Category Archives: Book Reviews

Man o’War: A Legend Like Lightning, by Dorothy Ours

More than 100 years after his career ended, Man o’ War continues to cast a large shadow over the racing world. Even casual fans know his name, and for good reason. He won 20 times in 21 starts, with his only defeat coming at the hands of the appropriately-named Upset as a 2-year-old at Saratoga. Had he not been held out of the Kentucky Derby, he almost certainly would’ve retired a Triple Crown winner.

Dorothy Ours brings his timeless legacy to life in her book Man o’ War, A Legend Like Lightning. She walks the reader through Man o’ War’s 17-month career, and helps tell the stories of his connections which make his legacy even fuller.

One of the more interesting stories is that of Johnny Loftus, Man o’ War’s regular rider as a 2-year-old in 1919. Loftus was considered one of the top jockeys in the country, also piloting Sir Barton to a Triple Crown victory in 1919, in addition to his wins with Man o’ War. However, Loftus’s career was clouded by the intense suspicion of dishonesty that followed jockeys in those days. In early 1920, he was given a lifetime ban from the sport by The Jockey Club, without explanation. Clarence Kummer took over for most of Man o’ War’s 3-year-old rides, but the sensibility of the times comes into play in the summer, when Kummer was sidelined due to injury. Owner Samuel Riddle had a quandary: he needed a jockey who was not only capable, but honest, two characteristics considered few and far between in those days.

Loftus’s story lords over the first half of the book, along with tales of Man o’ War’s juvenile exploits. Ours gives background on each race and several notable contenders in each one, including Golden Broom, owned by Samuel Riddle’s niece, Sarah Jeffords, and Harry Payne Whitney’s pair of Upset and John P. Grier.

Man o’ War’s 2-year-old season was much more tense; only one of his wins came by more than four lengths. While his 2-year-old season played out like a drama, his 3-year-old year was a coronation. Except for an exciting showdown with John P. Grier in the Dwyer Stakes, which Ours spends several pages on and pulls the reader on a rollercoaster of emotion, Man o’ War encountered hardly any serious competition, as most horsemen gave up on trying to beat him.

Ours builds those chapters up brilliantly, sweeping the reader up in more and more of Man o’ War’s records, as it becomes clear to fans present and past that he was unlike any horse anyone had ever seen. Man o’ War: A Legend Like Lightning is the quintessential book on the career of an all-time great, and a must-read for anyone who wants a full picture of the career of “Big Red.”

Self-Destruction: The Rise, Fall, and Redemption of U.S. Senator Daniel B. Brewster, by John Frece

John Frece’s book is titled “Self-Destruction: The Rise, Fall, and Redemption of U.S. Senator Daniel B. Brewster”, but those three parts of Brewster’s life could each be a book of their own. It’s difficult to sum up a man like Brewster in 320 pages, but Frece pulls it off with a fascinating read about a fascinating man.

Frece spares no expense in covering every aspect of Brewster’s tumultuous life. Each page is littered with endnotes, a product of Frece’s exhaustive research, which included numerous interviews with Brewster’s friends and family, access to Brewster’s diaries, including one he kept while serving in the Pacific Theater during World War II, and an examination of Brewster’s papers at the University of Maryland.

Brewster came from an impeccable background, born into great wealth and prestige in the Green Spring Valley. He was interested in horses throughout his life, competing in the Maryland Hunt Cup as a jockey three times.

Known as the “Golden Boy of Maryland politics”, Brewster was first elected to the Maryland House of Delegates in 1950, and ascended to the United States Senate in 1962. While he had a notable Senate career, including playing an instrumental role in the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, it was there that Brewster’s life began to unravel. His first marriage dissolved as he sought out a previously lost love. His alcoholism became more and more visible, oftentimes showing up to speaking engagements drunk. He lost his re-election bid for the Senate in 1968 and was indicted on federal bribery charges the following year (he was found not guilty and fined $10,000 for accepting an unlawful gratuity without corrupt intent). Just as soon as he had risen, Brewster’s political career, and life, fell into a tailspin.

His redemption featured no bold return to office. Rather, he returned to Baltimore County, met his third and final wife, and settled into a comfortable, more private life. He passed in 2007 at age 83.

