A FINE PLACE TODAYDREAM
by Bill Barich
Alfred A. Knopf, 228 pages, $23
No nation loveshorse racing more than Ireland, where the most successful bookmaker is a guynamed Paddy Power. Seriously. When asked what makes his chain of 200 bettingshops so profitable, Power replies, "The Irish bet with the heart, not thehead. And they love to beat the English."
What does horseracing have to do with beating the English? Bill Barich answers this question,and many others, in the best Irish tradition--with a story. In 1907 a horsenamed Orby shocked the British by becoming the first Irish-bred entry to winthe Epsom Derby. Spontaneous celebrations erupted throughout Ireland, and inDublin one old woman, standing before a crackling bonfire, was heard to shout,"Thank God! We've lived to see a Catholic horse win the EnglishDerby!"
The ever passionateand frequently hilarious world of Irish steeplechase racing is a splendidsubject for Barich, whose 1980 book, Laughing in the Hills, is regarded as oneof the best ever written about horse racing in the U.S. But it wasn't Barich'slove of horses that drew him to Ireland. It was his love of an Irish woman,Imelda Healy, whom he met in London in 2001, followed to her homeland and latermarried. It was only a matter of time until he found his way to the Irishracecourses, which compare more than favorably with our own. "Nowhere did Iwitness the air of drudgery that hangs over most American tracks," writesBarich, "where the regular customers could be punching a clock at a factorythey hate."
In Ireland, Barichencounters what has to be the most charming collection of horse-lovingtrainers, jockeys and bookmakers ever assembled. Any good book set in Irelandis bound to be full of beguiling characters. The surprise here: The mostbeguiling, by far, are the horses.
Nearly everyone inIrish racing (or, at least, in Barich's book) is convinced that each horse hasa personality nearly as complicated as a human's, and the animals are treatedaccordingly. Best Mate, three-time winner of the Cheltenham Gold Cup(steeplechasing's Kentucky Derby), receives hundreds of greeting cards fromfans, "often," Barich writes, "with sprigs of heather or cloverenclosed, to wish him good luck." When the legendary Florida Pearl's skillsbegin to decline, he is sent to an equine physiotherapist named Grainne NiChaba, who spends months nursing the horse back to health with a regimen ofmassage, electrotherapy and laser treatments. The book's most captivatinghorse, however, is Moscow Flyer, whom the author describes as cerebral butfrustrating, invariably following up a string of victories with a disastrousrace. "He's never been beaten," writes Barich, "except when he'sbeaten himself." The problem: Moscow's tendency to "go all dreamy,"rather like the author himself.
It may be Barich'sdreaminess that accounts for his only stumble. Having humanized the racehorsesand assured readers that "the Irish treat their horses with love andrespect," he is puzzlingly blasé about the animals' deaths. According toanimal welfare advocates, 250 steeplechase horses die in competition in Britainand Ireland in a typical year, a fact Barich fails to mention. One of lastyear's victims was the beloved Best Mate, who, at age 10, dropped dead shortlyafter a race--he literally ran to death.
Race of the (19th) Century
THE GREAT MATCH RACE
by John Eisenberg
Houghton Mifflin, $25
Ever since the success of Laura Hillenbrand's Seabiscuitin 2002, more books about racehorses have been published than you can shake ahoof at--though all too many have proved to be nags. But John Eisenberg, asports columnist for the Baltimore Sun, gives fresh legs to the genre with TheGreat Match Race, a chronicle of the 1823 showdown between Eclipse, the fastesthorse in the North, and Henry, the pride of the South, at Union Course inJamaica, New York.
Odds against the Northerner ought to have beenprohibitive: Eclipse was nine years old, and the handicapping rules of the dayrequired him to carry 126 pounds while his 4-year-old foe carried just 108.Worse, Eclipse's owner, Cornelius Van Ranst, replaced his horse's longtimejockey, Samuel Purdy, with a younger, inexperienced rider, Billy Crafts.
Henry won the first race in the best-of-three heats, butthen Van Ranst sought out Purdy among the 60,000 spectators (a crowd ofunprecedented size for an American sporting event) and begged him to get backin the saddle. Purdy did, and Henry was routed. Years later Boston mayor JosiahQuincy would say, "It was the first great contest between North and South,[foreshadowing] the sterner conflict that occurred 40 years afterward."