Horse Races in Fiction

Kentucky Derby 2013

Kentucky Derby 2013

I love the races.

I always bet on horses with names like “Loopy Dazzle” and “Champagne Cake.”

I couldn’t read the Racing Form if my life depended on it.

But the horses are beautiful and the races are exciting.

Recently I’ve read two novels with horse-race scenes, Zola’s Nana and D. J. Taylor’s Derby Day.

And so I decided to make a list of fiction with horse races.

First, three classics I have reread recently:

Nana by Zola1.  In Nana, Zola’s novel about a courtesan, Nana rises from prostitution to a starring role in an operetta to spoiled mistress of a banker, a count, and others.  No one can resist Nana. She fascinates with her perfect figure–men become obsessed by her when she plays an almost-nude scene in the operetta–and out of the theater she is a genial girl who enjoys socializing with old friends from the slums and her many lovers.  The problem:  avarice.  She squanders several  fortunes.

There is a glorious horse race scene.  The odds are against the horse, Nana, who is named after her.  Here is an excerpt from the George Holden translation:

Then the crowd witnessed a splendid sight.  Price, rising in the stirrups  and brandishing his whip, flogged Nana with an arm of iron.  the dried-up old child, with his long, hard, dead face, seemed to be breathing fire.  And in a furious burst of audacity and triumphant will-power, he poured his heart into the filly, picked her up and carried her forward, drenched in foam, her eyes all bloodshot. The whole field went by with a roar of thunder, taking people’s breath away and sweeping the air with it, while the judge sat waiting coldly, his eye fixed on his sighting mark.

anna-karenina-leo-tolstoy2.  In  Anna Karenina, Tolstoy’s masterpiece, there is perhaps the most dramatic horse race ever.  Vronsky, Anna’s lover, rides in a steeplechase race, but his tension beforehand, caused by his family’s objections to Anna, and his visit to Anna immediately before the race, does not bode well.  During the race, his merciless treatment of the horse, Frou-Frou,  is a harbinger of what will happen to Anna.

Here is an excerpt:

Vronsky did not even look at [the last water jump], but hoping to win by a distance, began working the reins with a circular movement, raising and dropping the mare’s head in time with her stride.  He felt she was losing her last reserve of strength, not only her neck and shoulders were wet, but on her withers, her head, and her pointed ears the sweat stood in drops, and she was breathing short and sharp.  But he knew that her reserve of strength was more than enough for the remaining five hundred yard.

3.  In D. H. Lawrence‘s short story, “The Rocking-Horse Winner,”  a boy has an uncanny gift for predicting winners of horse races. He rides his rocking horse for hours to predict the winner of the Derby…  and then…

Next, two contemporary books:

Derby Day Taylor American4.  In Derby Day, which was nominated for the Man Booker Prize in 2011, D. J. Taylor  describes the double-dealings of horse owners, thieves, a power-hungry woman, and bookmakers before the Epsom Derby. Taylor seems to write effortlessly, and in this elegant novel, set in Victorian England, he deftly weaves history into a breakneck, thrilling narrative. ( I recently wrote about this  here.)

Here is an excerpt:

A riot of colour.  Colour everywhere.  The horses are of every imaginable hue:  black, baby, chestnut, grey, a multitude of shades in between.  The jockeys’ silks–scarlet, magenta, carmine, green-and-white, quartered blues and yellows–rustle in the breeze.  In the distance a sea of faces, sharp and distinct where the people press up against the rail, fading–as the crowd diffuses up the hill–into a remote generality.  Nothing Mr. Frith could ever do can convey the enormity of the scene or its infinite particularity, the sway and eddy of fifty thousand shoulders, the women fainting in the heat and being taken out, the flashes of light as the sun catches on the raised opera glasses in the grandstand, the cacophony of individual shouts–‘Baldino!, ‘Septuagint!’, ‘Pendragon!’.  The band is still playing ‘The British Grenadiers’ on the near side of the paddock, but nobody hears it.

