A thoroughbred biography of the brash American jockey whose unconventional style of riding “overturned two hundred years of tradition.”
Dizikes, who won a National Book Critics Circle Award for Opera in America (1993), here provides an enjoyable account of another kind of public drama: horse racing. James Forman (“Tod”) Sloan (1874–1933) was, Dizikes shrewdly observes, a combination of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. At 13, Sloan fled his home to join an itinerant balloonist, then left when the older man urged the boy to try parachuting. Sloan’s brother introduced him to racetracks, but the young man did not immediately find his calling: horses terrified him. Still, anatomy became destiny. Less than five feet tall and weighing about 90 pounds, Sloan headed to California in the 1890s and soon had “something of a reputation” at the racetracks. His victory tally in 1896 (31 percent) was “sensational,” and he perfected (though he did not invent) the “forward seat,” a style of riding now employed by all jockeys. Soon Sloan was winning often enough to incur the resentment of his rivals and to live the high life, socializing with the likes of “Diamond Jim” Brady. In 1897 he sailed for England, where he was initially ridiculed for his style—he looked, sneered one journalist, like “one of those monkeys on a pole.” Winning, however, temporarily silenced his critics and prompted emulators. Before long he was associating with the Prince of Wales (an inveterate gambler) and displaying the Yankee cockiness that still annoys the English. After a few glorious years, a gambling scandal prompted the prestigious Jockey Club to invalidate his license, and Sloan spent the rest of his life stumbling from one improbable venture to another, including vaudeville, importing cars, and trap-shooting.
Although much of the sluggish final chapter (a summary of fictionalized versions of Sloan’s life) more properly belongs in an appendix, this remains an engaging blend of personal and cultural history, of scholarship and skillful writing. (30 illustrations)