If you’ve been following the blog for some time, you may already be familiar with my origin story. After discovering horse racing via Walter Farley and his Black Stallion series, I watched the Triple Crown races on television, dreaming of the day that I could go see horses run LIVE. Thanks to my aunt Betty, that dream came true the next year.
I have to start this story with a bit of geography. I grew up in the Birmingham, Alabama metropolitan area, where football is king, baseball and basketball might duke it out for second, and horse racing appears down the list of sports of import — way down. (Right now, if I wanted to go to the races, the closest track would be Keeneland — five hours away. ) Not since the first part of the 20th century has the Birmingham area seen horse racing, but, in early 1987, the Birmingham Turf Club (now the Birmingham Race Course) opened. The Turf Club has live horse racing, not just simulcasting, but, as a twelve-year-old kid who lived in the ‘burbs, walking there was out of the question. That’s where my dear aunt Betty comes in.
In 1898, at the prestigious Eyrefield Lodge in Ireland, Astrology foaled a chestnut colt by Isinglass. The son of an English Triple Crown winner, the little foal soon came down with a fever, his survival uncertain. The Lodge’s stud groom, Dan McNally, wrapped the wee colt in so many blankets that he could barely move and placed him in the front of a fire in the tack room. Thanks to McNally’s attention, Astrology’s foal survived to become Star Shoot, a good racer with several stakes wins at two. By three years old, though, Star Shoot had developed a breathing issue, much like his damsire, and, was retired to stud. English and Irish breeders assumed that breathing issues were hereditary so they solved the problem of Star Shoot’s questionable genetics in their customary way: by shipping the colt abroad.
If you listen to Steve Byk’s daily radio show At the Racesfor any length of time, you will know that John Perrotta is one of those racing personalities that appears multiple times a year, talking everything from the Dublin Racing Club to handicapping and more. In addition to his position as Vice President of Operations at Santa Anita, Perrotta has a storied career as a sports reporter, freelance writer, and jack-of-all-trades around the racetrack. In his lifetime, Perrotta has worked as a hotwalker, a jockey agent, a patrol judge, a racing manager for trainer John Forbes, and a breeder among his many experiences with horses and horse racing. Upon learning that Perrotta had served as writer, technical advisor, and co-producer for the HBO series Luck, I knew that I wanted to make his book Racetracker one of my Books of Note. Boy, am I glad I did!
Racetracker recounts stories from Perrotta’s varied career in the sport, starting with a chance encounter with Nashua and Swaps on television via his father and grandfather, through his decades working in the racing industry. He covers a variety of topics, explaining how the racing industry works while recounting the details of his experiences wandering from one track to another as a gambler or a jockey’s agent and more. The stories follow one thread — Perrotta’s own life — and, by necessity, does not move in a totally linear fashion, much like anyone’s life: most lives do not go in a straight line but deviate or even fold back at times. What the reader gets from Perrotta’s style is this homey depth to the sport of horse racing; the way that he speaks of events and personalities brings a warmth that comes from listening to a one-on-one conversation with someone who has lived an interesting life. Rather than sitting alone in my office reading Perrotta’s prose, I feel as though I’m sitting at a table with him and other racetrackers, listening to them tell the tales of men they know only by nickname or sharing the inside details of a moment I might have only seen on television.
Perrotta’s writing leaves you feeling like this is a conversation between writer and reader rather than a one-sided consumption of knowledge. If you’re a longtime racing fan, his stories are a glimpse into a sport you love, both of you bitten by the same bug. If you’re new to the sport, Racetracker gives you the behind-the-scenes color that you know all sports have in one way or another. Whether your love for the world of horse racing starts with names like Nashua or Nyquist, you will enjoy this insider look at the sport. Anyone who has spent any time on the apron of a racetrack, placing bets and observing the humanity there, is going to recognize the characters and their stores contained within the covers of Racetracker. I highly recommend a visit!
Good news, everyone! I will be appearing at the Southern Kentucky Book Fest in Bowling Green, KY April 26-27. Milt Toby and I will join other University Press of Kentucky authors at the Knicely Convention Center for two days of panels, signings, and more. Come and see me as I count down toward the publication of Sir Barton & the Making of the Triple Crown! Follow SOKY Book Fest on Facebook, Twitter, & Instagram for the latest info on the upcoming 2019 Book Fest.
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