John Perrotta has had a jack-of-all-trades career in racing: jockey’s agent, handicapper, sportswriter, breeder, and now Vice President, Operations at Santa Anita Park. This month, his Racetrackers was my Book of Note, a collection of stories from Perrotta’s years at the racetrack. Mr. Perrotta was kind enough to answer my questions for this week’s Author Answers.
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 Races for 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.
Want to know each time I update the blog? Click on the Follow The Sir Barton Project link to sign up for alerts! I will be updating the blog with appearances, ordering information, and more as we get closer to May 2019.
This weekend, November 2 & 3, Churchill Downs will host the 2018 Breeder’s Cup. Since its inception in 1984, the Breeder’s Cup has evolved into the climax of the racing calendar; outside of the Triple Crown classics in the spring, a number of elite horses and their connections point toward these two days of racing. Capping off the weekend is the Breeder’s Cup Classic, the mile-and-a-quarter test of the best of what racing has to offer, male or female, three years old and up. The list of Classic winners includes thirty-four years of the best horses we’ve seen on the turf — Derby winners, Dubai World Cup winners, and more, many names that went on to stamp their excellence at stud after dominating the Classic’s ten furlongs. In 2015, the Breeder’s Cup Classic featured a horse that the Breeder’s Cup had yet to see: a Triple Crown winner, American Pharoah. Continue reading “Ten Furlongs of Greatness”
Three weeks ago, I featured Eliza McGraw’s book Here Comes Exterminator! here on the blog as part of my countdown to the publication of Sir Barton and the Making of the Triple Crown. McGraw’s book on the iconic Exterminator is a valuable addition to our collective racing bookshelf, covering the parallel tracks of the Hall of Fame gelding and his Hall of Fame trainer. If you have not had a chance to read it, I highly recommend picking it up, especially if you are looking for an underdog (à la Seabiscuit) to root for.
In addition to her work with Exterminator, McGraw has contributed to a number of publications, including The Blood Horse, Equus, and the New York Times, as well as working as the researcher for the podcast The Memory Palace. And, this month, she is our featured author for Author Answers!
By early 1989, horse racing had dug itself deep into my heart, the sport destined to define my life in one way or another. At the tender age of twelve, I had been writing letters to institutions like the National Museum of Racing, seeking the information that my local libraries were woefully bereft of, and creating my own cast of characters that were pursuing the sport’s greatest heights in a handwritten novel housed in one of my old school notebooks. I was hooked and bereft of opportunities to share the enthusiasm for the upcoming Triple Crown campaign, but I didn’t let that stop me from being parked in front of the television each Saturday.
Abram Michael (A.M. or Abe) Orpen started his working life as an apprentice to a carpenter, a career path his mother set him on, but a near-death experience prompted the young Orpen to set his sights on a different path. He walked away from carpentry and into entrepreneurship, starting his own brickworks and lumber business, and then buying the Alhambra Hotel, a popular gambling saloon, in Toronto. There, he learned how bookmakers worked and, through hard work and innovation, he survived the transition from bookmakers to pari-mutuel betting, understanding that the money to be made now came from owning the tracks. He used the knowledge gained in running the Alhambra into his ownership of first Dufferin Park in Toronto and then Kenilworth Park in Windsor, Ontario.
As a child, a local librarian gifted me with some books on horses, many of which were from the 1950s and 1960s: titles like Black Gold, Misty of Chincoteague, and nonfiction books on horses soon graced my room’s shelves. Included in this stack was a plain brown book with the drawing of a horse’s head: Old Bones, the Wonder Horse by Mildred Mastin Pace. Long before I would sit down to write about another wonder horse, I read about the tall, lanky gelding that wowed crowds for ninety-nine starts, the heart-shaped blaze on his forehead an enduring symbol of a beloved thoroughbred. And, nearly thirty years later, I got to read about him again in Here Comes Exterminator! by Eliza McGraw.