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!

D. J. Taylor’s Derby Day

Derby Day Taylor AmericanI recently finished D. J. Taylor’s historical novel, Derby Day, which was nominated for the Man Booker Prize in 2011.

Set in Victorian England, this brilliant novel details the double dealings and crimes revolving around a horse favored for the Epsom Derby.

It is not a horse book; it is about the human beings involved with the horse, Tiberius.

Taylor deftly weaves history into a breakneck, thrilling narrative about an unsuitable marriage, theft, discounted bills, forgeries, bets, a surprisingly detailed jewel heist, and the horse race.  The moments of comedy are almost equal to the moments of suspense, and there are many allusions to Dickens’ Bleak House, Thackeray’s Vanity Fair, and other Victorian novels.

Taylor’s graceful style and irresistible, if crooked, characters make this intricately-plotted novel unique.

Among the more respectable characters is Rebecca Gresham (whom Taylor compares to Becky Sharp), an impassive woman whose aspirations differ from those of her dull social circle, and who is determined to marry George Happerton, a man of mysterious origins. The charming Happerton has some money, whether from speculation or the racetrack.  Rebecca’s father, Mr. Gresham, a well-to-do lawyer, is suspicious of him.

Taylor writes long, elegant paragraphs.  Here is an excerpt from a paragraph in which he describes the relationship of Rebecca and her father.

Mr. Gresham and his daughter fell into that category of people whose want of sympathy is made yet more flagrant by their inability to disguise it. They were not at ease with each other, and the civilities of the breakfast table only fuelled their displeasure. And so Mr. Gresham read what The Times had to say about Mr. Gladstone’s disposition of his Cabinet, and Miss Gresham spread marmalade on a fragment of toast and snapped at it crossly as if she thought it might get away from her, and neither of them, in the matter of temperamental unbending would give an inch.

There are many surprises in this novel.  After Happerton and Rebecca marry, he admits he does not understand her, and is almost shocked when she volunteers to help him acquire Tiberius.  “There was something in her tone that suggested she might be his ally, that she was not averse to her father’s money being spent–the idea of its being lent was a polite fiction–on a horse.”

And there are other memorable characters:  Captain Raff, a comical, if sleazy, friend runs errands for Mr. Happerton:  the two buy up the discounted bills (of debts) of Mr. Davenant, owner of Tiberius, to get the horse (and his house).  Mr. Davenant broods in Lincolnshire, while his daughter, Evie, an albino girl with what we would now call an “intellectual disability,” contributes to the gloomy atmosphere.  Her new governess, Miss Ellington, tells her imaginative stories, but eventually has to give up trying to teach Evie to read.  Mr. Pardew, a burglar and safe-cracker, is one of Taylor’s most vivid characters, and, oddly, I am rooting for him throughout the book, even though he is not the guy you’d want to live next door to.  And then there is Captain McTurk, a brilliant policeman, perhaps a little like Mr. Bucket in Bleak House.

I am not always keen on historical novels, but I also very much enjoyed Taylor’s The Windsor Faction, a counter-factual history in which Edward VIII does not abdicate because Wallis Simpson dies.  Taylor is an exceptionally skillful writer, and I see why Derby Day was a contender for the Booker.

It makes you want to bet on a horse.  I like the races:  Golden Soul, “my” horse, came in second at the Kentucky Derby last year.

Taylor is also a critic and biographer, and won the Whitbread Biography Award for his biography of George Orwell.