Apr/May 2012

Pony Up

A horse enthusiast rereads (again) his cherished racetrack "classics."

Eric Banks


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“I hate to read new books.”
—William Hazlitt, “On Reading Old Books”

I am really not much of a rereader. I envy people who are, but it’s not in my blood. Over the past twelve months, I’ve rarely picked up a book for rereading for any reason other than professional necessity. For the most part, editions of old books matter little to me. I confess I love my Penguin edition of J. R. Ackerley’s Hindoo Holiday—which I recently reread because I was writing about My Dog Tulip—with its cerise-striped cover, the words “Travel and Adventure” stamped along the edges, and the back-matter ads for Army Club cigarettes (“the front-line cigarette”). And I do remember well where I bought this copy—a great little bookstore in Nova Scotia that carried not only tons of old Penguins but tons of old Penguins that weren’t ever sold in the States, making them as exotic to me as the bird they’re named for. But from where and when the rest came, and why I happened to have held on to them from year to year, you got me.

My obliviousness comes to a stop, though, along a set of bulky shelves supporting a large section—maybe not huge, but awfully big—of books with some connection or another to the racetrack: I can cite like verse as to how they were acquired and how many times I’ve read them. Most of them are total crap—tip books on how to win at the races, cut-rate betting systems and handicapping angles, guides with clip-art covers dealing with pretty much any situation a bettor could theoretically face. Muddy racetrack? Well, there’s On Track/Off Track, by Dr. James Quinn. Deciphering a pony’s lifetime record? OK, Class of the Field: New Performance Ratings for Thoroughbreds will take care of that. I’ve got Beyer on Speed and Picking Winners and Winning Thoroughbred Strategies and Six Secrets of Successful Bettors and Kinky Handicapping: The Uninhibited Path to Promiscuous Profits. It’s embarrassing enough to have people come into your house and see these advertisements for your own degeneracy. How much more personally shameful is it when you’ve read these books enough times that you’ve learned by heart the names of the forgettable nags in the sample illustrative races in each tome—many of them from tracks like Aksarben that don’t even exist anymore—that inevitably prove why, say, handicapping the kinky way would have produced the slam-dunk heavy-G payoffs you see in the chart?

The handicapping books sit next to an oddball assortment of all titles horsey, most of them having as tenuous a connection to each other as the five people who fell when the Bridge of San Luis Rey gave way. There are children’s books (Come On, Seabiscuit!; Kentucky Derby Winner; a coloring book called The Story of Harness Racing that I picked up at Yonkers and found so nifty I bought another copy for a baby shower). There are biographies of horses and jockeys and trainers and even one of Secretariat’s groom, the groovily named Eddie Sweat. Memoirs of racetrack owners (Bill Veeck, “Colonel” Matt Winn) and compendia of dead sportswriters. Eugène Sue’s The Godolphin Arabian, a lesser-known novel by the nineteenth-century writer but one whose spine is less discomfiting for company than his popular Wandering Jew. There are one or two rarities: a hundred-year-old book of really unfunny horse-racing cartoons called What’s the Odds?; an even older illustrated Denkschrift memorializing a Berlin racetrack. But most of these books are both worthless and falling apart. If you laid out a buck for one of them in the rack outside the Strand, you’d have overpaid.

Still, I could never get rid of these bookshelf geezers, and more than the far worthier titles I own, I look at them again and again, especially at this time of year, when the Kentucky Derby works on me as a kind of rereading alarm clock. In her recent book On Rereading (Harvard University Press, $27), Patricia Meyer Spacks recounts her delight in reencountering Middlemarch and Elizabeth Gaskell’s Wives and Daughters and the surprisingly unhappy exercise (to her) of revisiting The Good Soldier and The Golden Notebook. Spacks is charming and pellucid in recounting her sense of why we reread a book and how frequently we find the experience a shock to our expectations. The books that bring the most pleasure in their umpteenth rereading also reveal something to the reader of prior selves, of earlier emotional states that go beyond familiarity—or build on familiarity to become something more lasting. “Inasmuch as each repeated reading entails for the reader the remaking of the text,” she writes, “informed by the sum total of previous experiences with it, a new and more personal drama of individual discovery replaces the original relation with the plot as discovery of events and meanings. Like multiple meetings with an old friend, multiple engagements with a familiar text deepen a relationship. . . . Intimacy with a book adds value to the revelations that relationship involves. Its intensification is one of rereading’s great pleasures.”

