Our Favorite Horse Racing Books

Pop Culture
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Team ABR has taken the opportunity to share some of their go-to horse racing books; contributors Penelope Miller, Mike Curry, and Melissa Bauer-Herzog each listed some of their favorites below. From betting guides to children’s books, histories to mysteries, horse racing is rich fodder for the literary set.

Penelope Miller:

I love books and horse racing so much, so this is fertile ground for me!  I have too many favorites to list them all, but here’s a small sampling of some of my top racing books:

1. The “Thoroughbred” series by Joanna Campbell: This series was an addiction for me when I was a kid, because it let me know that I wasn’t the only little girl out there obsessed with racehorses. I’m still waiting for my Wonder, by the way.

2. “Seabiscuit” by Laura Hillenbrand: A must-read for any racing lover (or for fans of unlikely but true underdog stories.) This is a modern American classic for a reason.

3. “The Head and Not the Heart” and “Other People’s Horses” by Natalie Keller Reinert: These two novels set in two of my favorite Thoroughbred-centric locations (Ocala, Fla., and Saratoga Springs, N.Y.) so accurately outline the love and heartbreak that go into preparing horses for life at the racetrack. I identified with Alex, the trainer who has a hard time separating her love of horses with the business of training them, and the two novels are very true-to-life about the rarely seen day-to-day training side of the Thoroughbred industry.

4. “Black Maestro” by Joe Drape: The incredible true-life story of Jimmy Winkfield, the last Black jockey to win the Kentucky Derby. This is an absolutely fascinating read about one of the most groundbreaking historical sportsmen of the 20th century.

5. "Longshot” by Dick Francis: The High King of horse racing mysteries, Dick Francis books shaped my teenaged years. My dad would finish one of his mysteries and hand it straight over to me to devour. While I’ve loved almost every novel in Francis’s oeuvre, Longshot stands out as my favorite.

6. “Racetracker: Life with Grifters and Gamblers” by John Perrotta: John Perrotta is one of the most knowledgeable racing fans in the world, and his memoirs surrounding his experiences at the track are a must-read. 

7. “Ruffian: Burning from the Start” by Jane Schwartz: The true and tragic story of one of the greatest racehorses of all time, this book ripped my heart to shreds even as it raised me up through its chronicle of Ruffian’s ascent into horse racing lore and her horrifying life-ending injury. You will cry when you read this book, but you will also love it for its insight into the life of one of the greatest fillies of all time.

8. “The Black Stallion” by Walter Farley: One of the best horse racing books for young readers, The Black Stallion (and the subsequent series built around it) is a must-read for young racing fans. Drama, excitement, danger, and the thrill of competition abound in this book, and it still holds up seventy-five years after its initial publication.

Mike Curry:

“Seabiscuit,” by Laura Hillenbrand was a grand slam for me — an amazing work that is a must-read for every racing fan and belongs atop any list of great racing books. Since Penelope already mentioned it, I went with a few others for some variety. I’m also a huge fan of Dick Francis, with Sid Halley my favorite protagonist. It’s tough to point to one standout from his huge collection, but I’m a huge fan of “Whip Hand.” I also stayed away from the handicapping books, because while they are a necessity for any avid horseplayer, they are generally quite dry and not exactly curl up with a cup of coffee books. Plus, Dave Hill already put together a great list for the aspiring handicapper. Enough hemming and hawing, let’s get to it, in no particular order:

1. “The Kid: The Inside Story of Steve Cauthen's Spectacular Ride to Stardom,” by Pete Axthelm: I was too young to witness Steve Cauthen’s meteoric rise to stardom, but I felt like I lived it when reading this book, which tells the tale of a boy who was in many ways “the natural” of jockeys. But it was more than just the story of a prodigy that drew me in, it was the incredible humility of the entire Cauthen family that was so alluring.

2. “Ruffian: Burning From the Start,” by Jane Schwartz: This was another story about a racehorse before my time who had achieved almost mythical status and this book delivered. From the sheer brilliance of her natural ability to the gut-wrenching, heartbreaking battle to save this legendary filly, this book is a must-read for fans of racing history and horse racing’s legends.

3. “Racing Through the Century: The Story of Thoroughbred Racing in America,” by Mary Simon: This book takes the racing fan through the rich history of the sport in North America from the 1800s right through 2000, decade by decade, with separate features on the sport’s biggest stars and informative and useful snapshots of the decade, such as leading trainers and jockeys and “Horse Signs of the Times.” Multiple Eclipse Award winner Mary Simon hits a home run with a project that started as a series of articles in Thoroughbred Times.

