Sportswriter (Sports Illustrated) and novelist Schwartz (Caught, 1985) offers an affecting yet balanced portrait of the legendary, lightning-fast filly and of the thoroughbred racing world she briefly set afire.
Although the tragic outcome (a broken leg; death) of the 1975 "Great Match Race'' that pitted the undefeated three-year-old against Kentucky Derby-winner Foolish Pleasure will be familiar to any horse-racing aficionado, fans and nonfans alike should be swept along by Schwartz's skillful narrative and broad depiction of the thoroughbred milieu. Here are the fabulously wealthy owners, the devoted trainers, the assorted jockeys, grooms, vets, and backstretch hangers-on, all living an odd, peripatetic existence as they follow the season and the fragile behemoths they seem genuinely to love. Not skirted is a consideration of the business forces that drive the sport (perhaps to the horses' detriment), the risk of fixed betting, and the hype surrounding big races. At the center is the huge, dark-brown filly, a fully rounded character in her own right, viewed from her conception in a stark, unromantic mating shed through each painstaking step of training and on to her short but brilliant career. Along the way there are lively sketches of those around her, particularly gruff trainer Frank Whiteley, chain-smoking and popping Gelusils, and hot-tempered jockey Jacinto Vasquez, passing up the mount he had led to a Derby win in favor of the awesome filly that "was different from every other horse he had ever ridden.'' Most notably there is a lyrical evocation of the wonder great horses can inspire, "a feeling that they gave you, a belief in something bigger than yourself...some bright, wordless magic.''
An absorbing and often poignant account that works both as a detailed sports chronicle and a heart-felt tribute to an extraordinary animal dying young.