Horse racing, the second most-popular spectator sport in America, remains as vital as ever. But its age, high drama, and historical appeal as the “sport of kings” ensure that it also has a place in the history of literature. Countless writers have been drawn, in their search for subject matter, to the romance of the racetrack – the triumph and tragedy of equestrian life. It’d take the endurance of a draft-horse to compile a complete list of such novels – ex-thoroughbred-horse-racer-turned-mystery writer Dick Francis alone has written a small library of them – but here are some of the more important.
A classic of childrens’ literature, this 1935 novel by Enid Bagnold tells the story of Velvet Brown, a working-class English teenager who unexpectedly realizes her dream of keeping and racing thoroughbred horses when a mysterious old man leaves her a racing horse in his will. A memorable film adaptation with Elizabeth Taylor, in 1944, helped ensure that young Velvet, along with her horse, became a symbol of female independence and strength long before GI Jane, Title IX or Sally Ride.
William Faulkner’s last novel – and his second Pulitzer Prize winner (after 1954’s A Fable)- a comic picaresque about an ill-fated road trip. Published in 1962, the novel concerns three young “er-do-wells from Yoknpatawpha County” the setting of so many Faulkner classics – who run away from home in a stolen car. They end up in 1900s-era Memphis, where they experience big-city life for the first time – and where one of them, without permission, trades away their car for a racehorse. Can he and Coppermine’s fast horse who doggedly prefers the middle of the pack – win enough money to get the three boys back home? Generations of readers have enjoyed Faulkner’s unusually straightforward handling of this suspenseful coming-of-age story, finding it a light but fitting conclusion to one of the greatest careers in American literary history.
The great comic novelist P.G. Wodehouse created many memorable characters, but none more so than Bertram Wilberforce Wooster, the preternaturally shallow minor aristocrat who features in over 50 of Wodehouse’s works. Like so many English gentry, Bertie (as his friends call him) has racing in the blood, having been middle-named in honor of a horse on whom his father once won a few pounds. The lovable, foppish Bertie falls into all sorts of mishaps, from which he is constantly extracted by his seemingly-omnipotent manservant Jeeves. Wooster can often be found at, near, or on the way to and from the racetrack, uttering phrases like “He once lost his shirt on Silly Billy” and “They had a dead cert for under 10 minutes.”
Chariot-racing, one of the oldest forms of horse racing, appears in book XXIII of Homer’s Iliad, the great epic of the Trojan War. At this crucial point in the story, just after the death of Hector, Homer’s relentless narrative drive relaxes to allow Achilles, the poem’s hero, a moment in which to properly observe the death of his bosom friend Patroclus. The funeral games (a series of athletic contests which were part of the funerary rites of the period) take up most of the penultimate book of the Iliad, and encompass boxing, footracing, archery and the javelin, as well as a chariot race, won by Diomedes.
Hailed as “a big, ambitious book” by the New York Times, Jane Smiley’s sprawling ninth novel brings a number of plot lines together while maintaining a tight focus on the world of contemporary horse-racing. The best-selling author of A Thousand Acres (1991) told an interviewer that the idea for Horse Heaven (2000) occurred to her when “I was driving down the road listening to NPR, and I heard a commentator use the phrase “spit the bit” and I realized that there was a whole wonderful language to horse racing that was a novelist’s treasure.”
Lew Wallace’s 1880 novel quickly displaced Uncle Tom’s Cabin as the greatest American best-seller of the 19th century, and its blend of suspenseful storytelling, painstaking historical research and religious piety not only made it the first work of fiction ever to win a Pope’s blessing, but paved the way for American evangelicals – embrace of novel-reading as a valid, morally acceptable pastime. Set in the first century AD, the novel interweaves the story of Judah Ben-Hur, a Jew living under Roman oppression, with that of another, more famous first-century Palestinian Jew – Jesus. A major plot point in the novel’s enormous narrative turns on an exciting chariot race that pits Ben-Hur against his Roman archrival, Massala. This scene became the centerpiece of the novel’s classic 1959 film adaptation – and that sequence, in turn, was cannibalized for the pod-race scene of the somewhat-less-classic Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace (1999).
These literary representations are part of a tradition that continues today in thoroughbred horse racing. Whether you’re a fan of horse racing gambling or just like the thrill of live horse racing, the sport is as full of drama and passion as any other. Tip services can help you maximize your enjoyment of thoroughbred horse racing by clarifying the details and letting you know who the favorites are.