#ShelfieSunday: The Comanche Empire

comempThe Comanche Empire. By Pekka Hämäläinen. The Lamar Series in Western History. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2008.

Review by Christopher Valesey

    Winner of twelve book awards, Comanche Empire is a landmark of ethnohistorical scholarship. Pekka Hämäläinen challenges more typical narratives of European imperialism that feature the rapid dissolution of indigenous civilizations by drawing attention to the rise and fall of the so-called Comanche Empire in the modern American Southwest from roughly 1750 to 1850. Despite being surrounded by Spanish, French, and Anglo-American domains, Hämäläinen argues that “European imperialism not only stalled in the face of indigenous resistance, it was eclipsed by indigenous imperialism” (2). This Comanche-style imperialism differed from Euro-Americans in that Comanches sought coexistence, control, and exploitation rather than conquest and colonization (4).

    Ethnohistorical research is often hamstrung by a dearth of sources written by the indigenous group under study. While this is true for Comanche Empire, Hämäläinen offers an impressive analysis of Spanish, French, Mexican, and Anglo-American sources like government reports, captivity narratives, travelers’ journals, and traders’ accounts. Although Euro-American sources accentuate the military and economic aspects of the Comanche Empire rather than the cultural, they allow Hämäläinen to pay close attention to the implications of various events like the Bourbon Reforms, the French and Indian Wars, and the Mexican-American War. Taken together, Hämäläinen structures the book primarily chronologically to examine the lifespan of the Comanche Empire, beginning with Comanches’ alliance with Utes in the early eighteenth century and concluding with the empire’s collapse soon after the American Civil War.

     Perhaps the most striking feature of the Comanche Empire was their adaptive use of horses, particularly the Spanish-introduced Barbs that descended from North Africa and thrived in the southern plains. Indeed, tying in previous publications in Western Historical Quarterly and the Journal of American History, Hämäläinen describes Comanches’ adoption of horses as an “equine revolution” (347). Equestrianism dramatically altered Comanche hunting, warfare, and transportation, exponentially expanding their world and the speed in which they could travel through it. With horses, Comanches transformed their entire economy to center around bison hunting and horse herding.  Horses’ voracious appetite for the abundant buffalo and grana grasses not only allowed the equine and Comanche populations to skyrocket, but in Hämäläinen’s words, allowed Comanches to “exploit the vast reserves of bioenergy stored in the plains’ bison herds more thoroughly than any of their competitors” (66). Comanches’ use of horses was so effective that nearby plains tribes had no choice but to become mounted if they wanted to avoid being marginalized by Comanches (356). Ironically, the success of Comanche equestrianism also contributed to the fall of the empire: the rapidly declining bison population in the mid-nineteenth century, exacerbated by Euro-American hunting, appears to have crippled Comanches’ military and economic hegemony more than any armed conflict with Euro-Americans.

     In addition to the military, demographic, and economic ramifications of horses, Comanches established a distinct culture of equestrianism with influences on wealth, social status, and gender. They selectively bred horses to optimize their endurance, speed, size, and even color. According to Hämäläinen, Comanches recognized at least seventeen different types of horses based solely on their color (246). The wealth of individual or families of Comanches could be determined by the number of horses they owned as private property. The average Comanche family owned twenty to thirty horses, but the most affluent elites could own hundreds (260). While teenage boys worked most closely with the horses on a daily basis, women participated in horse herding in addition to their responsibilities for childrearing, meat processing, the tanning of hides, and a range of household duties. Horses constituted a form of social currency that provided men with the means of gift-giving in exchange for wives, a massive advantage for the wealthy in a polygynist society. A lack of horses prevented young men from acquiring wives, and it also limited their access to other activities like trade. Without a horse, men were required to borrow them from peers, indebting them to a portion of the spoils of war or any wealth they would receive. Elites, on the other hand, could use their horses to make investments in more slaves and wives, in turn generating surplus commodities and food.

