First-time author and retired amateur steeplechase jockey Anne Hambleton lives on a farm in Vermont where she trains and competes thoroughbred ex-racehorses. In Raja, her novel for young people, and horse lovers of all ages, a thoroughbred with early Kentucky Derby hopes falls victim to injury—and to the dark side of horseracing.

Raja tells his story, cycling through owners and riders, triumphs and tragedies to emerge as a competitor in steeplechase (distance obstacle course racing). The novel mirrors Hambleton’s own work with equine rescues and racetrack retirees.

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Having Raja tell his own story is reminiscent of Black Beauty, the children’s classic by Anna Sewell. Was that an inspiration?

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Absolutely. I loved Black Beauty as a kid and read it over and over. I was one of those horse book junkies. Enid Bagnold’s National Velvet—I was blown away by the descriptions.

How did the plot for Raja come about?

In Vermont, you spend a lot of time in winter doing your barn, and it occurred to me that the story was sort of staring me in the face. My five horses are all on their third and fourth careers. I was thinking about their lives and how they’d done so many different things, and I just thought someone should do a modern-day Black Beauty about a racehorse. They really were the inspiration for writing this book.

What was the process like for you?

I had the luxury of writing it over two years, so I could sit in the barn and think about what the horses were observing and smelling. I could go to New Holland Auction where horses are sold [many for slaughter]. I could go to MidAtlantic Horse Rescue, which is the thoroughbred rescue facility that I based the one in the book on.

Why did you decide to tell this story as a novel for young people?

I really wanted to share the horse world with an insider’s view and depict a “could be true” tale in an engaging, yet informative way, to transport the reader into another world—a real world. When I think back on the books I really loved when I was a kid, those were the ones that stuck—the ones with real places. I still imagine galloping across the English countryside on The Pie in National Velvet, and I still want to go to and see the ponies swimming at the pony penning in Chincoteague [from Marguerite Henry’s book, Misty of Chincoteague]. I would love to have Raja speak to kids in the same way that so many great horse books have spoken to me.

In the course of writing Raja, I had a number of interesting discussions with horsemen and women at the top of the sport—Olympians, Hall of Famers, etc.—about the books they read as a kid and most of them were avid horse-book readers. I'm convinced that the books they read as kids had a lot to do with the equine career path they chose.

The horses in your novel have distinctive “voices.” What was it like to imagine them?

It was fun. Shaddy and Holzmann are horses that I own. The real Holzmann didn’t go to the Olympics, but I think he could have! Prism, the little pony, is borrowed from a neighbor. I don’t know if she really cracks jokes, but she does have a sense of humor and she takes care of every kid that gets on her.

You include the dark side of racing: riders’ dirty tricks, horses that are drugged, abused and sold to kill buyers.

They’re big issues in the horse world. You can’t write a book and be true and ignore them. For example, the 1986 Kentucky Derby winner, Ferdinand, was sold for meat. Horses slip through the cracks and there are so many lovely horses that could go on to other jobs and excel at them. That aspect is pretty central to the story: it’s about the resilience and versatility of thoroughbreds.

You include a glossary of terms and some are pretty colorful: “two-minute lick,” “railbird,” “parrot-mouth,” “oxer.”

I remembered how it was when I was a horse-crazy kid. I wanted to suck up every piece of information. I toyed with the idea of defining the words in the text, but I thought, no, that’s not how horse people talk. I wanted it to be educational, informative and authentic—that is important to me—but still a fun read.

Why did you choose to include illustrations?

The artist is [Margaret] Peggy Kauffman. She’s a wonderful, award-winning equestrian artist who specializes in sculpture. The book has a sort of old-fashioned feel to it, I think, a bit like books I used to read. I remember some amazing illustrations in Black Beauty.

What do you hope your readers will take away with them after reading Raja?

A sense of empathy and a sense of awareness. Sometimes kids will come for a riding lesson, get on a horse and it’s like turning on car. They’re not really aware that this is another living creature that they’re communicating with. And to just have people understand the fun that you can have with horses and that they have fun, too.

Are you planning a second book?

I have some ideas for a sequel, but right now I’m working on a website associated with the book [rajaracehorse.com], and I’m going to do some fun stuff with that. I’ll have a section on the real horses with pictures and little bios, and [there is] a Derby prospect now called Union Rag that is sort of Rajalike—very talented and charismatic. He just won the Champagne Stakes, which Raja wins in my book. We’re going to track him just for fun.