For whatever reason, the following article became the most read post on my previous blog. It's time for an update. I'm an avid reader. Having a new baby in my house has limited my reading somewhat, but I still find time to read. It's the television that gets less attention. As summer begins, I am currently reading "Out Of The Clouds" by Linda Carroll and David Rosner. It is a newer horse racing book and one that I wanted to read for quite a while. The book tells the story of Stymie and his trainer Hirsch Jacobs. While that is my current book, I must warn you that I need to re-read "Ruffian: Burning From the Start" by Jane Schwartz, so I didn't feel it appropriate to put the book on this list until I re-read it. "Secretariat" by William Nack is also absent simply because I have not read it. Many consider it the second best horse racing book. It's on order and will be the next book I read.
This is not a list of handicapping books or books about picking winning horses, but a list of the best books that deal with the great sport of horse racing. For handicapping books just read Tom Ainslie. Read "Exotic Betting" and "Betting on Myself" by Steve Crist. Get a copy of "Betting Thoroughbreds for the 21st Century" by Steve Davidowitz. Read anything by Andrew Beyer or James Quinn. Beyer’s book, "My $50,000 Year At The Races" was a bargain when I found it for $2.99 on the Kindle. Nevertheless, this list is about horse racing books, not handicapping books. And when talking about the best horse racing books, the list begins with a look at life at a low-level track.
Not By A Longshot: A Season At A Hard-luck Horse Track by T.D. Thornton
“Suffolk Downs is built on a dump. In 1935, when the popularity of horse racing was just beginning to soar, the track was constructed on an oceanside landfill straddling the cities of East Boston and Revere. Quickly transformed into the showcase racecourse of the flourishing New England circuit, the onetime trash heap was nationally lauded as one of the finest horse facilities in the era.” Thus begins Thornton’s inside look at Suffulk Downs. I love books that take an in-depth look at a season or a team or a racetrack. Think "Fab Five" by Mitch Albom or "The Game" by Ken Dryden. Published in 2007, Thornton gives readers the inside look from the perspective of a racing reporter and press box personality at Suffolk Downs.
Amazon Book Description
The great myth of horse racing is that the game is the regal and royal Sport of Kings. It isn’t. Not by a long shot.
Anyone who doubts this need look no further than Suffolk Downs, a once-proud racecourse graced in its glory years by boisterous throngs and champions such as Seabiscuit. Now the blue-collar East Boston track is one of many that have fallen on hard times. These days “Sufferin’ Downs” is where grizzled Thoroughbreds come to end their careers, hopeful young jockeys aspire against daunting odds to begin them, and diehard fans cheer, curse and gamble on the entire fascinating spectacle. These bit players are not just cogs of a single, struggling horse track. They are the unseen supporting cast for a $15 billion betting industry.
In fifteen years as a racing reporter and press box personality, T.D. Thornton gained access to remote corners of racetrack life off limits to the general public. He got to know the raucously Runyonesque characters and the quirky personalities of the horses; he learned the tricks of the trade from trainers, owners, and jockeys; he witnessed the tragedies and small triumphs of racing lives lived below the radar. One recent season, he finally decided to write it all down. Not by a Long Shot is a deeply textured portrait of an industry where even the best in the business lose 75 percent of the time.
Horseplayers: Life At The Track by Ted McClelland
How can you not love a book that starts with the sentence, “Getting hooked on gambling was the best thing that ever happened to me.” Critics write about McClelland’s witty prose which in my mind is best exemplified in great quotes like the one to follow. McClelland writes, "My obesssion with horses reached unnatural levels: when the Sports Illustrated swimsuit edition came out, I flipped past the bikini shots, looking for articles about racing. At gas stations, when I asked for 'ten dollars on number five,' my tongue wanted to add 'to win.'"
While "Not By A Long Shot" gives a glimpse of Suffolk Downs, McClelland gives the reader a look at the horseplayers at Hawthorne Racecourse in Chicago. He focuses on the people you see at the racetrack -the regulars. And for anyone who has ever dreamed of making a living betting on horses, the author gives us a real-life account of that heroic pursuit. An entertaining read that’s so good I own the paperback and the Kindle version.
Amazon Book Description
This fun and witty exposé of horse racing in America goes behind the scenes at the track, providing a serious gambler’s-eye-view of the action. Ted McClelland spent a year at tracks and off-track betting facilities in Chicago and across the country, profiling the people who make a career of gambling on horses. This account follows his personal journey of what it means to be a player as he gambles with his book advance using various betting and handicapping strategies along the way. A colorful cast of characters is introduced, including the intensely disciplined Scott McMannis, “The Professor," a onetime college instructor who now teaches a course in handicapping, and Mary Schoenfeldt, a former nun and gifted handicapper who donates all of her winnings to charity. This moving account of wins, losses, and personal turmoil provides a sobering look at gamblers, gambling, and life at the track.