     As any effective work of scholarship should, Comanche Empire raises nearly as many questions as it answers. Although this reader is convinced by the author’s usage of “empire,” some of the sharpest criticisms of the book revolve around whether or not Comanches established one. These discussions may be the most exciting contribution of the book. One productive and related question is the extent to which Comanches’ created an empire not only like Euro-Americans, but like other well-known indigenous empires like the Mexica in Central Mexico and Inca in Peru. This is not a critique of the book, but just the opposite: Comanche Empire’s ability to challenge historiographical trends and generate debate secures its spot in graduate class syllabi and the bookshelves of all ethnohistorians.

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#ShelfieSunday: The Warhorse in the Modern Era: The Boer War to the Beginning of the Second Millennium

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Review by Jane Flynn

Read her blog here.

Hyland A., The Warhorse in the Modern Era: The Boer War to the Beginning of the Second Millennium, Black Tent Publications, Stockton on Tees, 2010.

     Ann Hyland’s book The WarHorse in the Modern Era: The Boer War to the Second Millennium is the third and last in a series that together cover the role of horses in military history from the Medieval period to the present century. Hyland is a prolific author and has published on the horse in the Ancient World, on Quarter Horses and on, in Foal to Five Years, the development and training of young horses. Strangely, however, her work on war horses seems to have gone largely unnoticed, despite growing public and scholarly interest in human-animal interactions.

     In The WarHorse in the Modern Era Hyland examines the tumultuous final instalment in the horse’s long association with war. The War Horse in the Modern Era begins with the The Boer War campaign of 1899-1902. She illustrates why the South African campaign proved a turning point in how military horses were supplied and managed. The book follows a logical progression, continuing by covering the use of horses (and mules) in The First World War and into and beyond the Second World War; again comprehensively covering everything from purchase and supply, to veterinary care, transportation, equipment and feeding. Each chapter is divided into manageable and easily-navigated sub-sections.

     A great strength of Hyland’s book is that it has been written by a horse person for horse people. It would also be of interest to military historians and animal-studies scholars. In this sense it is a very refreshing read; successfully avoiding the sentimentality that has so often undermined serious consideration of the horse in history. The War Horse in the Modern Era is a book packed with useful information about every aspect of the war horse’s utilisation and has clearly been very thoroughly researched. It is, however, a book that rarely ventures into analysis. It is informative, but it does not enter into discussion and primary sources can at times feel as though much more could have been made of them. This is a shame, as on the rare occasions Hyland does enter into debate her writing is perhaps at its best. For example, on the subject of how historians have sorely neglected the important part played by horses during The Great War:

     Many historians seem to have written the cavalry off without giving credence to the effectiveness it often showed, and the sacrifices the horses made. How many writers give accolades to the artillery, but failure to mention that … it was the horse that enabled it to be positioned effectively. (p.109.)

     Similarly, and although a glossary of terms is given, this is a book that often assumes its readers have a comprehensive equestrian vocabulary upon which to draw. That being said, it is rare that writing on horses in war has gone into this sort of depth and for that reason The War Horse in the Modern Era is an admirable, and welcome, addition to the genre.

Editors’ Note: This review was originally going to run in November, when we featured other books on horses in warfare. However, unlike Hyland’s Medieval works, this book proved remarkably difficult to find! We suspect The War Horse in the Modern Era: Breeder to Battlefield, 1600 to 1865 will be likewise difficult. If you have a copy and you’d like to review it, or lend it to a reviewer, let us know!

 

#ShelfieSunday: Here Comes Exterminator!

