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A List of the Best Books on Horse Racing

August 4, 2011

I’ve been intrigued by lists of horse racing books. Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to find many. The lists I have found feature books covering the history of racing, breeding techniques, infamous races, and biographies of owners, breeders, trainers, and horses. The list I looked at most recently is by racing historian John Randall, written for the UK’s Racing Post with staff writers Tony Morris and Robin Gibson in 2005, listing his top 50 of the best racing books ever written.

The article is written in 3 parts, with Part 1 “Counting down the best 50 books on the Sport of Kings Today: numbers 50-31,” Part 2 continuing with books 30-11, and concluding with Part 3, the “Ten masterpieces that represent the pinnacle of Turf literature.” For each book, he and the other Racing Post writers give a short, compelling description about why this book has made the list.

As Randall writes,

The literature of the Turf is richer and more varied than that of any other sport, and well over 10,000 books on racing have been published in the 2,400 years since Xenophon wrote The Art of Horsemanship… A mixture of popular and academic works, golden oldies and recent hits, they reflect the scope and unique flavour of the sport, and give a vivid and original treatment of their subject matter.

Although most of the books on the list are British or Irish, some are French, German, or American. Randall continues, “The 50 chosen titles represent the whole spectrum of Turf literature – not just histories, biographies and encyclopaedias, but also fiction, journalism, books about breeding, gambling, sociology, politics and anthropology, humorous works, and even one instruction manual.”

Purposely excluded from the list are annuals and other periodical publications, such as Timeform annuals, Bloodstock Breeders’ Reviews, Racing Calendars, Stud-Books, Ruff’s Guides, Statistical Records and Directories of the Turf, “without which no serious racing library is complete.”

I have 5 of the books in this list – 6 if you count my paperback copy of Seabiscuit, by Laura Hillenbrand (2001), #50 on this list, not favorably described by Randall (even though it still made the list):

“This biography of the 68th-best American racehorse of the 20th century has achieved spectacular success but is vastly overrated. In relating the obstacles overcome by Seabiscuit and his connections, Hillenbrand is much more interested in myth-making than factual accuracy, notably in the absurd claim that her hero was the No. 1 newsmaker of 1938. She is a skilled story-teller but not a historian.”

 

Counting up to the top book, I also have #43 on the list, The Aga Khan’s Racing and Breeding Studs 1922-1997, by Georg Lang (1998):

“No stud since 1900 has been more important than that of the Aga Khans, III & IV. Any enthusiast might have dug out the information necessary to compile this book, but nobody could have presented it better and produced it in a better format than Georg Lange. This is a superb example of assiduous research on a crucial subject. Aga Khan-breds infuse pedigrees worldwide; this German book shows us just how significant that influence is.” Note that although this book is published in Germany, it is written in English.

 

#39 Stud Book Lore, by Charles Prior and Florence Prior (1951) is described:

“So much of racing history would have been lost but for the work of Charles Prior and his daughter Florence.

No less should we be grateful to the editors of the newspapers and magazines in which the articles in this anthology were first published between 1904 and 1938. There is no print outlet, in a periodical, for such material these days, and one is bound to wonder how such gifted writers and researchers would have coped with the internet, the only outlet for their knowledge and expertise in the modern world.”

In #27 on the list, Wild Ride, by Ann Hagedorn Auerbach (1994), subtitled The Rise and Tragic Fall of Calumet Farm, Inc., America’s Premier Racing Dynasty, “this piece of investigative reporting tells how the once-supreme Kentucky stud and stable was bankrupted under the stewardship of J T Lundy between 1982 and 1991. One reads with appalled fascination at how so much money could be squandered so fast, at the mysterious death of Calumet’s prize stallion Alydar, and at the sheer greed and corruption on display. This, not Seabiscuit, is the best racing book by an American authoress.”

I also have #24, Bloodstock Breeding, by Sir Charles Leicester (1957). As the article states, “Charles Leicester’s magnum opus did not deal only with the Derby winners of the 20th century up to his time, but it was his analysis of their pedigrees that provided the main focus of his work, and it was extraordinarily well researched. The sires and dams were just a part of it; he wrote about other aspects of the pedigrees, and could always be trusted to be accurate. He just presented facts and left readers to make their own judgments, and in those terms it remains hard to fault. A second edition, revised by Howard Wright, was published in 1983.” I also have a copy of the 1983 revision.

   

I have one book from the top 10 masterpieces, An Introduction to the Thoroughbred, by Peter Willett (1966, though my copy is from 1975). Describing this masterpiece, the article says, “There have been many books written about breeding, and plenty since this one appeared. And geneticists have lately uncovered numerous facts that were not available to Peter Willett when he wrote this book. But there is still no better primer. This is an area that has generated countless theories, most of them worthless, and until genetics gives us all the answers – with luck, a long time in the future – the breeder’s safest methodology is applied commonsense. Willett does not say that in so many – or so few – words, but he runs the rule over theories and practices, and he describes, lucidly and logically, what makes sense and what doesn’t. It is a shame that a lot of the books on breeding that have appeared recently have – apparently – been written by people who have not read this seminal work. Students of breeding are best advised to read this one first; they will be better informed than those who have ignored it. ”

Reading all three parts Randall’s list, which was based on the 2002 Sports Illustrated list of the best sports books of all time, and the description of each book brings out the excitement of racing and the complexity of the sport and its history.

P.S. Here is a bit more on John Randall, from the Directory of the Turf: “b. 20.4.53. Career: Author of historical articles and obituaries. Raceform 1977-85, Racing Post 1986-. Other details: Co-Author with Tony Morris of Horse Racing: Records, Facts & Champions, 1990, A Century of Champions, 1999, author of four Raceform Quiz Books, 1986-89, compiler of questions for BBC Mastermind, contributor to Notable English & Irish Thoroughbreds, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Other details: Winner of £500,000 <over $800,000 U.S.> on Who Wants to be a Millionaire? 2000.”

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