Better (a year) late than never

I first heard of T.D. Thornton’s Not By A Long Shot last May, a year ago, when it came out; listening to a podcast of the WBUR sports program Only A Game focusing on the Derby, I was captured by host Bill Littlefield’s interview with Thornton. Completely absorbed in the engaging stories Thornton told about Suffolk Downs, where he worked in media relations, I remember being a little shocked hearing him recount overhearing jockeys talk about fixing a race. Not shocked that it happened, but shocked that he was spoke about it so openly.

That sort of frankness is one of the characteristics that make Not By A Long Shot, a chronicle of the 2000 season at Suffolk Downs, such a good read. It took me a year to finally pick it up after hearing the Only A Game story (to which you can listen as well; this Derby day ’07 edition of the show features three racing stories: one on the Derby, one on synthetic racing surfaces, and this one on Thornton’s book), and I’m sorry that I didn’t read it earlier. Thornton’s style is engaging and vivid, and he combines his love of racing with a pragmatic eye to create an affectionately realistic view of life at a lower-tier racetrack.

A few elements of his style jarred me; on one page he would offer precise, evocative descriptions, and on the next rely on clichés to create an image. Perhaps most irritating was his frequent use of “steed” to refer to the horses at Suffolk. The first time he used this word, technically a synonym for “horse,” though with significantly different connotations, I thought he was being either ironic or ennobling, conferring upon the rather pedestrian equines at Suffolk a dignity that he saw in them. But the word cropped up so frequently and in so many contexts that it seems that Thornton was simply using it so that he didn’t have to keep saying “horse.” Thornton is a talented writer, but his editor failed him here, as the word “steed” strikes a dissonant chord in an otherwise articulate and appealing narrative.

The book can’t seem to make up its mind whether it’s geared towards race fans or race rookies; at times, Thornton throws in an occasionally clumsy explanatory note, intended to educate the reader who might have picked up this book knowing nothing about racing. I think that the uninitiated would enjoy this book, but I see it appealing more to those already imbued with an affection for the sport than attracting new fans.

Thornton tells stories about horses, about owners, about jockeys, about trainers, about executives; the book is a comprehensive look at what it takes to pull off a racing season, including the hundreds of people who make a racetrack go. We get to know his characters, and while a few threads are dropped, Thorton skillfully weaves people and horses in and out of the story, bringing most of their stories to a satisfying conclusion. There are two notable and disappointing exceptions, and they are horses: one a hard-knocking, hard-trying claimer, the other a fractious former stakes winner who’s a half brother to one of the racing stars of the book. Thornton makes them an important part of the story, but in his epilogue, in which he wraps up the stories of various characters, he doesn’t tell us what happens to them. The fate of one of them we can guess; the other’s story seems abandoned. That oversight hit me hard this week, focused as we are on what happens to the horses to which we become attached, and how we might best take care of them. Thornton makes us care about the two horses through several hundred pages, and I want to know what happened to them.

In the Only A Game interview, Thornton remarks that racing is “not the sport of kings; it’s the sport of the working class.” I finished the book this week, and I couldn’t help but compare what I was reading to the stories that have been told about racing since last Saturday. The focus has been on the gilded set, the pedigreed royalty, the millionaire owners and renowned trainers, and it’s been easy to defend the way that horses are treated in the upper echelons of racing. Would, I wonder, we be able to make the same case for what happens at the working class tracks and in the barns of less successful trainers?

Based on Thornton’s book, the people at Suffolk Downs care as much about their charges as do those at Churchill, and affection for the horse comes through clearly on every page, and especially at the end, when Thornton recounts having a beer with an assistant starter on the backstretch, after the last day of racing in the 2000 season. Thornton has spent much of the book emphasizing that the backside of Sufferin’ Downs (as he affectionately nicknames it) is more industrial than pastoral, and that life there is not about bluegrass and juleps and spring mornings, but about asphalt and beer and bad weather, making all the more striking this final image of his narrative:

“…what I REALLY want to do,” the assistant says, getting ahead of himself,
allowing his mind the luxury of reeling off a dream in the backstretch
blackness, “is to raise my own Thoroughbred: train him, feed him, care for
him, and someday watch him race. He doesn’t even have to win. I
don’t care if he ever earns a cent. Just as long as I get him to the

“You know, I can’t figure it,” he says, breaking the silence with a broad sweep of his arm across the darkened Suffolk Downs homestretch. “Why would anyone ever want to be anyplace else?”

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