Horse racing is a nail-biting proposition—especially in the bandit-infested Old California of this tense Western.
Fed up with training other people’s horses in Kentucky, Cole Copeland has taken to the local California racing circuit with his trusty steed. It’s a sport of artfully manipulated appearances as well as hurtling horseflesh; often posing as an Arkansas rube, Cole pits his well-trained equine ringer against the actual rubes’ favorite nags in informal races and cleans up on the resulting bets. He makes a living, garnering bags full of gold coins that, in the 1870s, attract plenty of desperadoes whom he fends off with his trusty Winchester and two pistols, one for show and another hidden to shoot. A mysterious man named Sandy, who may or may not be a bandit chieftain—but so might anyone—steers him towards the big race-match gathering at Tehachapi that draws the best horses and the richest swells in the California racing scene and where an unknown quantity like Cole might clean up. With his excitable 14-year-old groom Jeremy, Cole plunges into the byzantine swirl of Tehachapi and takes readers along into this arcane and fascinating world. The race itself is almost secondary to the negotiations leading up to it, in which Cole craftily susses out the competition and maneuvers them into the perfect race, with high stakes and a field so good that the oddsmakers don’t realize he can win. Writing with a clipped, precise prose, professional horse-trainer Porter fits plenty of suspenseful showdowns and hair-raising gunfights into this galloping yarn, but balances it with absorbing lore on his craft. Protagonist Cole makes an appealing man in the saddle—he’s cool, wary, always at work on a back-up plan to his back-up plan and a hard-nosed businessman who sees a horse as a moneymaking investment—but he’s also sublimely attuned to the equine soul.
An entertaining oater that’s also a subtle study in understated manliness.