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Review by Eric Banks

     In Here Comes Exterminator!, writer Eliza McGraw revisits the life of the 1918 Kentucky Derby–winning gelding Exterminator, one of the most celebrated American thoroughbreds of the first half of the twentieth century. Few geldings have won the signature race in its history—Exterminator is one of only nine, although the third in a short span between 1914 and 1920—and his career as a racer was prolonged for a greater period than most three-year-old champions. Much of McGraw’s book, and the appeal that Exterminator exerted for most of his racing life, concerns the determination of the horse’s owner, Willis Sharpe Kilmer, to surpass the career earnings of Man O’ War, which totaled $249,465. Exterminator did so as a nine-year-old in 1924, finishing fourth in a stakes race and collecting a small purse at the newly established Tijuana Race Course, nipping Man O’War’s winnings total by just over $3,000. Five starts later, he raced for the final time at Blue Bonnets Raceway in Montreal, pulling up lame while finishing third, and retiring with a remarkable record of 50-17-17 in a 99-race career.

     Griswald, a contributing writer to Equus magazine, charts the horse’s tenacity against the background of Exterminator’s erstwhile trainer Henry McDaniel, who conditioned the horse following his purchase as a lightly raced three-year-old, and his bullheaded owner, the Binghamton, New York–based Kilmer. The former was the son of the legendary David McDaniel, the trainer of the great campaigner of the 1870s, Harry Bassett, and a steady if not spectacular success as a horseman. Kilmer by contrast was a newcomer to horse racing who parleyed a family fortune—his father invented the dubious cure-all diuretic Swamp-Root—into a powerful stable in the late 1910s. Kilmer cycled through trainers over the course of Exterminator’s career; at one point, Griswald recounts sportswriters trying to recall the nearly two dozen who had worked for him at one point or another. But McDaniel was most powerfully connected to the critical decision to enter Exterminator in the 1918 Kentucky Derby and to the later campaign in which he would at last better his paper rival, Man O’ War—a pyrrhic victory given that another horse, Zev, had already overtaken Man O’ War’s tally.

     The recognizable figural motif underwriting Exterminator’s biography might be called “the wrong horse.” Like the stories of other racehorses, including Seabiscuit, Swale, and even Secretariat, which Meadow Stud famously received after losing a coin toss (part of a foal-sharing agreement) to Ogden Phipps, the wrong-horse tale involves the emergence of a lesser-regarded juvenile blossoming into a champion. In the case of Exterminator, he was purchased for a modest sum on McDaniel’s advice to serve as something akin to a workout partner to the highly regarded Sun Briar in preparation for the Derby. After a stellar two-year-old campaign, Sun Briar had put in a desultory performance in the spring of his three-year-old year and trained poorly. He was finally removed from consideration for the race and replaced by Exterminator, one of the longest shots in the field, at 30-1, whose victory echoed that of the extreme long shot Donerail’s five years earlier, in the process galvanizing popular and media interest in the Derby across the country as an opportunity for bettors to strike it rich and for outsiders to be competitive.

     Donerail and Exterminator shared another thing as well: they were both sired by the English thoroughbred McGee, which makes the rags-to-riches narrative sometimes told about Exterminator suspect. Exterminator’s potential may have been underrated, but he had at least one classics winner as a half-brother. He was nevertheless an unprepossessing and gangly young horse whose skinniness earned him the nickname “Old Bones”; as McGraw reports, it’s not clear why the decision was made to geld him, but it reflects the lack of faith in his future as a stallion. Following his Derby victory, the lack of optimism seemed warranted; his win in Louisville on a muddy track appeared to be a fluke, and he lost races throughout the year, while Sun Briar rebounded to win the Travers Stakes at Saratoga Springs. But by the end of 2018, he showed mettle as a handicap horse and ability to win longer-distance races. He and Sun Briar—who remained Kilmer’s favorite, and who named his state-of-the-art indoor training facilities in Binghamton Sun Briar Court—made a formidable one-two punch for the stable, with Sun Briar a difficult horse to defeat at distances under a mile and a furlong, and Exterminator a hard-knocking stayer.

