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Horse Racing and "Lord of Misrule"

We speak with 2010 National Book Award winner Jaimy Gordon — and ride into the world of horse racing.

Trolley the horse arrives at the premiere of "Secretariat" in Los Angeles, Sept. 30, 2010. (AP)

The National Book Awards are the Oscars of literature — the big night.

Last month, the prize went to near-unknown novelist Jaimy Gordon, the dark horse contender, for writing about horses – racing, the track, the stables, grooms, jockeys, trainers, and gamblers.

She didn’t write about the big races – the Triple Crown, Kentucky Derby stuff. Her story is set in the down-and-out world of dusty, third-tier tracks and hard-scrabble dreams.

Jaimy Gordon is with us, as well as Bill Nack, the man who wrote “Secretariat”.

-Tom Ashbrook

Guests:

Jaimy Gordon, author whose novel “Lord of Misrule” won the 2010 National Book Award. Read the recent New York Times profile of her.

William Nack, longtime writer for Sports Illustrated whose most recent book is “Secretariat” — it’s the inspiration for the new movie by the same name. He’s also author of “My Turf: Horses, Boxers, Blood Money, and the Sporting Life.”

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  • Miranda

    Aiken SC Glad you are discussing this topic. Right now is a terrible time for horse racing as an industry. 3 major states on the east coast circuit (NY, NJ, and MD) have in the last months of this year crippled racing due to either political disinterest or complete mismanagement.
    At the same time, we have seen some great stars emerge and draw national interest in ways unseen in nearly a decade. Horse racing is at a crossroads in this country. It will either revive due to public interest, or disappear because too much of the money it generates has been siphoned off by politicians who believe that they can get something for nothing. (if there are no retained earnings, it’s difficult to keep the business going)
    I was a horse obsessed kid who was also an Army brat, so horses were completely out of the question for me as far as my family was concerned. I fell in love with racing when I was 8. Swale won the Derby that year, and I was hooked. I cried my eyes out when he died later that summer. I always wanted to work with race horses. When I was 18 I moved from VA to KY and went to work walking hots at Ellis Park. I soon moved to grooming and worked on the track for a total of 7 years; working 7 days a week and moving from track to track just to actually see the places I dreamed about as a kid. I’ve worked at Barn 10 at Churchill (the barn in Walter Farley’s book “The Black Stallion’s Filly”) and at Pimlico and Gulfstream, but mostly I worked at small tracks like Ellis and Turfway, where racing is a family business that people have been involved in for generations. It’s lots of hard work for very little tangible reward. 16 hour days 7 days a week to barely make ends meet in most cases. There is a saying on the backside that racing is everything life has to offer, from “the sublime to the ridiculous” I hope that more people will get to experience it. I hope that I will be able to take my grandchildren to the races. Can’t wait to read this book when Santa puts it under the tree.

  • L Armond

    I rode a horse just off the track ub the mid 70′s, Ghostown, at Darby’s Folly iin Charlottesville, a beautifual dapple gray. This is my favorite description of poetry, by Hans Zinsser a famous microbiologist, doctor, horseman, and poet:

    ON POETRY

    “Poetry,” he said, “ has been to me much like horses. Though I was often cheated in consequence, I never enjoyed critically appraising a horse, walking around it, feeling its hocks, looking at its teeth, and then seeing other people ride it. A horse meant little to me until I could feel it under me, between my thighs, swing with the rhythm of its gaits, rise over fences with it, and lean over the neck in the exhilaration of its galloping vigor.

    “And so a poem means nothing to me unless it can carry me away with the gentle or passionate pace of its emotion, over obstacles of reality into meadows and covers of illusion. Nor is it the material that matters — whether it be the old stirrings of nature and love, or war, or whether it deals with the tragedies and complexities of human fate. The sole criterion for me is whether it can sweep me with it into emotion or illusion of beauty, terror, tranquility, or even disgust, –as Baudelaire,–so long as it arouses fundamental feelings or reflections which, encountered without the poet, might have passed half realized, like a tongue of flame or a flying leaf. For the poet arrests emotions at their points of greatest supportable heat, just short of the melting point, as it were, and can hold in that perfect state, permanent in his words and metres, those feelings and comprehensions which pass too quickly to be held through the minds of ordinary men. The poet imprisons them in words or color, or marble, so that we lesser men can contemplate them and recognize in them their own hearts and minds.”

