Terrific portrait of the 2000 season at Suffolk Downs, a mid-level, blue-collar, East Boston racetrack.
A veteran racing reporter and the son of a horse-trainer, Thornton is what fellow incurables call “a racetrack degenerate”—the sort of person who works six days a week at the track and then drives 150 miles in a rainstorm on his day off to place a $2 bet on a nag at the county fair. He was also, in 2000, the media-relations director of “Sufferin’ Downs,” and his text outlines a typical season at this lower-rung facility. It begins in frigid January, with jockeys battling 50-mile-per-hour winds and subzero temperatures in their journey around the Eastie oval, and culminates in June with the Massachusetts Handicap, the richest, most historic horse race in the region and Suffolk Downs’ most important event of the year. In between, the author ably chronicles the lives of horseplayers, jockeys, trainers, racetrack valets and stoopers (i.e., scavengers who “scour the floors and trash bins for winning betting tickets that have been tossed away in error by unwitting horseplayers”). The star of the book, though, is Saratoga Ridge, a workmanlike 11-year-old who has run for nine seasons. This thoroughbred, Thornton’s favorite, has an uncanny knack (or personal preference) for coming in second; his mid-tier career encompasses 129 races and lifetime winnings of almost $300,000. Saratoga Ridge is that rare thing, a horse with heart, so it’s devastating when he shatters his left front ankle on the next-to-last day of the season. Thornton clearly demonstrates that without horses like Saratoga Ridge working lesser tracks, upper-crust, Kentucky Derby–type races would cease to exist.
A fitting tribute to the race course that once featured Seabiscuit, War Admiral, Discovery and Whirlaway.