26 June 2006

The Black Stallion - still galloping on

Henry heard the fall of the auctioneer's gavel and the words, "Sold to Tom Flint for sixty-six thousand dollars."

Raising his hat, Henry saw the gray colt leave the ring. Well, that's that, he thought. As far back as he could remember, it was the highest price paid for a yearling at a public sale.

---Walter Farley, The Black Stallion's Filly

In light of the $16 million price paid for Green Monkey back in February, the world of the Black Stallion seems hopelessly dated. Still, June 26 is Walter Farley's birthday, and I generally mark the occasion by pulling out my copy of The Black Stallion's Filly; its story of an unraced filly entering the Kentucky Derby always makes me smile. I smile, too, at the words, "For my good friend" that Mr. Farley penned on the title page.

Mr. Farley used to buy his horse feed from my grandfather's feed mill in eastern Pennsylvania. Grandpa had a half dozen rocking chairs scattered about the "office" where folks would sip coffee and munch donuts and just shoot the breeze while the feed was being ground. Mr. Farley would sit in the chair under the race results and autograph copies of his books for my brothers and me. Then Grandpa would tell us to skedaddle so he and Mr. Farley could talk. Yes, we used words like skedaddle back then. Yes, it was quaint. (For an idea of how quaint it all was, let me just say: the race results on the wall were from the pigeon races!)

The brief biography of Walter Farley over at www.theblackstallion.com doesn't mention our small town, nor my grandfather's feed mill, but it does include a number of pictures of Farley, all much sharper than this one that my father took back in the early 1980s.

I can't really judge how well the Black Stallion books hold up, because for me, they will always conjure up the dust of the feed mill, the sweet scent of bubble-gum cigars, and the heat of lazy summer days spent reading in the shade of the big maple out back. Simpler times that probably seem archaic to today's kids.

But maybe I'm wrong about that. I recently learned from the Athlone Thoroughbred Marketing blog that Farley's books are still being read by grade school kids in Arkansas. And, as it turns out, in Florida, Arizona, and Texas, too. Since 1999, The Black Stallion Literacy Project has been offering schools the opportunity to use Farley's books and live horses to inspire a love of reading (and, I suspect, a fondness for horses) in elementary school students. The curriculum sounds enchanting; I especially like the idea of first-graders taking a field trip to a stable, then reading Little Black, A Pony to the horse handlers.

The best part of the program: the kids get to keep the hardcover books. Forever and ever, so that years from now, some silly blogger will be able to say, "I came across my copy of The Black Stallion today, and it made me smile."


kentucky joe said...

That was a helluva post! Very nice.

Superfecta said...

Interesting! I knew someone else who knew Walter Farley, and I cannot remember the connection at all now, alas.

I just started buying Billy and Blaze books for my little guy (what 14-month-lod doesn't need a library of horsie books?); I'd forgotten about them until I saw them in the bookstore the other day. I'd also forgotten that there were ever any 'horse books' with boys as the central character, but of course The Black Stallion is on that list.