    This was the last serious conversation I had with R. S.

    Hans Zinsser, As I Remember Him, The biography of R. S., p. 441-442, 1940, Little Brown & Co.

    ON POETRY

    “Poetry,” he said, “ has been to me much like horses. Though I was often cheated in consequence, I never enjoyed critically appraising a horse, walking around it, feeling its hocks, looking at its teeth, and then seeing other people ride it. A horse meant little to me until I could feel it under me, between my thighs, swing with the rhythm of its gaits, rise over fences with it, and lean over the neck in the exhilaration of its galloping vigor.

    “And so a poem means nothing to me unless it can carry me away with the gentle or passionate pace of its emotion, over obstacles of reality into meadows and covers of illusion. Nor is it the material that matters — whether it be the old stirrings of nature and love, or war, or whether it deals with the tragedies and complexities of human fate. The sole criterion for me is whether it can sweep me with it into emotion or illusion of beauty, terror, tranquility, or even disgust, –as Baudelaire,–so long as it arouses fundamental feelings or reflections which, encountered without the poet, might have passed half realized, like a tongue of flame or a flying leaf. For the poet arrests emotions at their points of greatest supportable heat, just short of the melting point, as it were, and can hold in that perfect state, permanent in his words and metres, those feelings and comprehensions which pass too quickly to be held through the minds of ordinary men. The poet imprisons them in words or color, or marble, so that we lesser men can contemplate them and recognize in them their own hearts and minds.”

    This was the last serious conversation I had with R. S.

    Hans Zinsser, As I Remember Him, The biography of R. S., p. 441-442, 1940, Little Brown & Co.

    ON POETRY

    “Poetry,” he said, “ has been to me much like horses. Though I was often cheated in consequence, I never enjoyed critically appraising a horse, walking around it, feeling its hocks, looking at its teeth, and then seeing other people ride it. A horse meant little to me until I could feel it under me, between my thighs, swing with the rhythm of its gaits, rise over fences with it, and lean over the neck in the exhilaration of its galloping vigor.

    “And so a poem means nothing to me unless it can carry me away with the gentle or passionate pace of its emotion, over obstacles of reality into meadows and covers of illusion. Nor is it the material that matters — whether it be the old stirrings of nature and love, or war, or whether it deals with the tragedies and complexities of human fate. The sole criterion for me is whether it can sweep me with it into emotion or illusion of beauty, terror, tranquility, or even disgust, –as Baudelaire,–so long as it arouses fundamental feelings or reflections which, encountered without the poet, might have passed half realized, like a tongue of flame or a flying leaf. For the poet arrests emotions at their points of greatest supportable heat, just short of the melting point, as it were, and can hold in that perfect state, permanent in his words and metres, those feelings and comprehensions which pass too quickly to be held through the minds of ordinary men. The poet imprisons them in words or color, or marble, so that we lesser men can contemplate them and recognize in them their own hearts and minds.”

    This was the last serious conversation I had with R. S.

    Hans Zinsser, As I Remember Him, The biography of R. S., p. 441-442, 1940, Little Brown & Co.

  • Anne Borg

    Newton, MA. I grew up in Westchester County, New York in the 1950′s and 1960′s, and my father was good friends with Christopher Chenery, and was also, I believe, his physician. The first time I was ever on a horse was sitting in front of Mr. Chenery on his horse when I was around 5 years old (my recollection is that it was a big gray horse and its name was Granite). I believe that it was at Boulder Brook Horse Club, where I later took riding lessons.

    My father loved horses and loved horse racing. When I was a teenager, he often took me with him to Belmont or Aqueduct (even when I was not yet 18, they sometimes let me make bets because they knew my father). Occasionally my parents and I went with Miss Ham (Mr. Chenery’s secretary) in Mr Chenery’s limousine (what a thrill!). I saw Riva Ridge race, and once I met Lucien Laurin.

    My parents sometimes stayed weekends at Mr. Chenery’s horse farm in Virginia. One day in 1971, they came home and my father was raving about this great yearling they had seen while they were down there. My father said that he was a future winner. An added reason that he was drawn to the horse was that the horse’s birthday was the same as my father’s – March 30. The horse was Secretariat.

    My father was always sad that Mr. Chenery never saw Secretariat win the Triple Crown.

  • Joe Bartee

    If you enjoyed “Lord of Misrule,” (which I thoroughly did) you should consider picking up the non-fiction book “Not By A Long Shot–A Season At A Hard-Luck Horse Track.”

