30 April 2008

Derby reading: The Longest Shot

As the hoopla surrounding Big Brown reaches deafening levels, I find myself returning again and again to an old book that I only recently had a chance to read. It tells the tale of a fabulous favorite whose every move at Churchill Downs was followed by the oohs and ahhs of hundreds of reporters. At the time, racing was searching for a hero -- and suddenly, a star popped up on the racing scene, a star "so devastatingly quick that it left hardened racetrackers groping for adjectives." The horse went off at an unprecedented 2-1 in the Derby Futures wager. And jockey Patrick Valenzuela, who'd ridden Sunday Silence, called him "the best horse I've ever ridden" and claimed,"The other horses are running for second."

It was 1992, and the horse was Arazi.

What? Can't find that one listed on the back of your Derby glass? Me neither. Looks like a horse named Lil E. Tee won it that year. And in The Longest Shot: Lil E. Tee and the Kentucky Derby, author John Eisenberg tells the unlikely story of (I believe) the only PA-bred ever to win the Kentucky Derby. (And yes, he was named for the E.T. of the Speilberg film, though I'll let readers discover the reason for that on their own.)

The "longest shot" of the title doesn't refer to E.T.'s odds in the Derby -- though he did go off in double digits -- but rather references the whole improbability of the horse racing at Churchill Downs at all. Major surgery ("rerouting the intestine") as a yearling and x-rays that showed potential problems led a number of potential buyers to pass on purchasing E.T. -- and Eisenberg does a wonderful job showing the "coulda, woulda, shoulda" aspect of auctions and ownership. At last, he ends up being trained by Lyn Whiting and ridden by Pat Day.

While the book provides biographical background of Lil E. Tee's connections, the sections of most interest at this time of year cover the Derby winner's prep schedule and training goals. For example, Whiting was "as disgusted as you can be with picking up a check for $300,000" after E.T.'s win in the Jim Beam Stakes, since the horse just seemed to idle in the stretch. How Whiting turns this around in time for a win in the Kentucky Derby makes for an interesting contrast to current Derby discussion.

Eisenberg seems to have interviewed practically everyone who ever touched Lil E. Tee, and the numerous quotes from grooms, exercise riders, jockeys, agents, owners, and trainers that pepper nearly every page lend an authenticity and liveliness to the book that played well here in the Quinella Castle. The Longest Shot is a quick, read -- and very uplifting, especially for those readers who, like the King, are considering a longshot like Bob Black Jack in this year's Derby.

Eisenberg, by the way, penned the fine racing history book, The Great Match Race: When North Met South in America's First Sports Spectacle and has co-authored My Guy Barbaro with Edgar Prado. He shared a bit on his co-authoring experience over at The Rail earlier this week.


Teresa said...

Smarty Jones was PA-bred, too.

I read The Great Match Race last year and liked it a lot, particularly for its emphasis on the history of racing in general.

Excellent reading suggestions...how on earth will my budget, my bookshelves, and my schedule allow for indulging in all of them?

Frank said...

Nice catch, QQ. Sounds like an interesting tale.

The Great Match Race was a really good book, too - I'm glad someone's (read: you) out there tracking down all the good writing being done about racing -- it's a real service.

QQ said...

Frank - Thanks for the compliment! Here at Turf Luck, we aim to please.

Teresa - Thanks for Smarty Jones; I knew I was forgetting someone! That's the only problem with reading books more than a few years old -- words like "only PA-bred" can't be trusted. By the way, for readers on a budget or with limited shelving space, the local public library is a great alternative (you knew I would say that, didn't you?)

Rising Rainbow said...

Wow, the derby is coming. I haven't even been thinking about it. Guess I better get in gear. Thanks for the tips on the books.

Anonymous said...

I really enjoyed The Longest Shot, too. The author blends the research and step-by-step details of excellent journalism with a knack for crafting a story you would only expect from a seasoned novelist. Of course, I've depended on the Queen's recommendations for years.