#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.

 

 

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#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.

#ShelfieSunday: Race Horse Men

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Katherine C. Mooney
Race Horse Men: How Slavery and Freedom Were Made at the Racetrack
Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2014
Hardcover: $35.00
ISBN 9780674281424
Subject matter: Horse Racing, Nineteenth-Century United States History, Slavery, Race and Race Relations.

Review by Charlotte Carrington-Farmer (Roger Williams University)

     Race Horse Men examines how the racetrack was an important political and cultural arena, where slavery was “made” alongside freedom in the United States. The book’s seven chapters, which are structured chronologically, weave together a picture of the lives of the so-called “race horse men” from the early 1800s through to the 1920s. Thoroughbred racing was arguably America’s first spectator sport, and black jockeys were amongst the best jockeys in the country, who rode in (and won) many famous race. Enslaved grooms, jockeys, and trainers were granted significant autonomy from their white masters, and their opinions were valued. They were often well-paid for their work, and were permitted to travel as part of their job. However, Mooney complicates our understanding of slavery and systems of power. Her most persuasive argument demonstrates the shades of oppression within a larger system of total subjection. Mooney convincingly argues that whilst race horse men were some of the “freest” unfree people in the United States, their freedom served to reinforce their master’s dominance. Race Horse Men is not an overly simplified story of how black men crafted nooks of freedom at the racetrack; it is a more complicated story of how white men used the racetrack to advance their power bases and to create a microcosm of their version of the United States, in which they ruled supreme. Masters used race days to “demonstrate their power was rightful” (37), and through the track they “saw in miniature the hierarchical world they wanted, its boundaries policed by violence” (173.)

     Mooney is an Assistant Professor of History at Florida State University, who works on the cultural history of inequality in the United States. Her work adds to the burgeoning scholarship on black race horse men, most notably Joe Drape’s Black Maestro: The Epic Life of an American Legend (2007) and Edward Hotaling’s The Great Black Jockeys (1999) and Wink: The Incredible Life and Epic Journey of Jimmy Winkfield (2005.) However, Mooney’s work goes beyond previous scholarship, which offers an overly sanguine depiction of the lives of black race horse men. One of the strengths of Mooney’s book is that it presents a complicated picture of enslaved lives, which never lets the reader forget the brutality of a slave society. She powerfully describes the horrors of how white owners tortured slaves, which included forcing young jockeys to stand in horse manure to stunt their growth and walk for up to twenty miles with heavy layers of clothing on to shed weight. Mooney’s work shows how enslaved horse men took pride in their work and enjoyed agency, but she goes beyond previous scholarship by demonstrating how masters ultimately controlled their lives and bodies: “Jockeys…were positive proof that slaves could be physically shaped according to white desire…proof that torture could make a perfect slave” (49.) Mooney fleetingly mentions that the largest sale of enslaved people in the U.S. took place at the Ten Broeck Race Course in Georgia, when approximately 436 men, women, children, and infants were sold in 1859. Mooney describes how the slaves were kept in the stables and potential buyers examined their teeth and “prodded them in the ribs,” just like they did with the horses (115). Whilst Mooney acknowledges that this shows slaveholders “ownership of animal and human bodies,” she could push this argument further. Readers interested in learning more about the slave sale at Ten Broeck Race Course should consider Anne C. Bailey’s new book, The Weeping Time: Memory and the Largest Slave Auction in American History (2017).

     Mooney traces the lives of black race horse men through the Civil War and into Reconstruction. In the immediate aftermath of emancipation, black horsemen became sports celebrities and were a source of pride, hope, and inspiration. As racing moved north, formerly enslaved jockeys used their freedom to push for change. The fact that the most prominent jockey in the nation, Isaac Murphy, was African-American, served to raise these hopes. Mooney argues that the real change at the track did not come in the immediate aftermath of emancipation, but in the early twentieth century when segregation laws were enforced in the wake of Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), which legalised the doctrine of “separate but equal.” By the early twentieth century, black race horse men were only employed in the lowest rungs of the racing industry, as “Black horsemen’s success could not be safely channelled into the support of white supremacy” (225.) Whites explained the absence of blacks at the track using a range of techniques, including the scientific racism that gained currency at the turn of the twentieth century.

     Successfully weaving a story together about race and sport spanning over century is no mean feat. Mooney has clearly dug deep in the archives, and the book’s convincing arguments are supported by a plethora of sources, including photographs, newspapers, and personal letters. The images in the book are not only an interesting addition, but they also further Mooney’s arguments. For example, Mooney uses a Currier & Ives lithograph (231) to show white people’s uneasiness with black horsemen’s success under Jim Crow. Mooney’s work builds upon the growing animal turn in history, and it uses thoroughbred racing as a lens to explore the struggle against slavery and oppression. This work will appeal to equine historians, in addition to scholars of the long nineteenth century and race and relations. Mooney’s vivid writing makes this book accessible to a wider public audience beyond the academy, especially those with an interest in racing history. Race Horse Men offers an uplifting epilogue about the reburial of Isaac Murphy next to Man o’ War in Lexington Park in 1967, amidst struggle for black civil rights. Race Horse Men ends by bringing the story up-to-date with the recent Project to Preserve African-American Turf History and social justice initiatives such as the Isaac Murphy Bicycle Club and Everybody Reads Project. As America continues to grapple with its complicated history of enslavement, segregation, and oppression, Mooney concludes that “the ride” for equality “is nowhere near over” (248.)

#SourceSaturday: The General Stud Book

     It’s racing month here at EHC, so we’re kicking off our first #SourceSaturday with the General Stud Book, originally (and still) produced by the Weatherbys. First published in 1791, it is still the registry for British Thoroughbreds. As Margaret Derry points out, the pedigrees listed in the first General Stud Book were not detailed or usable by modern standards; the book was initially more concerned with proving identity, in order to confirm age and performance records, so that horses were entered in the correct races. While the initial pedigrees may not be detailed (and an error here or there has been discovered in later ones), it is still a spectacular source for early racing history, full of anecdotes, breeding choices being made, race records, and descriptions.

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   Digitized copies of some volumes are available on GoogleBooks and Archive.org

 

   Original bound stud books available at the National Sporting Library, the Huntington, and other institutions.

#ShelfieSunday: Crowdsourcing

     We put out a call for a crowdsource bibliography on twitter, and the crowd went wild! We’ll be adding these suggestions to our bibliography, and look forward to more. For this one, we talked about equines in war, 1800 to the present, which will be our theme for November, and flatracing which we will talk about in December. We still have space for a couple of reviews, so take a look through the recommended reading list! If you’re looking ahead, January is ancient equids and still wide open.

 As a reminder, our full bibliography is available as a zotero file. Contact us for a copy!