Jul 27, 2009
The Black Stallion's Filly
I just love all the Black Stallion books and not just for nostalgia's sake. There was something in the way Walter Farley wrote that truly conveyed his deep affection for and knowledge of horses. On the whole he never made those same ghastly errors of horsemanship that other young adult writers so often did. I rarely felt the need to cringe at his descriptions or force myself to overlook an error of judgement. And he never sacrificed sensical plot structure in favor of exciting heroics.
But wait! Before you crucify me for that statement, let me point out that I am not saying Farley strayed from formula - yes, the odds may be stacked against him, but the underdog will always win - but the thing is, I never had a problem with that formula, at least in theory. The problems come when, too often, in practice authors forget to properly set the scene and they leave dramatic tension by the wayside. Look, the outcome may never really be in doubt, but I need to feel as if it were. Walter Farley understood that and rarely made a mistake in that area.
So, it should come as no surprise when I say that The Black Stallion's Filly has a fairly simplistic plot, easily summed up in a few sentences: The Black is retired to stud. Satan, his phenomenal son, has just been forced into retirement due to a seismoidal fracture. Alec Ramsay and his trainer, Henry Dailey are fretting with boredom at the thought of just being relegated to managing the breeding farm, at least until the next batch of youngsters is ready to race. Lo and behold, it comes out that a 2 year old filly, sired by The Black, is up for auction and Henry is especially excited to purchase her for himself -- he is dreaming of his very own Derby contender. In reality, Black Minx (a name which I adore, by the way; I apologize in advance to any future black mare I may own, as this may well end up being your name) is an uneducated, lazy, spoiled brat of a horse, with a bit of a hot temper. Months of training produces little results and the two men begin to doubt whether the filly has what it takes to win the Kentucky Derby. Well, obviously they persevere and Black Minx is coaxed into becoming a real racehorse and winning the Derby.
Formulaic, yes. But Walter Farley has a way of making you feel just a tinge of doubt about whether the filly will indeed win. He spends a great deail of time describing just how temperamental and spoiled she is -- and take it from me, she is a handful...and realistically so. I see every one of my own mares' idiosyncracies reflected back in Black Minx. The impatient stomping at having to stand and be groomed for longer than 15 minutes, the playful nipping that you just can't seem to correct out of her, the unpredictable workout sessions in which the mare may or not give it her all, but under no circumstances can you force it out of her. Yet, through it all there is that occasional flash of brilliance that keeps your hope alive. What is it they say? When you have a good gelding, you have a good horse. When you have a good mare, you have a great horse. Believe. It.
But beyond that, Farley doesn't dwell on her performance much. The point is to make you doubt whether she is much of a runner and whether she can outgrow her willfullness. Instead he focuses on the other potential contenders for the Derby and their respective prep races. And that brings me to the other great thing about his books - he has an uncanny ability to teach without lecturing or slowing down the story.
For instance, "Alec said, 'I doubt that I can rate her, Henry. When she takes the bit she'll work the limit of her spped.' He knew the difference between a work and a breeze, but the filly didn't. And there was no way of teaching her. When Henry called for 'breezing' he wanted his horse to move fast, but at the same time to be held under a snug hold and not allowed to reach the limit of his speed. When he called for a 'work' he wanted his horse to go at top speed, with urging if necessary."
Or this exchance between Alex and Henry, in which Alex asks if any horse had ever won the Derby without racing prior to that in their 3 year-old year: "Henry didn't answer immediately, and Alec knew his friedn was either thinking about the question put to him or wasn't going to bother to reply. [...] Finally Henry said, 'I'm not going back over thirty years, but during that time, there were three horses who won the Derby the first time out, if I remember correctly. Exterminator did it in nineteen-eighteen, Sir Barton the following year, and then Morvich in nineteen twenty-two.'"
Farley has a gift for writing expository passages that don't slow down the plot and educate just enough to keep the unintiated engaged. I have seen so many poor examples of this over the years, that it positively surprised me that the Black Stallion books were different. I guess I hadn't re-read one in a while.
Of course Black Minx wins the Kentucky Derby. Call it predictable if you will, but Walter Farley can still make you savor the journey to the win. The book may be geared to young adults / children, but it can be enjoyed equally as well by any horse-loving adult. The fact is that this series is written by a horse-lover for horse-lovers, without glazing over facts or skipping over good horse-y common sense. He clearly had an innate respect for his audience's horse knowledge and frankly, that's all I really want from my horse books. Unfortunately it's often in short supply.
So, dudes....seriously. Read it. It's rad. And if you've already read it as a child, then re-read it. I guarantee you'll be surprised at how good it is, and maybe you'll come away with a newfound respect for Walter Farley's books.