Photo by Mike Curry

4. “Barbaro: The Horse Who Captured America's Heart,” by Sean Clancy: This is definitely a personal one for me as I lived through the 2006 Triple Crown as the main writer covering Barbaro for the now-defunct Thoroughbred Times. Clancy did a wonderful job of telling the story of an amazing racehorse we lost too soon and the book offers an amazing collection of images for horse racing fans. If you don’t follow the Clancy brothers – Sean and his older brother, Joe – you are missing out on a couple of Eclipse Award winners who know how to spin a tale. Visit their website.

5. “Tesio: In His Own Words”: This was not a page-turner, but for someone interested in genetics, pedigrees and breeding philosophies, I couldn’t put it down. Great insight into the mind of a master who was responsible for Nearco and Ribot among many, many others, including all sorts of theories (some incorrect) on topics such as the genetics of gray or roan horses the importance of speed in breeding.

6. “If Wishes Were Horses,” by John Perrotta: I’m a bit biased here because the first part of this ran exclusively on America’s Best Racing, but Perotta is just a wonderful writer whose prose creates vivid imagery and unforgettable characters. A lifelong horseman who was a writer for the HBO series “Luck,” Perotta’s “If Wishes Were Horses” takes the reader on a memorable ride with Hamilton “Ham” Greer as he discovers the allure of horse racing and grows from a teenage runaway into a man.

Melissa Bauer-Herzog:

I have a six-shelf bookcase in my living room, plus another smaller book case (and a stack of books on a table) full of equine related books so you could say that I’m a bit obsessed with horses and books about them. While some of them cover more educational topics such as feeding and breeding, there are some oldies but goodies that I think every racing fan will love. 

1. “Silks” by Dick and Felix Francis: If you are a rider (racing or otherwise), you can relate to this story. Geoffrey Mason is a lawyer and an amateur jockey who basically just wants to spend his spare time riding his steeplechaser but like most Dick Francis books, it’s not that simple. Dick Francis is my favorite author, thanks to a love of his stories that my grandmother installed in me from a young age, and while it is hard for me to choose a favorite Silks is up there for me.

2. “Horsetrader: Robert Sangster and the Rise and Fall of the Sport of Kings” by Patrick Robinson: When three people in the span of a week mentioned that I needed to read this book, I was sold. It’s a little older (published in 1993) so hard to find in normal stores but Amazon came to my rescue and I’m glad it did.  I made the mistake of starting it when I headed home for Christmas and nearly missed a plane because I was so intently reading it during a layover and couldn’t put it down for most of my trip at home. It’s a truly fascinating read not just about the Coolmore empire but also about the sport in the late 20th century.

3. “Taking the Fall” by A.P. McCoy: If you don’t know who A.P. McCoy is, he’s a 20-time steeplechasing champion jockey. I was curious to see how his writing stacked up to Francis (who was also a jockey) and while it unsurprisingly wasn’t to the level of Francis, it was a good read. I probably wouldn’t recommend it for a younger audience or but it’s a quick read for someone starved for racing fiction.

4. “Beyond the Homestretch: What I’ve Learned From Saving Racehorses” by Lynn Reardon: If you like off-the-track Thoroughbreds, this book is for you. I read it pretty quickly because I couldn’t put it down. Reardon’s lessons she learned from the OTTBs she had are relatable to any horse person, whether you own or just ride horses. Plus, you learn about the creation of a high profile aftercare organization (LOPE), which makes it even more interesting.

5. “Funny Cide: How a Horse, a Trainer, a Jockey and Bunch of High School Buddies Took on the Sheihks and Bloodbloods … and Won” by The Funny Cide Team: As a horse crazy 14-year-old when Funny Cide won two legs of the Triple Crown, I was totally sucked into the Funny Cide fan club. A New York-bred gelding with “regular guys” who showed up to the track in a school bus and weren’t shy about having a blast at the races; what’s not to love? My heart broke when Funny Cide lost the Belmont and I was totally psyched when I opened up my birthday presents in 2005 and received this book. I highly recommend adding it to any racing library.

6. “Wild Ride: The Rise and Tragic Fall of Calumet Farm, Inc., America's Premier Racing Dynasty” by Ann Hagedorn Auerbach: No non-fiction book has caused as conflicting of emotions for me as this book. It was a great read but infuriating to see in detail the decisions made that caused Calumet to fall. Even with my strong emotions about the actions taken in the book, it’s a must read for anyone who is interested in racing’s history and why Calumet is still revered so much in the sport.

7. “The Kingmaker: How Northern Dancer Founded a Racing Dynasty” by Avalyn Hunter: While this book is more for pedigree nerds like me, it is hands down one of my favorite books. Northern Dancer is, in my opinion, the most influential worldwide sire in modern history and seeing how he became so influential is extremely interesting. It was published 10 years ago so is obviously missing some updates that have happened in the past decade but still a very worthy read if you want to know how the sport’s pedigrees got to where they are now.

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