Jul 28, 2010

Book Review: Not By A Long Shot

Two years ago my sweet, devoted husband decided to buy a bunch of horse books to give me for Christmas, one of which was called "Not By a Long Shot" by T.D. Thornton.  Like the totally ungrateful wife I am, I completely ignored this book because it wasn't one of the books that had been on my wish list.  My husband had taken the iniative to buy me something that would be a surprise and for that same reason I looked on it with suspicion. 

So, when faced with a 5+ hour train ride from Syracuse to NYC earlier this month, it was with some residual guilt and trepidation that I decided to finally take a stab at reading this book.  Armed with a couple of back-ups, too, just in case...I boarded the train somewhat bored by my reading possibilities.  Yet within minutes I discovered my gross error; this was clearly destined to be one of my favorite books EVER!

I love the casual writing style of the book.  There's no obvious narrative, no cast of characters with a story arc.  It's really just feels like you had the good fortune to sit down with Mr. Thornton and swap stories.  Ultimately his overall topic is Suffolk Downs, a hard-knock racetrack in Massachusetts that has seen better days.  What I admire most is his way of offering up a gritty, grimy view of the track and its inhabitants without romanticizing it or depressing his readers.  There are no rose-colored glasses you get to put on when reading about small-time trainers who drug the hell out of their barely-viable steeds to eke out a tiny living, or jockeys who are struggling through multiple injuries and drug addictions to earn just a pittance, or even the somewhat sad, obsessed figures who spend every moment of their lives at the track just addicted to the handicapping and wagering, regardless of how much they win (or most likely, lose).  Yet, despite all of this, you just feel how much Thornton loves and respects his subjects.  He is not an outsider looking in; he's already been swept up and seduced by that world, no matter how dysfunctional it may seem.  In one of the early chapters of the book, Thornton notes that all the track participants -- the ones there day in and day out, whether it be bettors, trainers, grooms, or simply press -- refer to themselves as racetrack degenerates.  Normally I would hate the use of this term, but somehow it is so fitting in this context.  There is a certain mix of contempt and obsession that fuels these people, especially when you consider the class of track that they are inhabiting (this is not Churchill Downs or Saratoga, people).  Your average person doesn't spend every waking hour at a racetrack, especially not one like Suffolk Downs; it is a sort of compulsion.  One that I can understand perfectly.  This is Noir at its finest, except it's not fiction.

If anything, Thornton made me really understand the industry in way I couldn't begin to comprehend on my own.  I fully admit to having been very contemptuous of casinos on racetracks and small-time trainers that wore their horses down in small-time claiming races, eventually churning out horses only fit for rescue organizations or, worse, the slaughter house.  I haven't changed my ultimate opinions on either of these things, but he certainly opened my eyes to the complexity of these situations.  Racing, in some ways, only survives because of these things.  It is a difficult thing for me to admit, but I can see now why that world has been so slow to evolve.  As in everything, it is primarily due to a difficult-to-unravel concoction of absurd politics and fear, that horseracing is in such a crisis point.  I will have a harder time condemning those in the industry now, having a better handle on their viewpoint.  But don't worry:  politicians will still have my ire to bear.

You simply have to read the book to fully grasp its beauty.  It tackles everything from a discovery of the Thoroughbred who paralyzed Christopher Reeves in his girlfriend's dressage boarding stable to an examination of the regular racetrack "characters" who are the most loyal -- and perhaps looniest -- patrons of the track.  Think of it as a collection of essays and you'll be far better prepared.  Thornton just paints the picture and you are immediately drawn in.  By the end of the book, you feel a bit depressed, as if you just spent a year at the track yourself and now have to return home to your far duller existence.

I just want to leave you with one more thought.  There was one passage of the book that made me stop dead.  I must have re-read it 4 or 5 times, with tears in my eyes.  Never had I read such an eloquent expression of how it feels to be compelled to the racetrack.  My horse-y friends can't understand my horseracing obsession -- it's seedy and filthy and everything proper riding isn't.  But like Thornton writes, "[...] I recall being about five or six years old and watching my father, Paul Thornton -- tight-lipped with his serious face on -- saddling racehorses from the other side of the fence at the Rockingham paddock (children were not permitted in the saddling enclosure) just before the visceral, throaty surge of the crowd during a wild, stampeding stretch drive.  I didn't have it all figured out, but I knew I wanted to end up on the other side of that damn fence where the horses and jockeys were, the epicenter of action."  It's a simple description for a powerful, complicated need to be at the track.  You just feel it in your very being and it's nearly impossible to describe to people who haven't felt it.  And ultimately it's why this book is such a success -- in reality T.D. Thornton just spends 300+ pages expanding on this passage, describing why -- despite the gritty, harsh realities -- all the degenerates, including him, have made the choice to be there.

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