The Home Run Horse by Glenye Cain
I love the breeding and sales aspect of thoroughbred horse racing. So, this book easily makes my list of best horse racing books. The subtitle reads, “Inside America’s Billion-Dollor Racehorse Industry And The High-Stakes Dreams That Fuel It.” A very respected name for people that follow the sport, Cain gives a well-researched look at the industry that has become a textbook of sorts for me personally, complete with highlighted and underlined passages throughout. The book is worth the price simply for the chapter on Michael Dickinson and the story of Da Hoss. As a bonus, the book ends with the feel-good story of Arthur Hancock and Gato Del Sol. And in between are stories of Sheikh Mohammed, Robert Sangster, John Magnier, Tapit, Vindication, Fusaichi Pegasus, and Seattle Slew. This is a great book for any horse racing fan, especially those who love the breeding and sales part of the business.
Book Review from Publishers Weekly
Cain reaches the winner’s circle with this thorough, enthralling study of the Thoroughbred horse racing industry, which, over the past century, has gone from gentleman’s hobby to billion-dollar business. At annual auctions like the Fasig-Tipton in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., would-be buyers dressed in Town & Country–style silk suits place big bets in their quest for the “home-run horse,” a Triple Crown contender with millions of dollars in earning potential, or “the Thoroughbred sport’s equivalent of hitting the lottery.” Cain, a Daily Racing Form editor, explains how one such mogul—wealthy, bespectacled, 53-year-old Satish Sanan—hit pay dirt when his $2.15-million yearling, aptly named Vindication, won the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile and skyrocketed in value. Other beneficiaries include breeders like Taylor Made Farm, a family-run operation near Lexington, Ky., that holds up to 650 Thoroughbreds at a time and has generated $830 million in revenue over its 25-year history. The high stakes puts pressure squarely on the trainers, who are expected to produce the next Unbridled’s Song or Seattle Slew; as one puts it, “You didn’t want the horse to lose when you knew the owner had $30,000 or $40,000 bet on him.” Cain’s captivating book brims with history, drama and characters; readers will be sucked in long before crossing the finish line.
Wild Ride: The Rise and Tragic Fall of Calumet Farm, Inc., America’s Premier Racing Dynasty by Ann Hagedorn Auerbach
I don’t know any horse racing book that can beat this one for sheer suspense. From the first few pages, the author has you on the edge of your seat. It reads like a fiction book you would find in the crime/mystery/suspense genres, only this is a true story. A thrilling read that I highly recommend. I found this book while on vacation at a Barnes & Noble in Lexington, before I was deeply involved in the horse racing world. I came into this book not knowing anything about Calumet Farm. Though some of the names and horses sounded familiar, I did not know this twisted tale. No highlighter or pen needed for this book. You won’t want to put it down. It reads like the best fiction books, whether your tastes be more Michael Connelly or John Grisham. A great read that could easily occupy the number one slot.
Journalist Auerbach untangles the spiderweb of financial machinations that enveloped, consumed, and ultimately destroyed one of the most famous horseracing stables in the world. Through three generations of the Wright family, Calumet led, lost, and regained its preeminence as a breeding farm and racing stable only to lose everything, including the family’s fortune, in the fourth generation. Chronicling the history of Calumet and its fall into the depths of massive debt, this well-researched, fast-paced book sheds new light on the destruction of Calumet and exposes the excesses of the 1980s. Highly recommended. (Susan Hamburger, Pennsylvania State Univ., University Park)
Horse of a Different Color by Jim Squires
I fell in love with horse racing while reading this book. My wife actually read the book first. At the time, she would not have considered herself a horse person or an avid reader. She devoured the book, and then I read it. Jim Squires gives the reader the inside look behind Kentucky Derby winner Monarchos, written by the breeder himself. Again, being someone who loves the breeding and sales part of thoroughbred horse racing, I enjoyed reading about the farm, the sales, and the planned matings. The reader is also along for the ride as Monarchos comes onto the Derby trail and eventually records the fastest winning Derby time since Secretariat.
Because of this book, I consider Monarchos my favorite horse of all-time. My wife and I visited Monarchos twice during his stallion career- once at Claiborne Farm and once at Nuckols Farm. I even located Two Bucks Farm, the birthplace of Monarchos, when on a vacation to thoroughbred horse country and snapped a selfie with me and my copy of the book in front of the farm. Books have the power to touch readers in ways that television and even movies cannot. Though the book has caused me to bet on way too many grey/roan horses, it is still one of my favorite horse racing books.