Horse Heaven jane smiley5.  In Pulitzer Prize-winner Jane Smiley’s Horse Heaven, tycoons, trainers, breeders, jockeys, and others behind the scenes in southern California race their horses and have a chance at the Kentucky Derby or the Breeders Cup.  The characters are eccentric and amusing, the details about racing are absorbing, the plot is addictive, and I especially loved the passages from the horses’ points-of-view.

I would have to reread this book to write about it intelligently, but I did love it when it was published.

Here is an excerpt I found online (unfortunately I couldn’t find one from the horses’ point of view).

The first thing Mr. Maybrick did after he poured his coffee was to call his horse-trainer. When the trainer answered with his usual “Hey, there!,” Mr. Maybrick said, “Dick!,” and then Dick said, “Oh. Al.” He always said it just like that, as if he were expecting something good to happen, and Mr. Maybrick had happened instead. Mr. Maybrick ignored this and sipped his coffee while Dick punched up his response. “Can I do something for you, Al?”

“Yeah. You can put that Laurita filly in the allowance race on Thursday.”

Now for pop novels.

The Dark Horse Rumer Godden6.  Rumer Godden’s Dark Horse.  Not a very good book, but entertaining.  (I picked it up for $1 at a sale.)   In the 1930s, a millionaire buys the Dark Invader, a beautiful horse that has failed as a racehorse in England; the horse and his groom are shipped to India to be given a second chance.  The groom, Ted, a jockey whose career was wrecked by alcoholism, reveals how the horse was ruined by a sadistic jockey.  Ted is hired to stay in Calcutta with the horse; the Mother Superior of a nearby convent proves to be very horse-smart; and everybody finds redemption.

7.  My husband suggests  Dick Francis‘s mysteries and Faulkner.  I don’t know which Faulkner, but he says there are a lot of horsey scenes.

Let me know your favorite horse race books!

5 thoughts on “Horse Races in Fiction

  1. A chapter of The Maias by Eça de Queirós is nothing but a long, detailed, glorious day at the races. It shares a common origin with the scene from Nana, in the horse racing bit from Flaubert’s Sentimental Education.

    Faulkner’s last novel, The Reivers, has horse racing.

  2. Tom, thank you so much for telling me about this novel by a writer I’ve never heard of. I love the 19th century and must admit I’ve read very few Spanish writers, with the exception of Garciz Marquez (wrong century, wrong part of the world). And thank you for the link to your excellent post. I’m sure there are many races in fiction, but I was really stumped. Most of the scenes I was thinking of had horses, but no races.

    My husband was probably trying to think of The Reivers when he mentioned Faulkner. I myself have not recovered yet from a couple of hundred of pages of (I think) The Hamlet, in which a mentally deficient character is in love with a cow. (I’m really hoping I misremember that.) So I’ll have to skip The Reivers, but I will try The Maias.

  3. The Horse Heaven book was very good and I also was impressed by the sections where we saw things from the horse’s point of view.

    National Velvet, the movie (I haven’t read the book), has a great steeplechase race.

    There are a lot of horses in Trollope and allusions to races, mostly to people losing money at them. How about fox hunting. In The American Senator? It’s race between the horses and the fox and occasionally the fox wins.it develops that in pursuit of the fox you can ride across someone’s land and damage the fences and crops and no one can stop you: http://silverseason.wordpress.com/2012/03/21/anthony-trollope-the-american-senator/.

  4. Yes I’m with “Silver season:” I thought of Trollope: Ayala’s Angel has some marvelous horse racing sequences as does Can You Forgive her? (savagely ironic) and Phineas Redux (with Madame Max ever saving Phineas). Don’t forget the darker side of gambling: from The Duke’s Chlidren to Esther Waters, men have been throwing away the family’s money for over a century and one half.

  5. Nancy and Ellen, I love Trollope, but was only remembering hunting scenes. It’s been a while since I’ve read him…

    I just reread the hunting scene in War and Peace, where Nikolai, Natasha, and Petra go out with a group after a wolf. It’s very exciting! But no racin in WAP.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s