Sasscer Hill is a horsewoman, former amateur jockey and an accomplished mystery, suspense author. She created the popular the Nikki Latrelle mystery novel series. Her new novel, “Flamingo Road,” goes on sale on Tuesday, April 18. “Flamingo Road” is a Fia McKee mystery in which the protagonist is a former Baltimore police officer, put on leave for excessive use of force after interfering in a crime that turns deadly, given a second chance when sent to work undercover for the Thoroughbred Racing Protective Bureau. Pre-order “Flamingo Road” here.
Hill took a few minutes to discuss horse racing and her new book with America’s Best Racing’s Dave Hill.
You have a background in horse racing. Could you tell our readers a little bit about your life before you became a novelist?
My father died when I was 16, and I was lucky enough to be taken under the wing of horseman Alfred H. Smith Sr., owner and breeder of two-time steeplechase Eclipse champion Tuscalee. Smith and his family taught me everything I know about horses and racing, and when I got married, my husband and I took over my family’s farm in Maryland, where I raised Thoroughbred racehorses for over 30 years.
Your new book, “Flamingo Road,” involves a lot of racetrack intrigue, and includes a plot line where your main character goes undercover for the Thoroughbred Racing Protective Bureau. I was surprised to learn that this is a very real agency! And I read that you did a lot of research about them in preparation for writing the book. Can you tell us about that and about the hands-on way you research your stories before writing them?
In 2012, I arranged to meet with Frank Fabian, former president of the Thoroughbred Racing Protective Bureau (TRPB) and 20-year veteran of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. I drove up to Fair Hill, Md., where the TRPB is headquartered and met him and James Gowan, the TRPB vice president. I think they interviewed me more than I interviewed them. Probably, they wanted to make sure some ignorant, lowlife wasn’t about to paint an unfavorable, inaccurate portrait of their organization. Gowan was kind enough to read the final manuscript of “Flamingo Road” to check for TRPB procedural errors. I heaved a sigh of relief when he gave me the green light.
I myself have pitched horse-racing stories to mainstream publishers and magazines only to be told that there isn't enough interest in the sport. I read that when you pitched “Flamingo Road,” you included statistics about the health and popularity of horse racing. Do you think this made a difference? Why do you think, even in the face of enormous success of books like “Seabiscuit,” that there is still this misconception about the sport and the public? How can we change it?
I do think my statistics helped, but you know how they say timing is everything? That data might not have had that much effect if it wasn’t for a horse named American Phaorah. I sent my stats in about a week before the colt won the Triple Crown. A day or two before he ran, I received an email about my first three “Nikki Latrelle” novels from Steve Haskin, former senior correspondent for the BloodHorse. He wrote, “The honor comes in your accomplishments and talent, and you should take great pride in such a magnificent trifecta. Congratulations!!! Well done. Dick Francis lives!” His words made me cry, and of course I forwarded them to the publisher.
But the brightest star to align that week was Pharoah. Deep in my heart, I’d believed if the colt could pull off the historical and momentous feat of winning the first Triple Crown in 37 years, it might nudge a publishing offer from St. Martins my way.
When Pharoah opened up and won the Belmont [Stakes] by daylight, I could feel the bright star that is love for horses rising over me. Pharoah’s race drew 22 million television viewers, and the subsequent radio, television and social media attention was phenomenal. Within a week, American Pharoah appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated, and a day later, I received a two-book offer from St. Martins, Minotaur.
As far as improving the perception of horse racing, I hope my books can make a difference. Realistically, the biggest improvement would be for consistency of rules between different jurisdictions, states, and racing commissions. The current mess makes it easier for criminals to ply their trade. If the U.S. would move to drug free racing, closer to the rules of Europe, that would be a huge plus.
Flamingo Road is a mystery, and it gets into some dark territory. There is just about every bad thing you could imagine happening at a racetrack happening here. Yes, Fia encounters a number of good and honorable people at Gulfstream Park, but she also encounters a lot of terrible things. Is this picture of life on the backstretch accurate in your experience? How much of it is heightened for literary affect?
Sadly, not that much is heightened for literary affect. If you think of what people will do for money, for example the drug gangs in this country, it’s easy to see the realism in the novel.
What's next for Fia? Where do you plan to go with this series?
You've been compared to Dick Francis, which is high and accurate praise in my opinion. You've also said he was an influence on you. What other writers inspire you and have influenced your work?
Probably the biggest influence on me, because he impacted me as a child, was Walter Farley, the author of “The Black Stallion” and “The Island Stallion” books. These days, I am loving the books of John Hart, Michael Connelly and Robert Crais.
Who's your pick to win the Kentucky Derby?