This weekend, both Milt Toby and I will be at the Southern Kentucky Book Festival in Bowling Green, Kentucky. Milt will be there to talk about Taking Shergar, his book on the kidnapping of Shergar, 1981 Epsom Derby winner, and the mystery surrounding the horse’s ultimate fate. I can’t wait for the chance to talk to Milt in person about his latest book, which I profiled here earlier this month. To follow up my profile of Taking Shergar, here are Milt Toby’s Author Answers!
For my final Books of Note prior to the publication of Sir Barton and the Making of the Triple Crown, I wanted to spotlight Taking Shergar, the first book published under the Horses in History imprint from the University Press of Kentucky. Much like Jamie Nicholson’s book Never Say Die, Milt Toby tells the story that starts with a horse and ends with a story woven together from unexpected threads, a mystery that only a storyteller like Toby can truly tell.
I knew of Shergar as racing’s most famous cold case, a horse kidnapped for ransom and never recovered. However, like most mysteries, I discovered that this one has so much more to it than I thought.
My Book of Note for March is Never Say Die by Jamie Nicholson, a book about the winner of the 1954 Epsom Derby. Never Say Die’s victory marked the swing in how the thoroughbred industry regarded American breeding versus that of their European counterparts. The story of Never Say Die’s Derby win weaves together disparate threads of a story, from the genesis of the Beatles to the controversial figure behind the Singer Manufacturing Company.
Author Jamie Nicholson was kind enough to answer some questions about the book and his family’s Jonabell Farm (now part of Darley America), where Never Say Die was bred. Here are Jamie’s Author Answers!
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.
Recently, I had the joy of reading and writing about Phil Dandrea’s book Sham: Great Was Second Best here on the blog. Sham had a great career of his own, winning races like the Santa Anita Derby, but happened to be born in the same year as the second-best horse of the 20th century. Now, let’s hear from the author himself and find out a little bit more about writing this book on the horse that pushed Secretariat during his 1973 Triple Crown run.
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!