The 20th century had two Big Reds: Man o’ War and Secretariat, both horses so dominant that they topped the list of the century’s greatest horses at numbers one and two. Both red chestnuts captured the hearts and imaginations of the people who watched them. Both inspired writers and verse to encapsulate their equine greatness, with multiple books devoted to their stories. These Big Reds stood at the top, their brilliant performances their legacy to the sport of horse racing. Behind those thrilling moments, though, lie their catalysts, the horses who might have finished second but drove those Big Reds to bigger and better. Among those were horses like Sir Barton and Sham.
In 1978, as Affirmed and Alydar sizzled down the stretch of the Belmont Stakes, I was a one-year-old toddler oblivious to the drama playing out between these two colts. It would be a decade before I would learn of their legendary battles amid the backdrop of racing’s most elite pursuit, the Triple Crown. To this day, I imagine that, like any rivalry, I would find fans who would be firmly on one side or the other. Affirmed or Alydar? The golden chestnut of Harbor View Farm & his owners Lou & Patricia Wolfson or the reddish-gold son of Raise a Native, the last great hope of the Markeys and the legendary Calumet Farm?
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 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!
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!
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.
Over the last century, Man o’ War has dominated the lists of the best horses of the 20th century, claiming the imaginations and hearts of racing fans everywhere. His burnished red coat and distinctive blaze are well known to even the most casual of fan alongside tales of his titanic speed and overpowering wins. As a fan of Walter Farley, I read his novel about Man o’ War; falling in love with racing meant that I had heard those same stories of his dominance familiar to anyone who loves thoroughbreds. When I started working on Sir Barton’s story, I knew I would have to delve deeper into the careers of both my horse and his big red rival. One of the first books I picked up to research the match race and all that lead up to it was Dorothy Ours’s Man o’ War: A Legend Like Lightning. What I found in Ours’s book was more than a recounting of Man o’ War’s exploits: it was an exploration of the rich context that both created and benefitted from the champion that set the standard for every horse that followed in his wake.
From the first, this book sets up the stories of the people behind the moments that made Man o’ War. She opens with glimpses at Johnny Loftus, H.G. Bedwell, August Belmont, Louis Feustel, and Samuel Riddle, introducing you to these major players with context that helps you understand how small decisions play into big moments. Johnny Loftus’s honesty, steadfast in the face of unsavory influences, is part of his fame and fortune, but also contributes to his downfall. Ours’s anecdote from the first chapter pays off later in the book, when you see just how much it matters that Loftus was honest almost to a fault. Man o’ War’s story is not just the speed records and overwhelming dominance that he displayed under rider. It is also in these behind-the-scenes glimpses into the people who decided when and where he would run.
In the 1920 Lawrence Realization, Man o’ War set a world record for a mile and five-eighths, besting the old record by nearly two seconds. Owner Samuel Riddle had originally ordered that the colt would run freely only during that last quarter mile, but his wife Elizabeth persuaded her husband to let Man o’ War run as he wished throughout the entire thirteen furlongs so that the crowd could see what the colt truly could do. While Samuel Riddle might have been the face that people saw, his wife’s influence, brought to the fore by Ours’s storytelling, was as much of a force behind this great red racer as her husband.
Anecdotes and details like these are what makes Man o’ War: A Legend Like Lightning an essential read for any racing fan, whether you are new to the game or have loved racing for years. We all know the legend, but Ours gives you more than that. She gives you the rest, the moments and memories that made Man o’ War and his time so essential to the history of this sport. The richness she adds to his story is why I wanted to make this book the first one I would profile in my countdown to the publication of Sir Barton and the Making of the Triple Crown. In addition to the fountain of information Ours’s work became for my book, it also provided an engrossing reading experience I have been happy to return to over and over.