Even as a deadly pandemic stopped the world in its tracks, the business of horse racing continued — and thankfully so, too, did the art of writing about it. The year 2021 brings with it the 15th annual Dr. Tony Ryan Book Award, once again recognizing the best long-form writing the world of racing has to offer.
Despite the limitations set by COVID-19, authors continued to ply their trade, as evidenced by the exciting crop of racing-themed books that arrived last winter in the offices of the book award sponsor, Castleton Lyons.
As always, submissions represented multiple genres, from story collections to biographies to works of fiction. Remarkably, nearly half of the 2020 submissions fell in the latter category, a strong group that served up mysteries and romance, misfits and second chances, crime, heartache, and equine greatness. Several of the titles represented excellent efforts by first-time authors.
After reading steadily through early spring, the Dr. Tony Ryan Book Award judges selected six semi-finalists, including four fictional volumes and two stand-out biographies of trail-blazing women in racing.
A by-invitation reception has been held at Castleton Lyons’ Kentucky farm each April since the award’s inception back in 2006. It had become a rite of spring until last year when the pandemic upended everything. The 2020 winner’s announcement was, by necessity, moved back to November and was conducted remotely for the first time via Zoom conference. That will most likely be the format again this year, with a tentative target date of late April.
Below are the semi-finalists for the Dr. Tony Ryan Book Award for excellence in Thoroughbred racing literature published in 2020:
A Hole Through the Wind, by Alan Patterson
This improbable, but engaging semi-autobiographical tale of twin colts — one big and handsome, the other a tiny castoff — is revealed through the diary and reminiscences of an old horseman. Written by an ex-jockey, the story centers around a young black man, the kindly farm manager and his daughter who take him in, and the undersized colt with an outsized heart they all believe in. It is a simple, feel-good tale for troubled times.
Diane Crump: A Horse-Racing Pioneer’s Life in the Saddle, by Mark Shrager
This exceptional biography follows the life path of Diane Crump from a horse-crazy child to the courageous young woman who forever altered the course of racing. Crump’s dream was to be a jockey at a time when that was not considered possible for a female. She fought back hard against discrimination while enduring boycotts, insults, and even threats of violence. In 1969, Crump became the first woman to ride in a parimutuel race in the U.S., the first to win a stakes race, and the first to compete in the Kentucky Derby. Crump blew doors wide open for future generations of horse-loving girls to live their dreams at the racetrack.
First-Time Starter, by Stan D. Jensen
This charming novella, penned by a former owner, jockey’s agent, and published author, reminds one how wonderful racing can be. It centers around a beautiful but seemingly incorrigible filly, her old-school trainer, a loving groom, and a has-been jockey. As the story develops, the filly transforms from an angry, vicious, untrusting animal into the glorious racehorse she was meant to be. “First-Time Starter” is a short, quick read encompassing a single day in the life of its cast of characters … and it leaves you wanting more.
Good Things Come, by Linda Shantz
Mixing together hope, heartbreak, and romance, plus a dash of rivalry and a great deal of excitement, “Good Things Come” delivers all the goods in terms of top-notch racing fiction. Set in the world of Canadian racing, the story is that of an intense young woman, a troubled young man, and the quirky but talented filly they both love. This is the first book written by an accomplished equine artist and former backside worker who knows her subject well and tells it with a master’s hand.
Ruffian: The Greatest Thoroughbred Filly, by Precious McKenzie
This fictionalized account of the life of Ruffian as seen through the eyes of a young girl is a well-penned read for older children and young adults, as well as a broader audience. No one who lived through the brilliant career and untimely death of this immortal filly could forget Ruffian. And those who came later will learn from these pages of her all-too-brief life and those of the people who surrounded and loved her.
Sylvia Rideoutt Bishop Had a Way With Horses, by Vicky Moon
Sylvia Rideoutt Bishop is not a widely familiar name, but she was a true racing pioneer. She climbed a mountain of adversity growing up in the Jim Crow South, and later fought relentless battles against sexism and racism to become the first black woman in the United States to obtain a trainer’s license. Journalist Vicky Moon’s meticulously researched work tells the story of America while tracing the life of this most remarkable woman — from her blue-collar childhood in West Virginia, to her start as a racetrack groom during the Great Depression, to the saddling of her final winner at age 80.