If you have read Seabiscuit or Man o’ War or any other book on a horse, you know that the races are the focal point and the narrative builds around what happens between them: the decisions, the challenges, and the interactions between horses and humans that color any career. Jamie Nicholson’s book Never Say Die takes its title from the 1954 Epsom Derby winner bred in the United States and raced in England, but the title belies the story beneath. Not only does the title refer to the horse in question, but also to the state of American racing and breeding within its global context. This is a horse book unlike any other I have read, weaving together the various threads of pedigrees and persons necessary to make American thoroughbreds the gold standard for racing globally.
In the mid-20th century, thoroughbred racing was in the midst of a sea change in both how horses were bred and how the country of their birth factored into their status. The English were the progenitors of racing in America; the colonists who had settled in the New World brought thoroughbreds with them and established the conventions that would come to define American racing. As the colonies became a country, Americans continued to model their racetracks and the races they ran on them after what they saw and experienced in England. Our classics like the Kentucky Derby and the Belmont Stakes owe their distances to this desire to recreate the exacting standards that had made racing in England (and in France, to some extent) the best in the world. Limits on transportation, though, made it difficult and therefore rare for horses to cross the Atlantic in either direction before World War I. Before Never Say Die, the best of the best were considered to be in Europe, so much so that the Jersey Act prevented most American thoroughbreds from becoming part of the breeding stock in that part of the world. Their supposition was that American thoroughbreds, because of one particular uncertainty in a breeding line, were inferior to European stock.
However, as Nicholson chronicles, Never Say Die’s victory in the 1954 Epsom Derby is a product of a series of circumstances that marked a shift in that thinking. By this time, the Jersey Act was no more and a number of European sires had been imported to the United States to make impacts of their own (including siring more than one Triple Crown winner). The best breeding establishments in the world of the thoroughbred were no longer based in Europe; instead, sires like Sir Gallahad, Nasrullah, and more, the ones who were producing horses like Never Say Die, were coming from the United States, especially from the bluegrasses of Kentucky. Never Say Die himself, the first Epsom Derby winner owned by an American in more than 70 years, had been foaled at the same Hamburg Place foaling barn where five Kentucky Derby winners (and a Triple Crown winner) had been foaled. From 1954 on, the tables begin to turn and American breeding becomes the model that the rest of the world seeks to copy.
Never Say Die the book pivots on the 1954 Epsom Derby, spending the first half tracing the circumstances that led up to that seminal moment and then following up the colt’s two-length victory with an exploration of the aftermath of this shift in the locus of thoroughbred breeding. Woven in with this are stories about sewing machines, the Aga Khan(s), the Beatles, and the origins of a number of breeding institutions that modern racing fans will know. Never Say Die is a study in how horse racing in America became the dominant force in the sport worldwide, a result of the perfect storm of industry, innovation, and investment.
Here is a British Pathe recap of the 1954 Epsom Derby and Never Say Die’s victory.