THERE ARE at least a thousand horse books in print in this country, ranging from the severely practical like Equine Hoof Care to the trendy like The Body Language of Horses to the classic like Black Beauty.
A surprising number of them fit into one narrow category: the horse novel intended for female readers between the ages of about 9 and 15. Jenny gets her pony. Sharon wins the show. Kim rides the gray stallion as thousands cheer.
Most of this is pretty feeble stuff -- as, indeed, is most of the literature in any category, up to and including epic poetry. (Take a look at some of the early American epics, such as Joel Barlow's Columbiad and Timothy Dwight's The Conquest of Canaan, if you're in any serious doubt.)
But horsy novels for the younger set tend to be specially shoddy, just like first-kiss novels, diet books, computer guides -- all the sorts of books that get written primarily to tap a market rather than to say something an author wants badly to say.
Born to Race is one of the occasional exceptions. You might not know it at first, since in form it follows the usual pattern. The main characters are a 13-year-old girl named Suzy Taylor and a horse named Whickery. The setting is a horse farm in Virginia. The action consists primarily of Suzy riding horses, feeding horses, solving horse mysteries, out-thinking her father and his head stableman. In the climax she gets to go to the Kentucky Derby, gets to see Whickery win it.
But three things distinguish it, maybe four. One is the author's passion for her subject. Cherry Hill, where Suzy Taylor and Whickery both live, is a stud farm -- that is, Suzy's father raises thoroughbreds and races them. Unlike the large majority of people who do this, Mr. Taylor actually makes his living at it. He's no safe millionaire indulging a hobby. When he has a disastrous year at the track, as he does have in the early part of this book, he is in real danger of losing farm, horses, everything.
This setting was not something the author picked because she figured it was good saleable stuff. She grew up in rural Virginia. Long ago she had cousins who did have such a racing stable, and who after enough disastrous years lost farm, horses, and everything. Still more, she had a brother who went north and made sufficient money in New York to buy back one of the lost farms -- where he promptly set to breeding race horses. His great Derby winner was Secretariat. This farm and those horses she knew well, and that knowledge informs and fills and floods through Born to Race. One thing that distinguishes the book is truth.
ANOTHER IS a kind of feminism that I'm not sure the author was fully conscious of. After all, the book came out in 1959, well before the present feminist movement began.
It is not simply that Suzy catches the grain thief that neither her father nor Ben, the head stableman, was able to. (She does it more by persistence than brilliance, which is part of the truth of the book.) It's not just that Whickery is a filly, a young female horse, rather than a colt, even though in every year but two colts have won the Derby. It's the little semi-conscious details.
For example, like most thoroughbreds, Whickery is high-strung. A male observer who wished to be objectionable might even say she has a tendency to get hysterical. In the real world of racing it is the custom to surround tense thoroughbreds with much calmer animals, and so it is in the book. But there is an interesting gender twist. First Whickery is given what amounts to a pet dog to live in her box stall with her, a young male Dalmatian named Jo-Boy. When she travels to race tracks, a placid malelead-pony named Sir Knight goes along. And finally she has her personal goat, inevitably named Billy, who shares one corner of the stall with Jo-Boy. One female, with three male attendants, not even counting the human grooms.
There is a moment when Billy, full of male arrogance, starts to snatch a bite of hay from Whickery's very mouth. She nips him hard. In revenge he tries to butt her. Ben, the head stableman, instantly ties him in his corner, over the protests of Suzy, who points out that Whickery has given him a quite painful bite, and maybe has the butt coming.
"'Miss Whickery,' said Ben, 'is going to be one of the best race horses in the country . . . Mr. Billy is just a common, ordinary goat.'" And, Ben adds, 'He'll lose his stable job if he tries any butting.'"
This is not a book that keeps women in their place -- at least, if their place is anywhere but at the top.
The third distinguished thing is as old- fashioned as the feminism is modern. There is a code of behavior that nearly all the characters accept. Its main tenets are: don't cheat, don't borrow, don't complain.
For example, Suzy is in anguish when it becomes definite that Whickery will run in the Derby, because she won't be able to watch. She is too young legally to be at a race track. She briefly has a fantasy about cutting her hair short and going to Kentucky disguised as a stable boy. "I know enough about horses to do the work," she argues.
"'You do,' said her father irritably, 'but you don't seem to know much about honor.'"
Actually she does, of course; her father was just being cross. How she gets honorably and publicly into the stands is a wonderful story -- the best and the most moving section of the book.
Or again, in this age of planned deficits, the book's view of debt is old-fashioned, rather pleasingly so. When Whickery begins to win major stakes races, Mr. Taylor is finally able to begin paying off his bank loan. Suzy doesn't worr that he may be losing a nice tax shelter by doing this. "Not to owe! Why, we'd be, we'd be free, Suzy thought. Our barn would really be our barn, and our farm ours."
Without ever preaching, and without pretending the costs of decent behavior are lower than they are, the book shows us human beings one can admire.
FINALLY, the book has true emotional power. There are three scenes where tears of pride come to one's eyes, or at least to my eyes. The last of them, at Churchill Downs, is a stunner.
Admittedly, I may be partial. I knew the author. In fact, she was my mother, and fondness for her memory may blind me a little. But only a little. I can still see the book's faults clearly: the one small inconsistency in plot, the underdeveloped characters of Suzy's best friend and of her parents, the awkward time-jump from when Whickery is 2 to when she is 3, and eligible for the Derby. I am clear it is a good book, not a great one.
I'm also clear it's good enough to give real pleasure to any horse-struck daughter, or even son.
Note on availability: The book is out of print.