BLOOD HORSES: NOTES OF A SPORTSWRITER'S SON
by John Jeremiah Sullivan
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $22
This is an article from the April 12, 2004 issue
With horses and men both, there is an impulse to seek out
identity in heredity. We regard ourselves as the inexorable
products of the family tree, much as thoroughbred breeders,
buyers and bettors plumb the nature of a horse by consulting the
bracketed chart of its pedigree. Blood Horses follows such a
double genealogy. As John Jeremiah Sullivan retraces the life of
his recently deceased father, Mike Sullivan, a former
sportswriter at the Louisville Courier-Journal, he also pursues
an eclectic literary and sociological biography of the horse. The
two threads intersect in the colt Secretariat, whose 1973
Kentucky Derby victory Mike covered. Speaking of Secretariat two
months before his death in 2000, Mike told his son, "That was ...
just beauty, you know?"
Seeking the source of that beauty, John Sullivan, a contributing
editor at Harper's, backtracks through the evolutionary lineage
that culminates in a champion like Secretariat. He examines the
thoroughbred industry established in America two centuries ago by
Virginians who migrated across the Alleghenies to Kentucky, and
goes further back, to James Weatherby, an 18th-century English
attorney responsible for The General Stud Book, the first Western
attempt to standardize and codify pedigrees. In such practices
Sullivan finds "a culture of obsessive attention to, and love
for, a certain kind of horse ... handed down not as a set of
objects or laws but in the form of living things."
Obsessed, too, were the Spanish conquistadors and their New World
counterparts. El Morzillo, a dark gray belonging to Cortes and
left with the locals in the early 1500s, reappears to Franciscan
missionaries more than 150 years later in the form of a stone
idol, Tziunchan, found on an elevated platform, "seated on its
hindquarters like a man." The affinity traces back to prehistory.
Hunted and then domesticated by Cro-Magnons on the Eurasian
steppes, the horse was entwined with humanity from earliest
There are interpretations too of the horse in art and letters,
and it is here that Sullivan connects with his father. "Sons
often wander like sleepwalkers into their fathers' defeats," he
says, recalling his dad's failed ambition to become a novelist or
poet. Mike treasured Joyce and Faulkner and the Beats, and also
the athletes he covered--their flashes of excellence and
occasional otherworldliness, a quality embodied best by
Secretariat: "Not that he was above the field," the son writes,
"but that he was outside of it."
John Sullivan is writing about the hole in his own genealogy, the
loss of his father. In footage from the '73 Belmont he finds
sublimity in absence, in the 31 lengths of empty track, the long
seconds between Secretariat and place horse Twice A Prince.
"Somehow each of these seconds says more about what made
Secretariat great than any shot of him in motion could. In the
history of profound absences--the gaps in Sappho's fragments,
Christ's tomb, the black panels of Rothko's chapel--this is among
the most beautiful." As his father before him, Sullivan has found
the transcendent in a horse.