I am still at my parents’, enjoying a long Christmas weekend, digesting Christmas leftovers and vegging in front of the NCIS Marathon on USA. (Someday I’m going to name a horse “Yankee White”.) As such, I won’t be seeing Lucky until Monday, and that of course depends on whether or not the roads are icy deathtraps or not. I did get a new leather halter for him for Christmas. So instead of a Lucky update, I thought I would go through my shelves of horse books that I’ve acquired over the years and do a blog post about some of my favorites.
A few notes on books: I have a lot. I grew up in a house literally full of books. We’ve always had hundreds, and now a few thousand, and I’ve been buying books for just about as long as I can remember. Probably my least-favorite place to buy them is ordinary ‘first-run’ bookstores. Used bookstores are better. Thrift shops, Goodwill, and yard sales are even better. If there’s one thing I hate, it’s books being thrown away. Plus it always seemed, when I was a kid, the best horse stories came from old books. A large portion of my collection are paperbacks from the 1960s, with yellowing paper and questionable bindings, and with more illustrations than tween books now days generally have.
One author most horse-crazy girls (and boys) have probably encountered, hopefully with fondness, is C. W. Anderson. He’s probably best known for his “Billy and Blaze” series, and not a few horse-crazy children probably read The Crooked Colt as one of their first picture books, but I mainly stumbled across him through books like Afraid to Ride, Another Man o’ War, and his nonfiction “sketchbooks” detailing the lives of noteworthy horses. Some volumes, like Deep Through the Heart, include horses of unknown breeding, like British caisson horse Putnam, Connemara jumping phenom Little Squire (who jumped seven feet) and American foundation stallion Justin Morgan, but most, including A Touch of Greatness and Thoroughbreds focus almost exclusively on notable Thoroughbreds of history. Even in his fiction, where horses like the titular crooked colt or the abused and recovering show hunter Fair Lady in Afraid to Ride are, going on appearances or context, supposed to be Thoroughbreds. Even Fair Lady’s name is a possible “shout-out” to Fair Play, sire of Man o’ War, and as Anderson would undoubtedly have pointed out, of Display, Chance Play, My Play, and other horses great in their own right, if not quite to the stature of their half sibling.
Display, a name still familiar to students of thoroughbred pedigrees, is given the first chapter of the book A Touch of Greatness. Other chapters are given over to equally familiar names (Marguerite, the great broodmare.) Others, in that book and in Thoroughbreds and Deep Through the Heart, range from names still remembered and enjoying a resurgence (Fair Play, Seabiscuit), to the barely-remembered (Black Gold, Discovery, Domino, the undefeated Kinscem) to the now-obscure (Marriage, Market Wise, Golden Meadow, War Plumage). Reading the books, looking at Anderson’s soft-focus but highly realistic drawings, is like taking a trip back to a time when these weren’t semi-forgotten answers to trivia questions. When horse racing was covered like NASCAR and professional football. People didn’t only know the name of the Kentucky Derby winner–they knew who was running in the Dwyer, the Suburban, the Jockey Club Gold Cup (at its original two miles, still a remarkable but not an unthinkable distance.) There were racehorses whose names were as familiar to the general public as Babe Ruth’s or Joe DiMaggio’s, with write-ups on the same sports pages.
So what happened?