     McGraw writes engagingly about an important moment in the history of the sport. During World War I, a number of influential figures like August Belmont Jr. helped forged a connection, both actual and in the public imagination, between the thoroughbred industry and the US war effort through the Remount Service. The breeding program imaginatively helped to surmount the less salubrious view of the industry as it emerged from anti-gambling initiatives in the years before. The remount campaign, however, posed a question on the status of geldings in racing. The trade-off, however, was a lengthy career in which there was no issue, of course, of retiring Exterminator to stud duty (unlike Sun Briar, who sired the wildly successful Sun Beau after his retirement in 1919). This longevity and later development would later distinguish Exterminator in a manner similar to other memorable geldings like Kelso, Forego, Dr. Fager, and John Henry.

     Exterminator’s virtuoso performances on the track, McGraw writes, endeared him to fans of racing and a legion of sportswriters, from Grantland Rice to the less-remembered Brooklyn Eagle correspondent W.C. Vreeland. His timing could not have been better: a moment when mass spectatorship was emerging around a number of sports (baseball and boxing, in particular); postwar transportation developments were making travel by spectators and horses a vastly easier undertaking; and the nascent film industry widened the distribution of newsreel images and celebrity. McGraw mentions the (now lost) 1919 Hollywood film A Challenge to Chance, which featured the horse (apparently playing himself); the movie was a vehicle for boxer Jess Willard, pegged to be released as promotional lagniappe on July 4 of the same year, when he lost his belt to Jack Dempsey in a heavyweight bout. At any rate, Exterminator achieved celebrity in a decade noted in the United States in particular for developing its own spin on the concept.

     McGraw writes well, if anecdotally, on this pivot moment in the history of US racing, when the industry underwent an early wave of professionalization and established itself as a major mass spectacle sport with a seemingly permanent place in the news cycle. On Exterminator himself, she is a terrific Boswell. The horse may be poorly remembered today—the closest analogy I can think of from another era is probably Stymie, the fabulously popular New York–based who became the leading money earner of the late 1940s after making 131 starts—but McGraw makes an enthusiastic case for his rediscovery just over a century after his birth.

#ShelfieSunday: Breeds of Empire

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Breeds of Empire: The ‘Invention’ of the Horse in Southeast Asia and Southern Africa 1500–1950

Bankhoff, Greg; Swart, Sandra; Boomgaard, P. NIAS Press, 2007.

Review by Hylke Hettema

     As a Dutch person and a horse fanatic I have long wondered why I have never encountered an Indonesian or South African horse in the Netherlands. After all, the VOC and the colonising of both part of Southeast Asia and South Africa are a big piece of Dutch history; where is the evidence for horses travelling between the homeland and the colonies? This book answers that question: colonial government created their own breeds and horse markets in Southeast Asia and South Africa.

     Predominantly anthropologists/historians, some of whom have previously published works on horses, the authors are stepping into the interdisciplinary field of ‘Animal Studies’, briefly explaining the depths of this field to the reader in chapter one. Not only do they sketch a timeline for the introduction and subsequent history of horses in the colonies, the key theme explored in this book is the birth and role of the horse as an “imperial agent” in the creation of Empire.

     According to the authors there is a surprisingly large amount of source material, especially about the horse trade in the archipelago. After the Portuguese and the Dutch had introduced them, horses bred on the islands were a wanted commodity especially in British-India. Regional specialization of trade and the location of the Indonesian archipelago ensured that the VOC and the colonial government had no competition from overseas markets. William Gervase Clarence-Smith explains in chapter two how trade mostly focussed on the export of horses to India and China until the early 20th century, when the import of horses to South Africa was needed to supply the ongoing Boer Wars followed by WWI.

     The idea of the horse as trade commodity affects more than just the colonial treasury, explains Peter Boomgaard in chapter three. In order to supply the buyer with horses that met their demands the colonial regime as well as the VOC (who were facilitating the transport) needed to ensure the horse population in the archipelago contained the “right” traits. Therefore, they first Imported Persian and Arabian horses to “improve” their herds, and later Australian horses under English rule.  These imports were sometimes given away as diplomatic gifts, showing that local breeds were not yet considered worthy enough. The crossbreeding of imported horses and local breeds (which were previously imports as well) “created” what the authors call Breeds of Empire.

