Welcome to the ABR Book Club, where we spotlight books that horse racing fans and horse lovers alike may be interested in.
Book: “Better Lucky Than Good” from the Louisville Story Program
When I started “Better Lucky Than Good,” an anthology of first-person perspectives of life at and surrounding the racetrack, I had the idea to mark the stories that stood out to me as exceptional: The people whose lives had given me new insight into a world I thought I knew intimately. About five chapters in, I realized I had marked almost every story. These narratives are gripping, heartbreaking, uplifting, funny, and tragic all at once. Reading “Better Lucky Than Good” is like listening to 34 of the best episodes of “This American Life” that are tailored just for an audience of Thoroughbred fans.
“Better Lucky Than Good” will appeal to fans of oral histories, and to people who love slice-of-life nonfiction. This book is not for the faint of heart: These stories, as told by the people who live and work on the backstretches of Kentucky racetracks and beyond, are very real. There is frank talk of addiction, of poverty, of racism, and of sexism; yet it’s also a book defined by the hope, dedication, and love that permeates this game called horse racing. I think of Cristina Bahena, a barn foreman who was scared of horses when she first started working with them and now heads up stable operations for top trainer Dale Romans. I think of Paul Goffner, a retired groom whose photo graces the cover and who started work on the track while he was in sixth grade, eventually caring for the mighty Forego in his career. There are stories of jockeys, of seamstresses, of trainers, and of drug and alcohol counselors. “Better Lucky Than Good” is all about perspectives, experiences, and the truths of the people who make sure the public sees horse racing every day in America.
The book is illustrated by incredible photos from the subjects’ lives: everything from childhood family photos to images made on the backstretch throughout the years. One subject, Clarke Otte, is a retired groom and photographer, and his pictures of Churchill Downs from the ‘70s, ‘80s, and ‘90s are riveting.
In reading “Better Lucky Than Good,” I was struck that the racetrack is a microcosm of the United States: There’s excitement, glamour, and the promise of untold wealth gilding the veneer, but it’s the sacrifice, hard work, and determination going on in the background that make the surface shine.