Archive for May, 2018

YA Fiction Stoked My Love for the Derby

Wednesday, May 2nd, 2018 | Permalink

The draw for post positions for the 144th Kentucky Derby happened yesterday (Tuesday), and though I have little to no idea who the winner will be (Justify has the most publicity and is the favorite), I can tell you how this race influenced me into becoming a writer.

To do that we have to go back in time to provide some context. Before movies and books about Secretariat and Seabiscuit dominated the media outlets of this country in the early 2000s, stories about several fictional horses dominated the publishing and television worlds. National Velvet celebrated steeple-chasing through running in England’s Grand National and Mary O’Hara‘s part-mustang corralled horse-related sensibilities of American TV audiences with the series “My Friend Flicka.” A dearth of equine counterparts characterized what little American fiction that took place in horse racing settings.

Until Walter Farley came along. Most of you probably know him as the author of the novel, The Black Stallion which was adapted into a lyrically visual and faithfully accurate screenplay in the 1979 movie of the same name. Though the first novel culminates in a match race modeled after the real life race between Seabiscuit and War Admiral some years earlier, the novel and its sequel, The Black Stallion Returns, made into a movie four years later, are primarily adventure stories set in exotic locales that detail and celebrate the bond between a boy (Alec Ramsey) and his horse (The Black).

But undersized teenage boys do grow up and must enter the adult world. Unlike Hollywood which jettisoned the saga about The Black after Alec restored him to his rightful Arabian owner, Walter Farley faced the dilemma of what to do with his popular, teenage hero. The answer: The Son of the Black Stallion. And after that, the reuniting of the original pairing in The Black Stallion and Satan (his son). In the process Alec Ramsey transforms from a reluctant, naive jockey into a small business entrepreneur who owns his own breeding farm in the later novels in the series.

What does this have to do with my interest in horse racing, particularly the Derby? Well, in the long fictional tradition of Americans trying to save their farms (The Grapes of Wrath is one example) Alec is forced to defy tradition again by entering a daughter of The Black, Black Minx, in the Kentucky Derby. Originally published in 1952, long before the real life female exploits of Genuine Risk and Winning Colors which won the Roses in 1980 and 1988 respectively, The Black Stallion’s Filly reflects the bias of the time that quality female horses could not compete against well-bred males. Another outsider story in keeping with the exploits of her sire, Farley deftly portrayed the prejudice and excitement in Alec’s desperate bid to save his livelihood by defying thoroughbred racing orthodoxy. That story and its sequel, The Black Stallion’s Courage, provide fine insights into machinations of thoroughbred racing as practiced in the 1950s.

I devoured both of these books in my early teens, rereading them again and again until their dust jackets crumpled into shreds. Alec and The Black’s exploits ultimately ventured into other fictional genre realms of mystery, science fiction and archaeology (The Island Stallion) series, and spin-offs such as harness racing (The Blood Bay Colt) and equine treatment (The Horse Tamer). Meanwhile, my fictional interests expanded into those areas along with history and metaphysics (The Razor’s Edge). My nascent interest in horse-racing transferred to the real life pageantry and lore that surrounds horse-racing–here, in Europe, and around the world.

I’ve never enjoyed the gambling aspect of horse racing (I have placed a bet or two–some successful) nor have I ever ridden a thoroughbred (my only horseback riding experience ended in my clinging to the saddle horn for dear life while my ancient gray gelding cantered back to the bag of oats in his stall), but I retain a fondness for racing life. As such, the Kentucky Derby still thrills me as the premium example of America’s contribution to the “sport of kings.”

What do you think about the Kentucky Derby? Or horse racing in general? And Walter Farley–what is your favorite work of his? I only mentioned Flame, the Island Stallion, in passing. Do you think he’s the better horse? I find Steve Duncan’s story of how he and his friend Pitch found Flame on a deserted Caribbean Island to be more thrilling and compelling. What do you think?