     In chapter four Bernice de Jong Boers takes a closer look at the process and motivations that lead to the “invention” of Breeds of Empire under colonial rule. In this chapter the horses are no longer seen as just a trade commodity, as the idea of connection to the identity of both settlers and indigenous peoples is introduced.  She notes that on one particular island, Sumbawa, horsebreeding predated European influence and horses were an important part of folklore.

     Dhiravat na Pombejra continues to explain the shift from Persian and Arab horses towards the Javanese horses as diplomatic gifts by sketching the history and demands of the Siamese (Thai) court buying horses from the Archipelago in chapter five.  The “invented” breeds were no longer considered inferior to the imported Persians and Arabians because they were now closely connected to the new colonial identity; a sophisticated imperial power.

     The horse is ascribed a new role in the colonisation process of the Philippines by Greg Bankoff in chapters six and seven. He portrays them as “agents of environmental transformation” because after their introduction to the Philippines, horses affected both the landscape and the eco system of the islands. On the one hand feral herds developed, causing large scale deforestation, while on the other hand the indigenous population started breeding horses, stimulated by the demands of the ever growing number of inhabitants of the islands and the horse trade in the Archipelago.

     Throughout the book the relationship between the horse and the social and economical status of the (white) settlers is stressed. Sandra Swart explains in chapters 8 and 9 how horses were an integral part of European settler identity in South Africa as the indigenous population had no contact with horses prior to the colonisation of the Cape. The horse distinguished the ruler from the ruled.  At first, possession of a horse was limited to white settlers and they considered that a confirmation of their superior identity. When the horse culture started to float into native hands, new ways to set white supremacy and indigenous identities apart were sought.  Through selective breeding of early stock to newly imported TB blood the Boerperd was created and became a symbol of Empire, a “true South African breed”, in the eyes of the white settlers, whereas the Basotho pony was created by indigenous peoples and represented their “traditional South Africa”. 

     Breeds of Empire is an eye-opening book for academics from all disciplines, the authors have succeeded in illustrating that the horse can truly be an “imperial agent” and influence history rather than its generally accepted supporting role as backdrop or aid to human activity throughout history. Through natural development, the initial imports actively participated in shaping landscapes, ecosystems, colonial societies and auxiliary human identities.  At the same time, the book draws attention to the connection between breeds and European imperial expansion, especially in the epilogue (chapter 10), where the idea of creating horse breeds is explained as typical to imperial discourse, a phenomenon which also gave birth to (equine) Orientalism due to white settler obsession with the need to dominate not only indigenous peoples but also the animals of the newly found colonies. The book concludes with a summary of interesting questions that could lead to further research to counter the predominantly white western angle of the majority of publications on the horse in relation to the creation of Empire and its effects on colonised lands and peoples.

#SheflieSunday: Riding for Caesar

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Riding for Caesar: The Roman Emperors’ Horse Guards

Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts
1994
ISBN 978-0-674-76898-7
Michael P. Speidel

Review by Miriam Bibby

     Last summer (2017), the dispersed exhibition “Hadrian’s Cavalry” took place at venues along the length of Hadrian’s Wall, attracting large numbers of visitors. There were not only static exhibits, but also live displays of horsemanship drawing attention to the nature and function of the (almost exclusively auxiliary) cavalry units that occupied the northern Roman frontier.  

     In contrast, Speidel’s book brings to life a different and perhaps lesser-known aspect of the Roman cavalry – the emperor’s horse guards. Among many interesting aspects revealed in the book is the nature of the close networks that existed between those who served in the frontier cavalry and those who accompanied the emperor in Rome and also on his imperial journeys in peace and war. Whether in gala dress on the parade ground, clearing the crowds (often brutally) for the emperor as he passed through the streets, or skewering his enemies in battle, the elite horse guards of the ruler of Rome were a force to be reckoned with. 

     The relationship between the emperor and his horse guards offers a great opportunity for political and psychological exploration. Speidel’s examination of this aspect results in some reassessments of well-known incidents such as Caligula’s apparently random behaviour at Puteoli and on the Rhine.

