Friday 20 September 2019

Flowing prose an apt choice for the week that's in it

Book review

Bllod Horses
Bllod Horses

Shea Tomkins

When it comes to books about horse racing, I instinctively use Laura Hillenbrand's literary cracker 'Seabiscuit' as the yardstick against which all that followed must be measured.

Not only was 'Seabiscuit' the most engaging horse racing book that I have read, it ranks highly on the list of books that I most enjoyed across all genres. Even now the image, so masterfully created by the author, of a desperate jockey sitting neck-high in a dung heap striving vaingloriously to shed pounds to make a race-weight, springs vividly to mind.

But then 'Seabiscuit' was an easy story to adorn with bells and whistles; everyone loves an underdog that comes up good. John Jeremiah Sullivan's 'Blood Horses' is a different kettle of fish.

In a week where anyone with as much as a fingernail's amount of interest in the 'Sport of Kings' will have their attention wholeheartedly absorbed by what develops in a small town at the foot of the English Cotswolds, 'Blood Horses' presents an insight into the world of racing, and sportswriting, as it materialises on the other side of the Atlantic.

The premise to the book is this. One evening, towards the end of his life, renowned sportswriter Mike Sullivan is asked by his son what he remembered best from his 30-year career in the press box. The response came as a surprise: 'I was at Secretariat's Derby in '73...just beauty, you know?'

His son didn't know, but spent two years trying to find out. His journey takes him through the history of horses, or man's relationship with them, as well as giving us an insight into the complicated relationship between a father and son.

The father in question is a sports journalist with a unique way of words who spent his days 'pecking out strange, clever stories about inconsequential games' while he smoked and drank himself to an early death.

His dying recollection of his favourite sporting memory - witnessing Secretariat win the 1973 Kentucky Derby before completing the 'Triple Crown' (a racing treble that hasn't been achieved in nearly 35 years) - perturbs the author and his mission to undergo a similar sporting experience provides a loose background to the book.

The reader should not begin this book thinking it's another story of a great horse, with a beginning, middle and end. It is so much more than that.

Sullivan, there is no doubt, is a talented writer. And his prose flows as such that I look forward to reading future writing of his (the highly-acclaimed 'Pulphead' is a previous work).

Take the following little nugget of a paragraph that describes Secretariat's Derby win - it should get you nicely in the mood for what's to come over the next four days, albeit taking place a good distance closer to home.

'And still the old question hangs over it all: Why? Why did he run as he did? With no one forcing him, or even urging him, with no one or thing to defeat anymore, with no punishment waiting for him if he slowed?

'For this morning at least, at last, the answer is clear. It requires no faith. He ran that way, I know, because he could, and we cannot. One does not if one is beauty, have to know what beauty is.'

Words that could easily echo around Cheltenham this week.

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