Earlier this month, I featured Dorothy Ours’s book Man o’ War: A Legend Like Lightning here on the Sir Barton Project. That book became one of my essential sources for writing Sir Barton & the Making of the Triple Crown and author Dorothy Ours herself became a valuable and welcome friend to the project as well, providing answers to a plethora of questions over the last few years. Today, I wanted to lead off my series profiling authors of these wonderful books on racing with a few questions for Dorothy. Here are her Author Answers!
Man o’ War is probably the most iconic name in horse racing. A number of books have been written about his life and career. What made you want to tackle this subject?
Tall tales! I wanted to know who Man o’ War was in real time, before myth covered him like kudzu. And there’s no doubt: he was the real deal. Phenomenal in all ways, for always. But he sometimes did have to work hard for a win. Did get out of breath. The great myth of Man o’ War is the claim that everything was supernaturally easy for him.
Come to find out, it was not. Like any superb talent who becomes the greatest kind of champion, he earned his place because he did not quit. Getting to know that flesh and blood of Man o’ War made him even more impressive and endearing to me.
P.S. History does not stop. When my book proposal went out, in 2005, the editor who bought it said he was surprised to see that there hadn’t been a full-scale nonfiction book about Man o’ War in 50 years. High time for a fresh look. Writers—if you have a new take on a classic subject, don’t be shy!
Horse racing is so dependent on the visual: watching races, examining a horse’s physique and workouts, etc. What do you see as the biggest challenge about writing on something so visual?
As a nonfiction/history writer? Fulfilling a scene without making stuff up.
Horse racing is a treat to write because it’s like watching a movie. A writer may struggle to find the word or phrase or comparison that conveys a specific moment or sensation—but any or all of the five senses can come across in writing. No limits there.
So the challenge, writing history, is to stick with what we know and how we know it. Reject colorful stories that don’t stand up to scrutiny, tempting as they may be. Focus on sensations that were reliably reported. You may be surprised what pops out. Plus, familiarize yourself with the distinct layouts and features of different racetracks, and how that affects the dynamics of a certain event. One mile at Aqueduct is different from one mile at Saratoga is different from one mile at Pimlico, and so on.
Then let each scene find its rhythm.
What does reading about racing add to the experience of the average racing fan? What can books on the history of racing do for someone who will know only 21st-century horses?
For one thing—entertainment! A lot of racing lore is, as the saying goes, stranger than fiction.
There’s also a sense of tapping into endless experience. The tensions that make each race, the agony of losing, and the joys of winning, apply to any century. The fundamentals that make outstanding horses and their human partners stay much the same. Styles change. But the grace and guts that make an Exterminator and a Kelso, a Man o’ Wan and a Secretariat, a Zenyatta and a Rachel Alexandra, an American Pharoah and a Justify—draw from an eternal well.
A modern fan who appreciates racing heroes from other times will feel giants of the sport rising up from certain cues. Santa Anita isn’t “just” a frequent host for the Breeders’ Cup—it’s Seabiscuit making his triumphant comeback. Belmont Park will always summon Secretariat “moving like a tremendous machine.” These are gateway examples. A strong stable of racing books offers this and so much more.
How did you become a racing fan?
Love at first sight. As a preschooler, seeing photos in volume H of our family’s encyclopedia, and, on T.V., the repurposed replays in the “Let’s Go to the Races” supermarket game. Anything “horse” got my attention. Plus, my dad loved sports and followed Calumet Farm when he was a boy. When Secretariat came along, I already loved Citation. Also I was saving the racing articles from Dad’s Sports Illustrated issues, and had discovered Turf and Sport Digest while buying comic books at the local newsstand. (Guess where allowance money went, from then on….)
Favorite horse racing memory?
Oh my goodness — too many! Way too many. Just thinking of moments in person, a few in no particular order: Cigar, Waquoit, Barbaro, Beautiful Pleasure, Safely Kept, Azeri, Midnight Lute, Crowd Pleaser, Excellent Tipper, and Gander, “winning” without a rider!
A uniquely wonderful one was Birdstone’s Travers. I was sheltered under the clubhouse when the storm erupted and then ran out to the winner’s circle rail-side and got drenched, in the dark, as Birdstone came back, because how could you not? If Marylou Whitney was game, so were we! Pure joy!
Thank you so much, Dorothy, for answering my questions and sharing a little bit of your writing wisdom and racing memories! If you are interested in learning more about Dorothy Ours, visit her on Facebook or Twitter. Find her books Man o’ War: A Legend Like Lightning and Battleship: A Daring Heiress, a Teenage Jockey, & America’s Horse at your favorite bookseller.