     The keynote of the relationship, stressed throughout the book, was loyalty. Members of the horse guard were “tall, fierce and faithful” mounted warriors, drawn originally from the tribes of the lower Rhine, thus giving the guards the descriptive title “Batavi” that would accompany them through various incarnations. Plenty of pay, dispensed frequently, encouraged loyalty, but so did the emperor’s own ability to relate to and inspire his guards, not through words but deeds. Emperors such as Septimius Severus had the capability if not the charisma, but it’s easy to imagine others less able standing white-knuckled in front of their fearsome guard in a display of fake nonchalance.

     All the evidence suggests that the horse guards’ reputation, both as skilled horsemen and dangerous foes, was well-deserved. The tribes of the Rhine had a skill at their disposal that was the equivalent of an ancient secret weapon – dauntless courage in crossing rivers alongside their horses. The Rhine remained a psychological as well as a physical barrier during WWII, as Speidel reminds us with a modern description.  How this skill proved ultimately to be their downfall makes a gripping conclusion to their story.

     Speidel re-examines and reassesses the textual evidence relating to the guards to great effect. It is the funerary monuments of individual guardsmen that will probably prove most compelling to researchers of equine history. Here we see the grooms preparing horses by long-reining, a grizzled-looking trooper with his two horses, heads turned towards him, and observe the guardsmen’s devotion to the goddess Epona.

     By putting the focus onto the relationship between the emperor and the horse guards, Speidel gives genuinely new insights into the tense four-cornered game played out between the emperor, the imperial guards, the senate and the populace. Along the way, he also opens up new areas of interest to equestrian historians.

#ShelfieSunday: Mr. Darley’s Arabian

darley    Review by Katherine Mooney

    Christopher McGrath begins Mr. Darley’s Arabian in the starting gate at Newmarket and follows Frankel to victory in the 2011 running of the 2000 Guineas. Watching on YouTube, you can hear the swelling roar of the crowd, the joyous acknowledgement of people who have together seen something numinous. The impetus for McGrath’s book is in that sound, as he spends the next 350 pages explaining how a creature like that came to be in that place at that time. Beginning with the Darley Arabian and following the top line of pedigrees sire to sire for twenty-six generations to Frankel, he tells the story of the modern Thoroughbred.

     McGrath grounds his project with Federico Tesio’s maxim: “The thoroughbred exists because its selection has depended…on a piece of wood: the winning post of the Epsom Derby” (292). The Derby gives the book a central focus, but it also dictates the scope of the analysis. If the Derby winning post is the thing that defines the Thoroughbred, then McGrath’s definition of the Thoroughbred exclusively encompasses high-stakes flat racing, mostly in the English Classics, and the stud careers of particularly influential progenitors.

     McGrath’s underlying premise is that the racetrack was not just a space of performance; it was a nexus of power. Everyone was there, and everyone cared about racing. His anecdotal examples range from Admiral Rous crossing the Atlantic in a dangerously decrepit frigate to attend the second autumn meeting at Newmarket to 1926’s General Strikers making way through their lines for Spithead, the gutsy winner of the Chester Cup (154, 282). But McGrath is mainly concerned with the men who paid the bills. “[T]he Darley Arabian line has followed a constant arc—as a monument to economic power. However random its biological provenance, for three centuries the thoroughbred has remained a faithful index of a changing world beyond the racecourse” (6). He begins at the turn of the eighteenth century, as political and economic factions battled through the Restoration and the rise of the Hanoverians. From 1750 to 1846, landed aristocracy and gentry controlled the Thoroughbred world. With the repeal of the Corn Laws came the rise of the industrial magnates, and after World War I the turf came firmly into the hands of a fantastically wealthy global elite. These periodizations remain fuzzy, as McGrath does not so much argue as chronicle. But he broadly paints the evolution of the Thoroughbred as a component of the evolution of British national and imperial identity and power. And he suggests that the results of the Classics are invaluable indicators of shifts at the top, as coal barons, diamond merchants, and Jewish bankers were grudgingly accepted into Newmarket, Epsom, and Doncaster (250). Though he describes today’s partnerships between racing professionals and international moneymen as purchased connections “between the lore and the profits,” his own work makes clear that these relationships stretch back centuries (297).

