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.

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.

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.

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Circling the Sun by Paula McLain

“She gave me a complicated smile. “You’ve heard the joke, haven’t you? Are you married or do you live in Kenya?“”

When my book-loving coworker suggested I read this novel, it didn’t take me long to reserve it at the library, nor did it take me long to read it. 350 pages, each one full of a romantic view of life in the 1920’s British East Africa as experienced by Beryl Clutterbuck. Though a fictional novel, Clutterbuck, who becomes Markham after her second marriage, is actually a nonfictional character, as well as the others described in the novel. When I finished reading, I couldn’t stop myself from doing some more historical research, trying to piece together the timeline and get better images of the people involved. I love when a book does that to me- inspires me to learn more.

Anyways, we are introduced to Beryl as a young girl living with her family in colonial Kenya. Her father is running a horse farm as a trainer and breeder of racing thoroughbreds, and Beryl wants to follow in his footsteps. When her mother and brother leave to return to England, she decides Kenya is her home, and she wants to stay with her father on the farm. As she reaches her teen years, she rebels against her father’s wishes to become a more suitable woman by taunting her new governess and running away from boarding school. She isn’t interested in becoming the expected civilized housewife. Growing up in the bush, she’s followed her best friend Kibii step for step as he learned from his tribe how to be a warrior. Matching his courage and skills, Beryl knows she can take on any man’s job with determination and hard work, and succeed. However, when she reaches the age of sixteen, the tables are turned when she learns her father’s business has gone bankrupt, and he must sell the farm and train at another stable, leaving Beryl to decide if she should stay on the farm, go work for her father, or become a wife.

She decides to marry Jock, a man who just moved to the colony near her father’s farm. The merge leaves Beryl with her father’s horses, but also with a loveless relationship. When it becomes obvious that the marriage isn’t going to work out, Beryl decides to separate from Jock to go work as a trainer on her friend and mentor’s farm. A turning point for Beryl, she becomes the first English licensed female horse trainer (at least in Kenya, maybe the world). As her reputation builds for her training, she also gains a reputation for being a nontraditional wife, if you catch my drift. Despite her successes at the racetrack, her personal life causes her difficulties in keeping clients. After some time, she requests a divorce from her husband. He isn’t willing to grant the divorce because he doesn’t want to be seen as a man who can’t control his wife, nor take a hit to his reputation. They fight- him by drinking and getting into physical altercations, her by holding her ground and occasionally another man. As her relationship with Jock flames out, a new one with Denys Finch- Hatton fires up.

While reading, not only does the personal drama keep things interesting, but the romance of living in such wild country in Africa draws you in. I loved imagining the red clay, the safari trips, the rain season, the flamingo flocks near where Beryl exercised her horses… all the imagery was lovely, even in terrifying moments. Because of McLain’s wordsmithery, I was living right with Beryl in the environment that she loved so much.

With so much depth and strength to the characters, the setting, and the overall complexity of human relationships, I’d recommend it to anyone, and especially for those with the additional interest in the female empowerment and equality. I’m amazed at what barriers Beryl broke back in the 1920/1930s, of how much has changed since pioneers like her broke traditional female roles, and of how we are still pushing to get through the glass ceiling today. “Circling the Sun” is a must read.

The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein

Oh you guys… here’s another good one for you! Another recommendation from my book-loving coworker, and she didn’t disappoint! I read “The Art of Racing in the Rain” bits and pieces at first, more due to being preoccupied with other things rather than lack of interest. But I found myself with some free time today, and polished it off… greedy word after greedy word, needing to know what was going to happen.

On page one, the reader immediately steps into the observant thoughts of Enzo. It takes a second before you realize that this narrator happens to be…a dog. A very sophisticated, brash, and intelligent dog at that. Enzo reflects upon his life, and in tandem, a significant era in the life of Denny, his master.

Enzo begins life with Denny as a puppy, and as he reaches adulthood, finds himself watching Denny marry a woman named Eve, and raising their daughter Zoë. But as Denny works towards a career in speed racing, Eve learns she’s got a terminal illness.  Leaving Zoë and Enzo in the center of the confusion and drama that follows, all Enzo can do is observe his humans as they struggle to keep their family together. When the illness finally takes Eve, Enzo also bears witness to the aftermath as Eve’s parents and Denny feud for custody of Zoë.

Woven throughout his story, Enzo philosophizes on the history and traditions of ancient dog, speed racing, medicine, and weather. He also gives the reader idioms to ponder such as “The car goes where the eyes go,” and “No race has ever been won in the first corner; many have been lost there.” Throughout the novel, Enzo also refers to his human-like qualities, and how he hopes that at the end of his life, he will be reincarnated into a human to someday express these qualities; such as his ability to listen, his love for racing, and his compassion for mankind. He also hopes that someday, his human form will be able to reconnect with his old master and let him know that “Enzo says “hi”.”

It’s a heart wrenching story on so many levels. As an animal person, I love how Stein put the reader into the mind of a dog, and in my opinion did it well without overdosing on the anthropomorphism. I love how he displayed the loyalty and unspeakable bond between human and dog. And I love how at the end of it all, Enzo got his wish.

Definitely a must read.

Irish Meadows by Susan Anne Mason

This young adult, old-fashioned romance novel was a pretty quick and easy read. I pulled it off the shelf, noticing that horse racing in 1911 was mentioned, and thought between that and the romance drama, it may be a pretty good story.

We are introduced to the O’Leary family, owners of Irish Meadows, and Gilbert. After three long years, Gil returned to the home and family that took him in as young boy after his mother passed away, leaving him orphaned. With a passion for horses, he makes a stop in the barn only to run into Brianna O’Leary, his best friend and confidant in his youth. He knew Brianna always nursed a crush on him but neither had allowed more than friendship. Both grown, they can’t help but to still be attracted to each other. Later on Colleen, Brianna’s sister, welcomes Gil and through vindictive jealousy, takes aim to turn Gil’s attention away from her sister. While welcoming the return of Gil, the O’Leary’s also learn they are to welcome to house a distant cousin by the name of Rylan Montgomery. Rylan is visiting Long Island on an internship as he continues his journey through seminary. When Colleen is forced to pick him up at the train station, she can’t help but reprimand herself for admiring a priest. The plot thickens as we learn of the financial instability of Irish Meadows and the desperate attempts patriarch James O’Leary will do to keep the farm.

As much of a romantic as I am, I had to stop myself from rolling my eyes at the predictability of this story line. The internal conflict of the character’s thoughts are redundant- every other page is “Does s/he love me or not” and, all climactic conflicts between the characters are resolved with ‘changing my way’. The action is almost overly dramatic. I understand this is supposed to be held in 1911, but give the reader a break- reading the same disputes for 350 pages is annoying.

And on top of that, as a horse person, I wasn’t overly impressed by the equestrian commentary. Sort of “Saddle Club”-esque, in my opinion. So overall, it was something to preoccupy my free time, but not worth raving about or recommending.

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”.

But 1974 gave way to high hopes for her three-year-old season in 1975. She came back with avengence, 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 and 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.