell-all.
If you’re a horse junky like me, or interested in historical novels (Kentucky history in particular), horse racing and breeding, or crime novels, Wild Ride is a must.
Seabiscuit: An American Legend by Laura Hillenbrand
Published: July 1 2003, Ballantine Books
In 1938, one of the racing world’s biggest underdogs stepped onto the scene and amazed onlookers when he overtook champion War Admiral. Seabiscuit was a crooked-legged, small framed, flimsy tailed 5-year-old racehorse who only finished once in the placings once out of forty races. Charles Howard was a bicycle repairman turned overnight millionaire who wanted to get into the racing industry. Tom Smith was a trainer with an eye for diamonds in the rough.
When Howard met Smith, and they decided to claim Seabiscuit for pennies, make a jockey out of ex-boxer Red Pollard, and turn the pair into winners. However, they battled four years of controversy and turmoil before they decided to accept the ultimate match race against the blue-blood son of Man O’War and 1937 Triple Crown Winner, War Admiral.
Hillenbrand brings the story behind the “little horse that could” alive during the Great Depression Era, making everyone a fan of the underdog.
Woulda, Coulda, Shoulda by Dave Feldman
Published: August 31st, 1985 by Taylor Trade Publishing
You know, this is probably one of the best recommendations I could have for anyone who wants to learn more about horse racing and gambling. Feldman unabashedly shares his knowledge of the racing industry, and what you need strategies to think about if you actually plan on making some money betting the ponies.
Feldman discusses his background in racing and how he came to know the industry in a humorous, self depreciating, conversational way that makes this nonfiction anything but dry. Then, he shares how he looks into the horses on the race cards, and what information to pay attention to if you’re serious about placing a strong bet. You don’t have to know a thing about horse-racing going into this book- Feldman explains it all.
Secretariat by William Nack
Published: March 21, 1988 by Da Capo Press
If you’ve heard of horse racing, you’ve probably heard of Secretariat. A horse out of Bold Ruler and Somethingroyal, Secretariat was a big chestnut who dominated the racing scene in 1973. Winning the Triple Crown with record breaking times and, most impressive, and 31+ length distance win in the Belmont, Big Red escalated into legendary status. To this day, his record win at the Belmont Stakes has yet to be touched. In Nack’s book, he shares the life story of Secretariat from the very beginning.
These books are on either on my to be read pile, or I read them so long ago, I’ve forgotten what they were about! If you’ve read everything I’ve mentioned above, give the titles on this list a shot.
- The Horse God Built by Lawrence Scanlan
- Three Strides Before the Wire: The Dark and Beautiful World of Horse Racing by Elizabeth Mitchell
- Greatness and Goodness: Barbaro and His Legacy by Alex Brown
- Crazy Good: The True Story of Dan Patch, the Most Famous Horse in America by Charles Leerhsen
- Noor: A Champion Thoroughbred’s Unlikely Journey from California to Kentucky by Milton Toby
- Funny Cide by Sally Jenkins