     McGrath largely takes the realities of power for granted. Indeed, sometimes this chatty amorality is jarring, as when he drily tells us that John Scott’s Whitewall training stable “was never the same once Colonel Anson was posted to India…. Mind you, nor was India.” Anson was in command of the Bengal Army during the Indian Rebellion of 1857 (128). The suffragist Emily Wilding Davison, surely the most famous person ever to treat the track as a political space, appears unnamed in a single sentence (259). But McGrath does sometimes step back and remind us of the cost of accumulated wealth and authority to the most vulnerable people in and out of the Thoroughbred world. He does not mince words about the systemic cruelty of industrialist James Merry to the coal and iron workers who made him rich (190). The genial racing man Lord Derby managed to get the jockey Fred Rickaby a safe World War I post in the Veterinary Corps so he could be handy to ride. But when awkward questions were asked in Parliament, Rickaby was reassigned to tanks. Derby got over the embarrassment and in 1918 became Ambassador to France, where his colleagues drew up a “form guide” to help him stumble through his diplomatic obligations. Rickaby died of wounds in France that autumn at the age of twenty-three, leaving a widow and two young sons (275-78).

     McGrath has the advantage of being a superbly gifted writer (this month he was awarded the prize for the Racing Writer of the Year in the U.K. for the third time). He can wield a dependent clause like a stiletto. And his access to today’s mightiest figures in racing greatly enhances the book’s final sections. McGrath’s bibliographical essay references an impressive array of primary and specialist secondary sources. As they tumble over one another in his lists, he demonstrates, in this driest of formats, just how much fun this book was for him to write. It seems churlish to complain about its inevitable shortcomings.

     Scholars will find the book frustrating in its lack of readily available citations, and, for those who have closely followed recent publications in the history of the Thoroughbred, there is not much new. The argument is largely implicit and unsurprising. But for both popular and scholarly readers who love horses and horse stories, the book is amply worth reading; McGrath has convinced me that Running Rein’s Derby of 1844 deserves at least a miniseries. It is a tribute to the author and his framing of his subject that, as he speculated briefly about the possibilities for Frankel’s progeny, my first thought was of Cracksman. Frankel’s three-year-old star took the Champion Stakes at Ascot this year. Will it be Frankel, then? Or will Nathaniel, like Frankel a son of Galileo, carry the blood into the next generation? Nathaniel has, after all, already produced Enable, the three-year-old filly who triumphed in the Arc this year, while Cracksman refused to face her. Both are slated to remain in training. And next spring the story will continue.

 

 

#ShelfieSunday: My Colourful Life: from Red to Amber

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Review of Ginger McCain, My Colourful Life: from Red to Amber. London: Headline Book Publishing, 2005, 2006, 2014.

Review by Anastasija Ropa

    In this lively autobiography, Ginger McCain, a trainer of racehorses, best-known as the trainer who has won the Grand National four times, tells of his experience of horses on and off the racetrack over more than half a century. Not only is Ginger McCain a man who made history, having trained Red Rum, a three-time Grand National winner and a national sporting hero, but he also lived through a period of change, as the jockeys and trainers of the post-war Britain retired to give place to the men – and women – of today’s racing world. Much of the book, is, appropriately, about Red Rum, who, the author declares, “changed the course of my life as no man or woman or child could ever do.” Arguably, Red Rum influenced the lives of many other people, both those who were directly involved with the horse and the countless racing enthusiasts, those who place their bets at the Grand National, or simply watch the great race. Indeed, Ginger and Red Rum had contributed to saving the Grand National when the race undergoing a rocky patch in the 1970s and was nearly closed.