Amazon Book Description
Everybody in the thoroughbred horse business wants to win the Kentucky Derby, but the odds on making it to the winner’s circle at Churchill Downs are about 35,000-to-1. How did a former Chicago newspaper editor bring together the stallion and mare and breed the winner of the world’s most famous and important horserace?
Jim Squires’s "Horse of a Different Color" tells the story of his wild ride from absurdity to glory at the pinnacle of horseracing success alongside Monarchos, the charismatic gray colt blessed with the extraordinary speed, poise, and stamina necessary to carry his motley band of human handlers to the highest level of their profession. Squires takes you on an exciting journey through the close-knit and secretive world of horse breeders, buyers, sellers, owners, and trainers. And his hilarious tour of racehorse culture ends with a blazing sprint down the homestretch of the second fastest Derby in history in the company of a crowd of Kentuckians driven mad with “Derby Fever.”
Seabiscuit by Laura Hillenbrand
This is the best horse racing book ever written, and the best book I have ever read. I had not read Seabiscuit when I wrote my original blog post five plus years ago. I never read books after watching the movie. Yes, the book is always better, but I still struggle to find the motivation to go back and read the book. I broke all the rules with Laura Hillenbrand’s book. And, not only is Seabiscuit the best horse racing book of all-time, it is one of the best nonfictions books ever written.
Hillenbrand ranks with Michael Lewis as one of the best nonfiction writers of modern times. With "Seabiscuit" and now "Unbroken," she has two incredible works of nonfiction to her credit. Hillenbrand writes in such a way that even people with zero interest in horse racing will find this a compelling read. One of the most helpful reviews on Amazon begins with the title of “The most engrossing book I have read in five years.” The reviewer continues by writing the following:
“Let me say a few things up front: I have never set foot on a racetrack, I have watched the Kentucky Derby maybe twice on TV and I have little interest in jockeys, horse trainers or horses in general. For those who think this is a book about a racehorse, think again. It is a wonderful, descriptive work about the underdog, about triumph over adversity, about personality in animals and, most importantly, about a rarely discussed slice of America. With a keen sportswriter's eye toward detail as well as broader context, Ms. Hillenbrand has written a vivid description of an amazing animal, the three men around him and an era in American sports and history.”
In the same way that "The Blind Side" by Michael Lewis is not really about football, "Seabiscuit" is not really a book about horse racing. But people in the thoroughbred horse industry should be thrilled that a gifted writer chose to tell this story. Hillenbrand is an artist at the top of her profession. Watch the movie, but definitely read the book. I consider myself a voracious reader and this is the best book I have ever read. I have re-read the book multiple times, and I highly recommend it.
Charlie Munger said, “In my whole life I’ve known no wise person who didn’t read all the time- none, zero.” Munger is probably best known for being Warren Buffett’s business partner. Munger goes on to say, “You’d be amazed at how much Warren reads- and at how much I read. My children laugh at me. They think I’m a book with a couple of legs sticking out.”
In his article "So Why Read Anymore?," Victor Davis Hanson writes that reading is exercise for the mind and leads to a mastery of words. Hanson writes, “Reading alone enriches our vocabulary; it teaches us that good writing requires a sense of melody as well as a command of grammar. Soon those well-read become the well-spoken.” Become well-read when it comes to books about horses. Grab a good horse racing book from the list above and exercise your mind this summer.
I close with some words from David McCullough, the author and historian who has won the Pulitzer Prize twice. In a commencement speech to the graduates of Boston College, McCullough told the graduates, "Read. Read. Read! Read the classics of American literature that you've never opened. Read your country's history... Read about the great turning points in the history of science and medicine and ideas. Read for pleasure, to be sure. I adore a good thriller or a first-rate murder mystery. But take seriously- read closely books that have stood the test of time. Study a masterpiece, take it apart, study its architecture, its vocabulary, its intent. Underline, make notes in the margins, and after a few years, go back and read it again. Make use of the public libraries. Start your own personal library and see it grow. Talk about the books you're reading. Ask other what they're reading. You'll learn a lot."
Read. Read horse racing books. Read about the great race horses from decades ago. Study a masterpiece like "Seabiscuit." Start your own personal library of horse racing books. Find your favorites and then re-read them again. Thanks for reading.
Others Not Mentioned
"Diary Of A Dream" by George Rowand
"Stud: Adventures in Breeding" by Kevin Conley
"Funny Cide" by Sally Jenkins
"Headless Horsemen" by Jim Squires
"Laughing In The Hills" by Bill Barich (This book makes many lists of the best sports books ever written, so I needed to mention it. Along with Secretariat by William Nack, this book is also being shipped to me at the time of writing this post. These two books will be my next books to read.)