Glued to screens more than ever for both work and entertainment in this time of isolating and quarantining at home, it would probably be beneficial to take more than an occasional break from all of it to rediscover the magic of the written word in book form.
Racing has been fortunate to have been chronicled for decades by many top-flight writing talents. Anthologies by individual writers or a collection of them are not only a wonderful way to learn about the sport’s back story, but as entertainment are its own reward. For us card-carrying hacks, they can also inspire us to work on improving our own craft.
Rather than make some impossible ranking of the best of the best, below is a list of my personal favorites in chronological order. They lean older, but then again great writing is timeless.
This Was Racing by Joe H. Palmer, edited by Red Smith (1953)
After Palmer’s premature death in 1952 at age 48, this collection of columns was assembled by his close friend and fellow New York Herald Tribune colleague Red Smith, who would achieve his own considerable fame in general sports writing for the next three decades.
Considered by some to be the finest collection of racing writing by one of its most literary and witty observers, Palmer expounded on contemporary topics and timeless ones, such as the appeal of Saratoga and the Belmont Stakes.
The Fireside Book of Horse Racing, edited by David F. Woods (1963)
This anthology seems not very well known but is one I treasure having found a copy in a Central Kentucky antique shop some years ago.
A noted track publicist and writer for the Evening Sun of Baltimore, Woods included not only a healthy dose of Palmer and Smith but also classic on-site reporting from the typewriters of Grantland Rice, Damon Runyon, Evan Shipman, and Fred Van Ness.
The collection also includes multiple profiles of champion horses written by John “Salvator” Hervey as well as a sampling of the best racing-oriented fiction written to that point from the likes of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, D. H. Lawrence, and Lew Wallace.
The Archjockey of Canterbury and other tales by Kent Hollingsworth (1986)
Blessed to have taken three courses taught by Hollingsworth in my junior year at university, this collection of his “What’s Going On Here” columns from The Blood-Horse was published about a dozen years before I sat enthralled as he peppered lectures on equine tax and law with anecdotes, including a more animated re-telling of the book’s introduction recalling his family’s horse running in the 1946 Kentucky Derby.
This sweeping collection touches on a variety of topics: champion horses past and present, contemporary turf personalities, and thorny issues such as regulation and medication Hollingsworth was famous for hitting head-on in his indelible style. A wonderful anthology that continues to trigger fond memories of a much-missed man.
Finished Lines — A Collection of Memorable Writing on Thoroughbred Racing, edited by Frank Scatoni (2002)
Although briefly mentioned among many others in the “Preface and Acknowledgments,” I include this book without personal bias. Sprinkled with the obligatory Hervey, Faulkner, Palmer, Runyon, and Smith, the collection also includes pieces from Daily Racing Form greats Charles Hatton, Joe Hirsch, Steve Crist, Jay Hovdey, and Barney Nagler.
The anthology kicks off in fine style with the brilliant and somewhat forgotten David Alexander (whom I recall recommending for inclusion) and ends with Sports Illustrated‘s Whitney Tower. In between you’ll find classics from more contemporary writers like Pete Axthelm, Andy Beyer, Jim Bolus, Laura Hillenbrand, Jack Mann, and William Nack.
The Best of Alastair Down — Cheltenham et Al… (2014)
Undoubtedly my favorite living chronicler of the sport, Down is now only a part-time contributor to the British daily Racing Post. This collection of Sporting Life and Post columns lean heavily on Down’s love of National Hunt racing but there is much for the flat racing enthusiast as well, including reflections on stars such as Lester Piggott, Frankel, and Sea the Stars. As an obituarist/eulogist Down may have no equal, as his tribute to trainer Sir Henry Cecil shows.
The final chapter, entitled “Travels,” is one of the best. Among the highlights are an account of a libation-filled visit to Deauville and an interesting outsider’s view of the late Keeneland July Selected Yearling Sale. Admittedly, the entire book barely scratches the surface of an immense talent presumably unknown to the wider American racing audience.