Drive around Maryland’s thoroughbred horse country, and it’s hard to imagine a more picturesque scene than the mare and her foal romping in a shamrock green field. It is equally hard to imagine the carefully orchestrated breeding and the trials of their short lived careers. Just in time for this year's Triple Crown campaign, two new books take an in-depth look at these storied animals whose equine feats define the sport of kings.
In his well-researched biography, Eclipse: the Horse that Changed Racing History Forever, journalist Nicholas Clee brings to life the greatest horse of all time and his roguish owner, Dennis O'Kelly. Clee vividly describes mid-18th century Georgian England as a gambler's paradise. In this milieu, the Irishman wheels and deals, until he has purchased the undefeated Eclipse, the freakishly fast chestnut thoroughbred whose astounding number of progeny includes this year's Derby and Preakness winner I'll Have Another. How O'Kelly and his brothel-owning companion, Charlotte, manage to reap the benefits from their chosen activities and turn a racehorse into a breeding stallion for the ages is what makes this historical narrative fun to read.
Fast forward 250 years to Susan Nusser's Kentucky Derby Dreams: The Making of Thoroughbred Champions. Nusser deftly records the behind-the-scenes pulse of one of Kentucky's elite horse breeding operations as it readies for a new crop of foals. It is an exhausting schedule of barn rounds, meetings, crises, x-rays, and runway-like parading, all in the hope of getting to the yearling sales. Nusser's prose is fast paced and heartfelt. A prime example is when she describes a mare's anguish over the death of a foal: "her wail is steady, coming in waves, one right after the other." Making it to the finish line is never taken for granted.
Horse lovers and historians, including fans of Laura Hillenbrand's Seabiscuit and Jane Smiley's Horse Heaven, will appreciate these revealing glimpses inside the racing world and the fragile four-legged athletes who run their hearts out.