Seabiscuit meets Reds.
Jimmy Winkfield’s life was so rich in incident, set against such a vivid tapestry of world-shaking events, that his failure to emerge from his own story as a compelling character seems like a cruel irony. New York Times writer Drape (The Race for the Triple Crown, 2001) has marshaled impressive research and a clear passion for the history of horse racing to tell the remarkable story of Winkfield, who, born one of 17 children to poor black sharecroppers in 1882, went on to win the Kentucky Derby in two consecutive years, become the toast of Moscow (where he was dubbed “The Black Maestro”), fled the Russian Revolution and later, in Paris, the Nazis. The events of Winkfield’s incredible history never fail to captivate—his participation in a drive to save the finest horses of Moscow from the advancing Red Army screams for the Hollywood treatment—but the man himself remains distant, distinguished only by his ambition and uncanny, almost telepathic ability to read horses. Winkfield paid dearly for his single-minded focus, repeatedly sacrificing his family for his zeal to win races; on the other hand, perhaps this tunnel vision accounts for the man’s ability to persist in the face of racism and devastating reversals. Drape compensates for the essential opaqueness of his protagonist with authoritative accounts of the establishment of fabled racetracks such as Belmont and the Louisville Jockey Club, descriptions of Winkfield’s colorful European patrons and a nuanced analysis of the social and cultural realities that the peripatetic jockey faced in America, Russia, Austria and France. But ultimately, Winkfield’s story fails to satisfy the requirements of a hero’s journey; in Drape’s narrative, he seems, despite his great talent, to be a man without qualities, someone to whom things happen, a Zelig on horseback.
An amazing story and an absorbing read for racing buffs, but those interested in the psychology of this singular athlete will be disappointed.