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Thursday, July 19, 2007

Book Review: The Blue Collar Thoroughbred

Book Review of: Gene McCormick The Blue Collar Thoroughbred: An Inside Account of the Real World of Racing (McFarland & Company, 2007) 172 pages, ISBN 978-0-7864-3049-9 ($29.95) paperback

If you are looking for a dense, detailed analysis of the everyday business of horseracing, this book is not for you. Instead, this slender volume presents little gems of knowledge best suited to a newcomer or even intermediate student of the game, but even seasoned veterans will enjoy, and doubtlessly shake their heads in acknowledgement of, the tales of owners, trainers, jockeys and horses that Gene McCormick shares with us here. As noted in his prologue: This book chronicles everyday blue-collar lunch-pail Thoroughbreds and those who depend on them to grind out a livelihood. It is an inside story of the middle-and lower-echelon runners that compete when the television cameras are turned off, and it is a story of trainers who drive well-traveled, rusted pickup trucks with cracked windshields and of jockeys whose Sunday best is blue denim and of owners and who hope the check for their next feed bill clears. And while his book does do this, my complaint is he could have done a great deal more in terms of depth and breadth of examples. Still, for what it is, this is an engaging book.

For anyone who ever wondered about how low and mid-level racehorses make it to the track, this book does a fine job of taking you through the process. Beginning with trainer and bloodstock agent Dan Arrigo’s “pickle” auctions at Hawthorne, through purchases by trainers such as West Virginia-based Dale Baird and Lou O’Brien’s main trainer Ralph Martinez, McCormick explores how they plot to get one or more good races out of these horses. He does an excellent job explaining the ins-and-outs of claiming process, even showing pictures of a blank claim form, and he doesn’t candy-coat how hard this kind of life is on the horses.

It’s not the first time the author delved into the grittier, less glamorous side of horse racing; just pick up his 2005 book The Eagle & The Plum: The True Story of Racing’s Toughest Horses (ISBN 978-0975997109), which tells the hard-knocks stories of claimer Our Legal Eagle and stakes winner Leaping Plum. In this volume, the equine “stars” are Call Me Loverboy (pictured on the cover), Dr. Robbie, Fusto and Awholelotofmalarky, a mix of low and mid-level claimers who had bursts of relative success, with one graded stakes winner, Chindi, thrown in.

McCormick divides the book into three sections—racing, breeding, and riding—but, unfortunately, he does not spend equal time on each. The vast majority of the book deals with racing, which is fine, but by skimping on the other two, it diminishes the book’s overall power and value, particularly the section on riding, since he does tantalizingly provide some wonderful quotes by long-time hard-working jockeys like Newil Wall, Dudley Vandenborre, and Earlie Fires. This powerful albeit brief section was actually my favorite, with some real pearls of wisdom that can help the visual handicapper. For example, Fires says, “When you see a rider pull his leg out and fold it up during the warm-up it means they don’t feel comfortable with that particular horse.” He also extensively discusses the differences in getting horses to change leads going through a turn and in the stretch, as well as the variances in riding on turf and dirt. Fascinating, nuts-and-bolts stuff that would benefit all young jocks or those interesting in breaking into riding. I just wish the author had fleshed out this section more, since the blue-collar horses are ridden by equally blue-collar jocks who don’t necessary reach the highest levels of the game, and their experiences are doubtlessly very different from high echelon jocks like John Velazquez, Garret Gomez, and Edgar Prado. Of course, this could be the topic of an entirely different book...

The smallest section in this volume deals with breeding, which at this level of horse racing is not particularly profitable or sexy, so perhaps there is not much about to write. As a resident of Wayne, Illinois, the author does make a brief (and somewhat sentimental-laden) turn in discussing the modest breeding attempts by the McDonnell family who now own Mole Meadows, the former home of writer Marguerite Henry, located in Wayne. McCormick also briefly presents a fascinating history of the town’s “horsey” history, traced back to 19th century entrepreneurial farmer Solomon Dunham and his son Mark’s leading role in breeding Percherons. McCormick does mention two fillies bred by the McDonnells—Are You Dancing and (the unfortunately named) Captain Fluffy—but I could find no record that either has made it to the track yet. As in the case of the riding section, this part of the book lacked the kind of detailed information and diverse examples I would have preferred.

While Call Me Loverboy’s story was compelling, the chapter “How You Gonna Keep ‘Em Down on the Farm?” which highlights the story of gray-white sprinter Chindi, was the one I found particularly poignant, considering the recent retirement of Funny Cide. Why? As a gelding who campaigned until the age of 10 and earned over $1 million, Chindi didn’t enjoy his downtime on the farm, so he transitioned into retirement by serving as a stable pony for trainer Steve Hobby, and the book has a number of wonderful photos showing equine stable boss Chindi with Hobby up during morning workouts, rolling around in the sandpit, getting a bath, and finally grazing to his heart’s content after work. One can only imagine Funny Cide enjoying his retirement as much.

There are some photos (all black-and-white) in the book, which supplement the text well, and a glossary in the rear that adequately covers many basic terms, such as “changing leads” “lugging in”, “gelding” and “handicap race” (although one missing that I would have like to have seen here was “ridgling” since it confounded me when I first started out handicapping). Overall, I thought the book was a rather quick read at 172 pages (even less of actual text, since some photos were full-page and chapters began halfway down the page), and I was somewhat disappointed by that. However, this book offers some interesting material and shouldn’t be missed.

What I’m looking forward to now is for someone to write a book detailing Maggi Moss’ incredible success with claiming horses. There’s a real story to be told there.


QQ said...

Thanks so much for this review - it's especially interesting to see that Dale Baird is mentioned.

Sid Fernando said...

nice's a part of the game i happen to know very well, including the auction you referred to and the Illinois circuit, where i raced and bred horses for more than 25 years, off and on. Hawthorne, Fairmount, Balmoral (TBs back then), Sportsmans, as well as Beulah, River Downs in OH, Mountaineer in WV.