The story of an inspired stunt on the part of Buffalo Bill Cody, who organized a horse race from Nebraska to Chicago, the winner claiming his prize in the arena at Cody’s Wild West Show right next door to the world-changing Columbian Exposition of 1893.
The race was decried as an overly attention-greedy stunt, while constabularies scrambled to arrest speeding riders and animal rights activists assembled to protest the perceived mistreatment of the cowboys’ horses. In the end, a rider did materialize, exhausted—and with controversy of another kind swirling around him. Pop historian and journalist Serrano (Last of the Blue and Gray: Old Men, Stolen Glory, and the Mystery that Outlived the Civil War, 2013) turns in a serviceable story; he's up to the business of describing the race itself but a little less certain on the big picture ground. In the hands of a historical storyteller like David McCullough or Nathaniel Philbrick, this flitting episode would have shone, and it’s nowhere near the book that Louis Warren’s Buffalo Bill’s America (2005) is. Even so, the events themselves carry the tale, which has larger dimensions: the race came at a time when historians and journalists were declaring the frontier West to be at its end and the cowboy to be a soon-extinct species and when a pronounced divide was forming between Eastern and Western mores and manners. Serrano earns points among the horsy set for his attention to the mounts and their welfare as well as to their riders, who likewise are little known to history. Yet his set pieces are too often genre clichés: “And as the stars flashed across the eastern Iowa sky, Rattlesnake Pete dreamed that he and General Grant were prancing around not in a small-time traveling circus in a tiny Iowa town, but in the majestic Wild West show in Chicago.”
Western history buffs will enjoy this entertaining but middling account, burrs under the saddle and all.