A look at a couple of racing books

As I headed to Florida in March, I filled a bag with books, many more, I knew, that I would actually read. (One of the benefits of driving everywhere is that there are no luggage fees or limits. I can overpack to my heart’s content.) Racing books and beach books and literary books—and I’ve been meaning to write about a couple of them ever since, but I’ve never quite gotten there.

Over the winter I was sent a copy of Mark Cramer’s Tropical Downs, “a novel of peril and misadventure in search of the elusive automatic bet.” I liked the idea of a book about racing set in an exotic locale; I was a little unsure about a book by and about a handicapper, given my own lack of expertise in that area.

As it turned out, the exotic locale plot was disappointing, but I was totally sucked in by the handicapping element of the book. The “automatic bet” was not a concept with which I was familiar, and as Cramer’s protagonist Matt Bosch gets himself in and out of trouble in Bolivia, the author weaves Bosch’s handicapping theories into the story, making them comprehensible even to a non-handicapper like me.

(Shockingly, not included in the automatic bet theories are Allen Jerkens horses and cat horses.)

The intellectual side of handicapping is evident, accessible, and compelling here; as Bosch goes through one automatic bet after another, I felt an urge to take notes to bring with me on my next visit to the track, to play according to Bosch’s rules, at least for a little while, and to indulge in the heavy brainwork that is serious handicapping. I have so far resisted that urge, but the book made me realize that handicapping theories may well make for a fun read, so maybe I’ll pull those handicapping books off my shelves, where they’ve been gathering dust.

Mark Cramer, Tropical Downs. DRF Press, 2008. 261 pages.

Around the same time, I dipped for the first time into Joe Drape’s To The Swift: Classic Triple Crown Horses and Their Race for Glory. In this 2008 book, Drape collected dozens of New York Times articles about Triple Crown races, beginning in 1875 and ending in 2007. He adds commentary, his own and that of other turf writers, and he groups the reports into themed and chronological chapters.

There are many joys to this book, not the least of which is its ability to be read in pieces. Throughout this year’s Triple Crown season, I read a few articles a week, sometimes coming across pieces I’d used in my own writing, sometimes discovering something entirely new. I relived favorite moments and learned about horses and horsemen from long ago. Included are pieces by Steve Crist, Red Smith, William Grimes, Jane Smiley, Laura Hillenbrand; there are race recaps and backside stories, reflections and reporting.

My own geeky self loves this book for its index; in addition to being a great read, the collection also an invaluable research tool, and includes tables of every running of the Kentucky Derby, Preakness, and Belmont, with winning horse, jockey, and trainer, and the names of the horses who finished second and third.

And for the record, I bought this one myself, at the marvelous Manhattan book shop the Strand, which often offers review copies of books for half price. You need to know what you’re looking for, but I have seldom sought a review copy there and left disappointed.

Joe Drape, To The Swift: Classic Triple Crown Horses and Their Race for Glory. St. Martin’s Press, 2008. 341 pages.

I did not include in yesterday’s post that Sunday marked the 15th anniversary of the Rangers’ having won the Stanley Cup–you know, that one that Sam Rosen famously and presciently said would last a lifetime. MSG broadcast a marathon of games from that year’s road to the Cup, and it reminded me of many elements of it that I’d forgotten–like a manic Alexei Kovalev’s little troll. As I contemplate renewing my season tickets (deadline: this week), which of course have once again gone up (though by less than I expected), it would be nice to think that this yearly investment might result in a celebration like the one the Garden saw on June 14th, 1994–but I’m not holding my breath for that one.

5 thoughts on “A look at a couple of racing books

  1. Ironically, you may have opened a whole other can of worms by stating that you bought a review copy yourself at the Strand. Buying and selling review copies is extremely controversial as it undermines the royalties earned by authors (and the publisher's profits, too).

  2. Of course you're absolutely right (and I'd never really thought about it before). The store is quite open about it and in fact has a whole section devoted to review copies.I talked to someone at the Strand who told me that "a while ago" there was a big brouhaha about it, but that now, publishers have essentially resigned themselves to the practice. A quick Google search revealed a ton of commentary on the subject.Minefields everywhere! Thanks for chiming in. Man…I can't win!

  3. And for your next bit of research, Teresa, you might check on the career of Alex Kovalev the race horse. Jean and I owned a piece of him back in the 1990s, in a now-defunct partnership operation called LSI Gold. I believe that partnership collapsed under the weight of its promoter's divorce litigation, but, as I recall, the horse didn't do all that badly for a NY-bred. We also had a piece of a filly named Zubov, so I guess the promoter had a thing about hockey.

  4. You are on to something, Steve! I can think of at least three other horses named for hockey players…another post is in the pipeline!

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