Lyrical Ballad bookshop, on Phila Street in Saratoga, is one of the town’s most priceless jewels. It’s been there for thirty years, an independent bookshop on a little side street, with new but mostly used books: so many books, in so many rooms, that I really got lost there last summer, and sometimes I think that I will never have to go anywhere else in the world to find a good book to read. Sometimes I find books I’m looking for, but usually I come across something that I didn’t know, until that moment, that I was dying to read. According to Sean Clancy’s Saratoga Days–itself a must-read if you like racing and Saratoga, and a book that I purchased at Lyrical Ballad–jockey Richard Migliore proposed to his wife in front of this perfect little shop.
Directly behind the main room of the shop is a little hallway, and if you turn right you will be surrounded by racing books: contemporary, old, American, British, fiction, non-fiction. I only let myself go there when I have a lot of time to browse, and that’s where I was last summer when I came across The Noble Animals: Tales of the Saratoga Turf. Published in 1973, it’s written by long-time Saratogian racing writer Landon Manning, “in commemoration of the 125th anniversary of the inauguration of Horse Racing in Saratoga Springs, on August 14, 1847,” as Manning tells us on the title page. It was a first edition, signed “Best of Luck to Tom, Landon Manning, March 5, 1987.”
Utterly absorbed as my parents joined me, I looked at them and said, “This is the only thing I want for Christmas.” It wasn’t insanely expensive, but too much to pick up that day, and I hoped that Santa would deliver it on Christmas morning. Santa, in the guise of my parents, indeed came through, and I finished the book this weekend.
It’s a bit hard going at times, dense with names and dates, and written in a style that seems more than twenty-five years old. Unlike many books about Saratoga, this one devotes a good deal of time to trotting horses, harness racing, the types of racing in which Saratoga racing is rooted. He traces the development of horse racing and the various tracks that existed in Saratoga, highlighting significant races and horses, and there is more history in these pages than I could possibly absorb in one reading.
Throughout, Manning’s passion and knowledge are evident; he writes so affectionately of horses and people he couldn’t possibly have known. He died two years ago, and his funeral notice tells us that he became a reporter following his service in World War II, and that he served as turf editor for The Saratogian from 1957 until he retired in the 1990’s.
In a chapter on Man o’War, I came across the following paragraph, written completely in parentheses, and I copy it exactly as written:
One of the things that make racing—both thoroughbred and
standardbred—so great is that it is often an unabashedly sentimental
sport. So the old eighth pole at the old Aqueduct track, symbolizing the
spot where John P. Grier wrested the lead from Man o’War is the same eighth-pole
at the new Aqueduct track today. If only the Off Track Betting patrons and
politicians who are making a serious effort to turn the sport into a numbers
game could appreciate these little nuances of tribute to the past. There
may some day be a beautiful Hall of Fame for OTB, rivaling the one for
thoroughbred horses at Saratoga, but the odds appear to be against it.
I was standing in a subway station when I read that, and I simply stopped, and read it again, and then read it again. It’s my favorite paragraph in the book, combining as it does nostalgia, sadness, affection, and imagination, and because it could so easily have been written today.
I treasure this book all the more because I (and my parents) found it at Lyrical Ballad, a store that was open when Manning was writing this book, and which he undoubtedly visited. The Noble Animals is dedicated to Ernest B. Morris, who oversaw racing in Saratoga for years and years (and with whose grandson I went to high school), “For his gallant and successful fight to preserve horse racing as a sport.” Hear, hear.