Wild Ride by Ann Hagedorn Auerbach

I’ve been wanting to read Wild Ride for almost four years now. Maybe three months after I moved to Lexington, a friend and coworker was reading it and said it was really good. Fast forward four years, and I finally got the chance to read it, and I honestly think that I wouldn’t have appreciated the book as much as I do now.

See, being in the Bluegrass has really broadened my Thoroughbred knowledge, and I’ve gained a deeper respect for the industry in the area. Despite what you read in the media- because there is always a dark side of each industry- it is truly regarded as the Sport of Kings for good reason. Generations of families taking the chance on the next superstar, and pouring hours, years, lifetimes of dedication (and money) into their horses. Not only have I gained a deeper understanding of the industry, but I’ve also learned my way around (for the most part) Lexington and the surrounding area. I haven’t gone full local (because I still can’t stop acting like a tourist or shake my New England accent), but while reading Wild Ride, I could easily picture the locations mentioned, or the events occurring.

The byline of Wild Ride is “The Tragic Fall of Calumet Farm, Inc., America’s Premier Racing Dynasty”, but Auerbach doesn’t just rehash the demise- she delves into the history of Calumet from the very origins of it’s founder, William Monroe Wright.

Image result for Calumet Farm

(Photo Credit: Google Images)

The reader learns about the self-made businessman who eventually decided to move from Chicago to the Bluegrass and start his own harness horse breeding operation. From there, his son Warren takes over the family operation, despite being at odds with the way his father ran the place. He converts what becomes Calumet Farm into a thoroughbred operation, and an empire is born. Though strong in business practice, the younger Wright had a lot of horsemanship skills to learn, but his progress turned out derby winners and two Triple Crown winners. Unfortunately, his health took a turn for the worse, and when he passed on, his wife and son became benefactors of his estate, and his wife Lucille inherited the farm, along with gigantic sums of money.

Lucille decides to keep the farm, and in doing so blossoms into one of the social elite. She meets Gene Markey and remarries, and the Markeys, adding a touch of glamour that the Wright men did not achieve, take Calumet to up the social ladder. While Lucille enjoyed being  Lady of Calumet, her son Warren Jr. was moved to the wayside. He didn’t care for the farm life, and had many peculiarities that made him difficult to work with. On top of that, there was some discrepancies about him being the legitimate son of Warren Wright Sr. Lucille did very little to defend her son because he was seen as an embarrassment in her circle. This feud caused much heartache for his wife and four children, and eventually the Wright family became estranged to the Markey family, most so after Warren Jr. succumbs to an early death.

Knowing fully about the family feud, Warren Jr.’s eldest daughter, Cindy, marries a man named J.T. Lundy. Determined to run Calumet, he pressures and fights with Lucille to run the farm. Lucille and Lundy stubbornly spar, neither one giving up, until Lucille’s age catches up to her. Through the will of Warren Sr., the farm is finally turned over the Wright children, and because of their disinterest in the farm due to all the past heartache, Lundy takes over in care of the Wrights. From here, as secretary Margaret Glass notes, Armageddon begins with the fall of Calumet.

Image result for Calumet Farm

(Photo Credit: Google Images)

If you live in the area, you can still drive past the farm, and see for yourself the images that Auerbach describes- the white double fencing, the devils-red trim on white washed barns, the acres of famous Kentucky bluegrass dotted with horses. But the Calumet you see isn’t the dynasty that existed prior to 1990, and reading about the fall brought chills to my spine.

If you’re a horse junky like me, or interested in historical novels (Kentucky history in particular), horse racing and breeding, or crime novels, Wild Ride is a must read.

Advertisements

Ruffian: Burning from the Start by Jane Schwartz

Another one for the horse fans. If you follow horse racing, you more than likely have heard of Ruffian and her tragic ending. But whether you have or haven’t heard of this filly, reading this novel will make you a fan of her.

April 17, 1972, one of the racing world’s most impressive athletes was born. Her bloodlines traced back to equine royalty- and as a friend of mine would say, she was practically born with a tiara. Born a big, strong, healthy foal who later grew into an impressively built yearling, her connections started to take notice of her. And as she was just learning the ropes of being handled and ridden, a certain relative of hers swept the 1973 Triple Crown. As 1974 approached, the filly made her way to North Carolina from Kentucky to learn how to become a racehorse. Trainer Frank Whiteley knew after a few sessions that he had something special in his care:

“The speedball, the beauty, the female, the freak.”

Shipped to New York, she began her racing career at age two (as many do), and gained her name, Ruffian. She began blowing competition away and setting track record after track record, eating up the ground. But as she ran, Whiteley couldn’t help but worry about her powerhouse body set on her dainty legs, and this proved a true concern when a slight hairline fracture in her ankle caused her debut season “came to an abrupt end”.

Image result for Ruffian horse

(Photo Credit: Google Images)

But 1974 gave way to high hopes for her three-year-old season in 1975. She came back with vengeance, sweeping the filly Triple Crown. That year, Foolish Pleasure, a three-year-old colt, took the Kentucky Derby and became a heavy favorite for the rest of the Triple Crown series (he didn’t take the crown though, coming in second in the following two legs of the series). Due to their successes, there became a cry for a match race between Ruffian and Foolish Pleasure- a battle of the sexes. As the end of the season drew near, the date was finally set and the race was on.  Tragically, nobody would ever know the outcome.

Now, if you don’t know what happens next and want to know, stop reading this and go get this book. You do that, and you’ll understand exactly what I’m about to say, and you’ll appreciate it more.

Those of you still with me- when I picked up this book, I was still new to the racing industry. I appreciated the athleticism, the thrill, the legends that rose above the rest. I had heard of Ruffian, knew of her demise. But when I read the lines “Ruffian has broken down! Ruffian has broken down!” I had to stop reading because I became so emotional that I was choked up and fighting tears. Here I am, decades after this filly left her mark that day at Belmont, and her she is in black and white on these pages, leaving her mark on me now. I’ve still got a long ways to go when it comes to learning about the racing industry, and even more so about the equine industry. But if there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that these magnificent animals have heart beyond comprehension. That horse loved to run. That horse fought her own body to finish that race. Everyone in the stands and following the race that day was impacted because they witnessed immense greatness followed by immense destruction.

Schwartz successfully reconstructs the brightest and darkest moments of Ruffian’s life. Anyone who reads this novel comes as close as I think they can to understanding how that felt.

*6/19/2018* I found some video footage via thehorsenetwork.com and I thought I would share. This filly still takes my breath away decades after she’s been long gone. You can find the tragic film of her last race in the link above, if you choose to. I prefer to watch the good times instead- one of her taking the win for the Acorn Stakes.