I tried to test Spacks’s findings by rereading a book I bought hot off the press in 1991, Modern Pace Handicapping, by Tom Brohamer, which advocates taking a closer look at past races by intricately dissecting the internal split times (“the fractions”) to find buried indicators of a horse’s talent. I purchased the book when I first started going to the track a lot. At the time, I knew more about Fassbinder’s Querelle than about the quinella. But I was in Chicago abandoning a Ph.D. program, and nothing seemed farther from Hyde Park than Sportsman’s Park, itself a now-defunct track on the edge of Cicero that was so beat they didn’t even bother to charge admission. Just looking at the book again is a mildly degrading experience. I don’t write in books, but this one has comments penciled in the margins, seat-of-the-pants terminology circled, passages of dubious wisdom underlined. (“Consider feet-per-second calculation to be the speedometer attached to the neck of a horse: once you’ve learned to read that speedometer, all the numbers will fall neatly into place.” Well, of course!) Even more embarrassing is the memory of sitting over a copy of the Daily Racing Form with a calculator and diligently doing all these ridiculous recalculations of the fractions, converting them to feet-per-second measurements, which took at least an hour per race and resulted in one of the most unhelpful units of measurement since the cubit. (It certainly never made me a dime in real life.) Yet rereading Modern Pace Handicapping now, I nevertheless also remember to a T how coolly liberating it felt to get on that Cicero bus each weekend. Who needs a Ph.D., anyway? If Dr. Quinn could make a fortune at the track so that he didn’t have to practice in whatever field he’d earned his doctorate, why not me?

One reason I can’t get these books out of my system is that I like the promise of a Spacks-type experience with my older self, even if the kicks are decidedly more cut rate than her own. There are other reasons, too. Some were review copies once hoarded by a buddy at The Nation, and a handful still have vintage review-copy slips from William Morrow, which seemed to have a monopoly on the “quality” handicapping-book biz in the ’80s (why some publicist saw The Nation as a potential review outlet for The Handicapper’s Condition Book: An Advanced Treatment of Thoroughbred Class remains as mysterious to me as Dr. Quinn’s honorific). Others were out-and-out gifts that made me wonder what the giver had in mind. Promising on its book flap that it will offer not just betting strategies but a chance to “hobnob with Hollywood celebrities like Martin Ritt and Walter Matthau” (awright!), Confessions of a Racetrack Fiend, by “intimate of celebrated horseplayers and movie stars” Maurice Zolotow, still has the card tucked in it that reminds me it was a present from a favorite Bookforum reviewer. Maybe the biggest reason I can’t part ways with these books is that to do so would seem like a betrayal of a big aspect of my biography as a casual reader, which goes back to the earliest books I can remember enjoying. The mistiest memory is of Marguerite Henry’s Misty of Chincoteague, which wasn’t about a racehorse per se, but it was an easy jump from Misty to her Black Gold, the story of the 1924 Derby winner from Oklahoma. (Incidentally, I don’t get why any kid would want to read about some magical horse in Narnia when he could read instead about a real Derby winner from Oklahoma, which is just about as rare as a unicorn. Stupid kids.) Before the adult handicapper me learned the difference between a fetlock and a cannon bone, my own canon was primed. The names of the authors aren’t as familiar to the world as Henry’s, but in the racetrack Pleiades of my bookshelves, they’re downright stars.

“In thus turning to a well-known author,” Hazlitt wagered in “On Reading Old Books,” “there is not only an assurance that my time will not be thrown away, or my palate nauseated with the most insipid or vilest trash,—but I shake hands with, and look an old, tried, and valued friend in the face,—compare notes, and chat the hours away.” I’m not sure what I’d have to chat about with Dr. Quinn if he materialized right here in front of me today, but I’m still more than happy, even pleased, to make his weird acquaintance again every time I glance at my bookshelves. And if you happen to meet him yourself outside the Strand, it won’t be thanks to any of my own doings.

Eric Banks is the former editor in chief of Bookforum and currently the president of the National Book Critics Circle.

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