In 2005, after my first day at the races, still breathless from the rush of the wind at the rail, the sound of hoofbeats still ringing in my ear, I scurried to the racing section of my library where I searched for a suitable introduction to the world of thoroughbred racing. Tucked on the bottom shelf at SF 335 .U5 S56, I discovered Racing Through The Century: The Story of Thoroughbred Racing by Mary Simon. It was an awkward book to carry home on the bus, verging on the coffee-table size, and though my arm was numb by the time my stop arrived, once I was ensconced in my comfy armchair, I simply could not put it down. While it's chock full of photos and illustrations, it was the text, arranged by decade, that held my attention. And scattered throughout an engaging history of racing trends and historic events were wonderfully-told biographies of the sport's stars. Jockeys and trainers and owners ... and horses. Hundreds of horses galloped through the pages, brought to life in succinct and often moving prose. The author was eloquent without being flowery, moving without being maudlin. And she could capture the essence of some of the sport's most beloved runners in a mere page. This was a woman who knew words and could make them count.
So who better to serve as steward of the annual running of the Monograph Mile? Better known as the Dr. Tony Ryan Book Award, this race takes place on -- gasp -- printed pages, and recognizes the best racing-related book of 2009. And since its inception, Mary Simon has been coordinating the award. This year, she's teamed with Kay Coyte and Rudolph Alvarado to select the winner.
In previous years, I've handicapped the full field of possible nominations, but this year I found myself a bit too busy to keep up with racetrack reading. At least it's not too late to handicap the three finalists going to the post on Friday:
Beyond the Homestretch: What I've Learned from Saving Racehorses by Lynn Reardon. Reardon was once an accountant in Washington, DC; now she runs LOPE (Lonestar Outreach to Place Ex-Racers) and hangs out with retired racehorses in Texas. Judging by the experiences she relates in the book, the change agrees with her. Reardon's style is engaging, and she tells good stories. This entry has personality in abundance, and the barn seems thoroughly modern, complete with Twitter feed, Facebook page, and blog. If you'd like to see this one in the paddock, the first chapter is online at the Beyond the Homestretch website(pdf). TL odds: 9-2.
Keeneland's Ted Bassett: My Life by Ted Bassett and Bill Mooney. I usually find autobiographical books from powerful men to be a bit dry, but Bassett wears the prestige of being "one of racing's most revered leaders" lightly. He's joined by one of the best racing writers out there, Bill Mooney, to craft a fascinating look at a life lived well. The book begins with his description of how he became the President of Keeneland, but I found the descriptions of his interactions with Queen Elizabeth even more entertaining. Judging from the interview that Bassett and Mooney did with Bill Goodman (video), the voice in the book is Bassett's own: never arrogant, often wry, and always straightforward. A short excerpt on tedbassett.com offers a peek in the paddock. This entry from the strong University of Kentucky Press barn certainly has the pedigree to be a winner. TL odds: 3-1.
The Kentucky Derby Vault: A History of the Run for the Roses by Andrew Plattner. There's always one entrant that puzzles me, and this year, it's The Kentucky Derby Vault. I haven't seen a copy of it, but it sounds like the entry is sporting some special equipment:
This attractive coffee-table book is like none other we have"Playful interactive dimension"? "Attached pockets"? Interpreting this is like reading Racing Post speed figs for the 2nd at Ascot. However, last year's winner, The Untold Story of Joe Hernandez also featured extra equipment -- a CD of Hernandez's race calls -- and I swore I would never ignore this kind of thing again. In addition, Plattner won the Flannery O'Connor Award for his short story collection, Winter Money. And the Boston Review noted that of the ten stories in Winter Money, nine mention horses, racing or wagering in the first paragraph! Thus, sight unseen, I'm taking the mystery horse for the win. TL odds: 2-1.
seen, combining strong text, plenty of rich archival photography,
and a playful interactive dimension. Unexpected treats are
tucked away in attached pockets throughout. Among the surprises:
reproduction vintage postcards, reprints of pages from
old programs, and replicas of antique Derby day passes—including
a lady’s complimentary badge from 1911. All look and
feel authentic. (Thoroughbred Times)
Those lucky enough to be in the Lexington area can check out the jockeys up close and personal, as all three authors will be at Keeneland on Friday from 2:00 to 4:00. The winner will be announced at an invitation-only reception at Castleton Lyons on Friday night.
Castleton Lyons partners with Thoroughbred Times to sponsor the Dr. Tony Ryan Book Award And the award is substantial: $10,000, as much as a Pulitzer Prize! Yet, while Pulitzer Prize winners are always a "must buy" in the library world, you'd be hard pressed to find a library that owns all 3 of the Dr. Tony Book Award winners. (In fact, it appears that even the Lexington Public Library doesn't own last year's winner!)
I mention this because once again, Thoroughbred Times has posted a handy-dandy list of the six semi-finalists (pdf) complete with summaries of the books and a history of the award. Perhaps, if you would like to promote racing at a local level, you might want to send a copy to your friendly neighborhood librarian. Librarians try to collect a wide range of materials, but often the bottom line is heavily influenced by requests from the community. That would be ... you!
Amidst all the laments on how to create racing fans, no one ever suggests sharing a good racing book with newbies. Yet I for one was hooked when I borrowed Mary Simon's Horse Racing Through The Century from the library. And the latest NEA survey on reading found that, for the first time since 1982, reading is on the rise.
Maybe, just maybe, getting racing books into libraries can help create new track-goers. And it's something any racing fan can do, without waiting for the NTRA, the NYRA the governor of New York, the Breeder's Cup committee, or some whiz kid with a killer app for the iPad.
So go ahead, exercise your freedom, preserve a piece of racing history, and make a recommendation to your public library. Better yet, buy a copy of the winner when it's announced and donate it to your library. We'll take good care of it, I promise.