     Ginger’s involvement with horses – and horse people – is no less remarkable than the Red Rum phenomenon. It began at the time when horses were still part of daily life rather than a luxury or an oddity. The day-to-day reality of working horses and the care the drivers took of the animals laid the foundation of Ginger’s respect and care of his race horses.

     Throughout the book, Ginger outlines his position on several issues that make today’s British racing world very different from that of the previous century. Some of his statements may be hard to accept for a reader raised in the age of tolerance, animal rights and globalisation. Thus, when Ginger describes the treatments applied in an attempt to improve the condition of lame racehorses – which he applied himself as a cure or prophylaxis to some of his horses – one is vividly reminded of medieval hippiatric treatises. For instance, a treatment colloquially known as a “blister” meant clipping the problem leg and rubbing a red mercury blister into it, then bandaging the leg for six weeks. Another common remedy was bar-firing the legs (illegal in the UK, bar-firing is still used in other countries). Doubtless, such medicines have no place in modern veterinary, yet, as Ginger claims, they worked. Even if we may not want to reintroduce these very risky treatments, Ginger’s experience may lead us to reconsider our views on the efficiency of veterinary medicine in the past.

     At other points, Ginger’s position is full of contradictions. On the technical side of racing, he deplores the fact the jockeys nowadays have shorter stirrups, making it impossible to apply the leg when racing – but he also claims the new regulations on using the whip are do not take into consideration individual peculiarities. While conceding that he does not condone beating a horse that has already lost the race, he believes that some horses would be stimulated by harsher application of the whip: “It has to be an effective way of encouraging a horse to dig deeper within himself.” Yet he remembers the first Grand National won by Red Rum and the state in which the horse, ridden by Tommy Stack, arrived at the finish, in a somewhat apologetic tone. “Red Rum was striped on both flanks – he wasn’t just a sergeant, he was a top sergeant.”

     At many occasions throughout the book, Ginger expresses his attitude to women in the racing sport, opening him to possible accusations of chauvinism. Indeed, should women be excluded from racing just because the weighting room used to be “was a man’s domain, like a fighter’s gym”, and now it “smells like a pool’s parlour”? Ginger may be excused, though, when he explains that “in the years after the war most of the jockeys were senior riders who’d been in the forces, like Brian Marshall, Dave Dick and Dick Francis”, implying that racing is, in fact, a dangerous and cruel sport and that women should not risk their necks on the racecourse.

     Among Ginger’s less controversial remarks are his observations on the management and practice of training. He compares the situation in his early years, when few trainers would have as many as forty horses in the yard, to the later developments, when many yards have expanded to include over a hundred horses, so that a trainer cannot possibly pay attention to all animals and must rely on assistants. Again, Ginger’s attitude may seem old-fashioned, but he has a point: quantity does not always lead to quality. A horse like Red Rum, who had chronic leg problem prior to arriving on Ginger’s yard in Southport, and who showed lack-lustre performance over the less challenging jumps would have a high chance of being overlooked at one of the bigger yards. Whether this is outweighed by the availability of better facilities – something that was not available in the earlier post-war yards – is a question Ginger does not countenance.

     In all, My Colourful Life is not a critically balanced study; it is a subjective account of an individual trainer, tinted with his personality and opinions. Not everything of what the author says is to be taken at face value, and, with characteristic wit, Ginger is prone to undermine many of his own statements. However, the book captures the atmosphere of the racing world it portrays and sketches vivid images of the jockeys, trainers and owners who inhabited it: Red Rum’s owner Mr Le Mare (“the Guv’nor”), the jockeys Tommy Stack, Brian Fletcher, Jonjo O’Neill and Jackie Grainger, the trainer Bobby Renton, and many others. To counterbalance Ginger’s views, the book includes many testimonies written by other people, including his wife and his business partners. Complete with photographs of Red Rum and other horses with which Ginger McCain was involved, the book will be captivating reading for all who are into horses and history.