A New York Times sportswriter spends the year 2000 following some prominent owners, trainers, and jockeys as they prepare for horseracing’s Triple Crown.
Drape has a problem with suspense: Fans of horseracing already know the outcomes of the three races that comprise the final pages of this galloping chronicle. But his julep is not entirely mintless, for the strengths of this account are the portraits he paints of the various players. “Hope is robust,” he writes. “It is the horses who are fragile.” Note the who. In this extravagant world there are no insulting which’s or that’s trotted out to refer to horseflesh. But Drape’s portraits contradict his conclusion. More fragile by far than the horses are the egos of everyone involved. We begin in August 1999 Saratoga, where the author introduces some of the major players and begins explaining fundamentals like claiming races. He then moves to one of the annual yearling sales, where we meet the enormously wealthy Sheik Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, who flies in his own 747 from the United Arab Emirates to bid millions of dollars for animals he thinks one day might win a Big One. We meet the two top trainers in the country, Bob Baffert and the flamboyant D. Wayne Lukas, as well as a couple of bright but lesser lights, Neil Drysdale and Jenine Sahadi—the most successful female trainer in the country, who must cope not only with God’s dumbest creatures (male chauvinists) but also with horses. Drape periodically inserts passages of memoir about the deaths of his father and mother, about his imminent divorce (he refers to his spouse as his “soon-to-be ex-wife”), and about his own passions for betting and racing (including his experience of owning a quarter horse). He expresses little skepticism about his world and is silent on such subjects as cruelty to animals, egregious excess, and the dark side of gambling.
As swift and entertaining as a close race—but rarely contemplative or introspective.