Here at the Quinella Castle, we've been following the contenders for the Castleton Lyons-Thoroughbred Times Book Award with bated breath. After all, while handicapping the ponies is a hobby, playing the odds in the book world is what we librarians do, as we struggle to stretch those taxpayer dollars to the max.
So it's a validation of sorts to see that one of my favorite books has made it to the winner's circle: T. D. Thornton on Not by a Longshot: A Season at a Hard-Luck Horse Track has won the 2nd running of the Castleton Lyons-Thoroughbred Times Book Award.
The Hard-Luck Horse Track of the title is Suffolk Downs; the season is 2000, the year Running Stag won the Mass Cap. But really, it could be any track, and darn near any time since racing's popularity took a dive. Concern about the sport's future, race fixing, callous owners are depicted "warts-and-all" with an insider's familiarity. But the book radiates a genuine fondness for the track's characters - both human and equine - that reminds the reader of those basic elements -- the horses, the jockeys, the trainers, the owners -- that bind racing so strongly to its tradition-filled past, and are so worth saving for its future.
While Thornton's behind-the-scenes description of the business side of the track are fascinating, while his of depiction of the Mass Cap is exhilarating, while his retelling of Suffolk's storied history is fascinating, there's more to this book than fading glory. While his portrait of injured jockey Rudy Baez is moving and his revelations of unscrupulous owner Michael Gill are disturbing, there's more to this book than trackside tragedy. And yes, his affectionate chronicle of the career of the gray gelding, Saratoga Ridge, and his amusing account of the maiden Ypres are charming, but there's more here than charm. Throughout, there's an awareness of and a respect for the essence of the track that rings true, no matter who the runners and connections. Late in the book, Thornton writes:
" Sometimes it's best to step back and take in the anonymous equine atmosphere without clouding one's mind with the myriad of names, statistics, and information that are so integral yet so overwhelming to the basic enjoyment of the game. Purses, betting handles, breeding fees, simulcast surcharges, and profit-loss ledgers drive the frontline economics of pari-mutuel racing. But the promise of possibility exists on every racetrack backstretch, and if you can spot that elusive quality in the eye of a run-of-the-mill racehorse trudging through the mud, you'll blindly invest your entire soul in this sport, no matter the cost."Folks who've already made that investment will meet a kindred spirit in the pages of Not by a Longshot, and for those who haven't yet seen the "promise of possibility" at the track, the book is a fine introduction. Right now, you can pick up the hardback for under ten bucks at Amazon, or borrow a copy from the library. Either way, you'll know you've picked a winner.