    T.D. Thornton’s dark, engaging book was based on a journal spent behind the scenes at Boston’s own Suffolk Downs. I consider it the non-fiction counterpart to “Misrule.”

  • Andrew Blauner

    What is a proper email address, please, for Tom Ashbrook?

    Thank you very much.

    Andrew Blauner
    Blauner Books Literary Agency
    Editor, “COACH: 25 Writers Reflect on People Who Made a Difference,” with a Foreword by Bill Bradley, and “BROTHERS: 26 Stories of Love and Rivalry,” with a Foreword by Frank McCourt

  • Linda Chapman

    In response to this issue, and in particular to one of the other commentors who responded, my highest hope is that horseracing will eventually be banned or disappear due to lack of interest (or my pie in the sky wish that educated and empathetic people would NOT support this “sport”). Just like many other animal “sports” (such as steeplechasing, bronc busting, dog racing, Polo, dog fighting, etc.), this is another industry based on the use of animals for profit, for ego, for “entertainment” thrills (which is fine for a person who may risk injury or death when they make their OWN choice to climb Mt Everest, race motocross, etc. but NOT ok for an animal given no choice)…
    Yes, Thoroughbreds, as well as many other horses, like to run. My concern for their well-being, however, goes FAR beyond the whipping they endure during a race, the doping, unnatural living conditions (horses are not meant to be couped up in a 12 x 12 space 23/7), etc. My concern goes to those who aren’t fast enough to ever make it to the track and those who do but aren’t good enough…and finally, those who serve and win, but once done with their racing careers, are valueless. Although the slaughterhouses in the USA are closed, those in Canada and Mexico are doing quite well, thank you very much racing industry (supported as well by people who no longer want their animals but don’t care enough to humanely euthanize them along with Mustangs the BLM continues to round up…although they supposedly aren’t allowed to go this route). The number of horses going to slaughter has doubled every year since 2005…how many of these are former racehorses or young potential racehorses that didn’t make the grade??? The methods used in these slaughterhouses to “stun” the poor creatures prior to being strung up are horrendous…I implore you to do a search and watch for yourself (if you can stand it). This is a particularly poor time to support the horseracing industry given the economy and the lack of available homes for the unwanted animals produced.

  • http://kazu.com Nancy Turk

    Aptos, Ca. As a lifelong horsewoman, I listened with great interest to tonight’s show. The picture painted by the author with regard to the relationship between horse and human brought me to tears as I recollect the many times in my life I have had the privilege to experience the intense bond that comes with mutual trust and respect. While I, too, can get easily caught up in spectacle of horse racing purely due to the beauty of a horse at full gallop, I mourn for the thousands upon thousands of animals who, by no fault of their own, ended up at a slaughterhouse. The racing industry supplies the world with the flesh of the horses that they alone produce. Horses are bred indiscriminately in the pursuit of the almighty purse. These are animals who will never see Churchill Downs or Belmont. They are used until they can give no more and then sold at auctions. And the people waiting to buy most of them are not intending to give them their loving “forever” home. These men who buy them by the pound will then ship them to the killers in Canada and Mexico, capitalizing on their bodies one last time. I was greatly disheartened by the fact that this aspect of the racing industry was never touched upon in the program, although the author did allude to the dismal future faced by the horses who can’t earn enough money for the owners.
    I realize that not all participants in the racing industry are cruel and unfeeling, and I also acknowledge that in every corner of the horse world there are people who ultimately care more for the bottom line than the living, breathing, thinking, feeling, glorious equines housed in their stables. I only wish that more people knew that for every great racehorse that crosses the finish line at the Kentucky Derby, there are thousands more who have paid the ultimate price for not being fast enough. Thank you Linda Chapman (above) for also voicing this opinion. It’s nice to know I’m not alone.

  • Anonymous

    Jaimy Gordon she’s a good writter,
    i could say that because i hace watch the movie secretrait,
    and it ways really nice, it inspires.

  • http://www.turfrace.net Horse Racing Betting

    Hello Buddy, good day. Good post. You have gained a new enthusiast. Such an interesting story about Horse Racing. Please keep up the good work and I look forward to more of your great posts. Have a nice day!

  • Anonymous

    speaking of secretariat is that the disney movie that’s about to be showed on theaters? :) i really want to watch that movie i really love the story its very touching and unique :)

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