Through his work, Frece lays every detail of Brewster’s life in the open. His social status meant that he spent long stretches at boarding schools, isolated from his parents (included his father, who died when Danny was ten). Seeking to serve his country, Brewster then joined the Marines and served in the Pacific Theater. Thanks to Frece’s extensive quotations of Brewster’s diary, the experience becomes almost first-person. How much of his downfall was indirectly caused by his traumatic war experience?

Brewster had it all, then lost it all – his career, his family, and his reputation – to drinking. It was a long road back to redemption, but he found it and found peace towards the end. Frece’s book is not just a must-read for anyone interested in Maryland history and politics, it’s a message that anyone can get on the path to redeem their own past.

The Foxes of Belair: Gallant Fox, Omaha, and the Quest for the Triple Crown, by Jennifer Kelly

In the decades since the formation of the Triple Crown, only one father-son combination has won the Triple Crown: Gallant Fox in 1930 and Omaha in 1935.

While astute racing fans might know that piece of trivia, they might not know that both were bred by Belair Stud, a legendary breeding farm founded in 1747 and brought to prominence by the Woodward family in the early 20th century.

Jennifer Kelly takes a dive into Gallant Fox and Omaha’s careers and Belair’s influence on the breed in her new book. She tells the story of William Woodward Sr., who inherited the farm and, with some partners, imported the stallion *Sir Gallahad III. The son of *Teddy went on to become a four-time leading sire, with Gallant Fox his most notable offspring. Both Triple Crown champions were trained by “Sunny Jim” Fitzsimmons, who became Belair’s trainer in the 1920s and went on to a Hall of Fame career conditioning Belair horses.

During his career, Gallant Fox was considered the best horse since Man o’ War and attracted a considerable following. In fact, the phrase “Triple Crown” was coined following his Belmont Stakes win. Kelly takes a close look at each of his major wins, including his Belmont triumph over arch-rival Whichone and his shocking defeat in the Travers Stakes at the hands of Jim Dandy.

Omaha was a member of Gallant Fox’s first crop, and ascended to Triple Crown glory of his own. He carved his unique place in American racing history as a 4-year-old, when he shipped to England to contest the Ascot Gold Cup in 1936. Omaha gave a great account of himself in the 2 1/2-mile race, engaging in a stirring stretch duel with Quashed and just missing to finish second, giving American racing overseas credibility.

Though Gallant Fox and Omaha were tremendous horses, they tend to be overshadowed by latter-day Triple Crown winners, and the dominance of Belair Stud often goes overlooked. Kelly ensures their legacy is not forgotten with this book. It flows neatly, providing everything the reader needs to know about each of Gallant Fox and Omaha’s races without overwhelming them. Someone can go in knowing little about either one and come away with thorough knowledge.

Towards the end of the book, Kelly mentions the importance of the Foxes of Belair in the history of racing: “Gallant Fox’s record-breaking season and Omaha’s status as the lone Triple Crown victor to race in England not only helped make the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness Stakes, and the Belmont Stakes the heart of the American racing calendar but also set a standard for future generations to aspire to: one horse with the right balance of speed, stamina, and heart to outrun and outlast every challenger.”

Landaluce: The Story of Seattle Slew’s First Champion, by Mary Perdue

In a fairer world, a book about Landaluce would cover more than just her spectacular 2-year-old season, where she went 5-for-5 and won four stakes races by a combined 46 1/2 lengths. The daughter of 1977 Triple Crown winner Seattle Slew seemed destined for so much more during a campaign that caused racing fans all over the country, but especially in her southern California base, to dream big. Could she have beaten the boys in the Kentucky Derby? Could she have equaled or surpassed the heights of Ruffian, universally considered the best filly in American racing history?

Sadly, her career is overshadowed by two words: “what if?” Landaluce died from colitis X, a severe colon disease which nearly killed her sire, on November 28, 1982, before her career could truly take off. 40 years after her shooting star flew across the racing sky, author Mary Perdue puts her legend to print in Landaluce: The Story of Seattle Slew’s First Champion.

The book goes into great detail about her connections; almost 100 pages pass by before we get to Landaluce’s first race. Perdue gives the reader background on Spendthrift Farm, where Landaluce was foaled, her owners, Lloyd French and Barry Beal, and her trainer, D. Wayne Lukas. Previously a top quarter horse trainer, Lukas got into training thoroughbreds in the late 1970s. Though he had already enjoyed success, including a Preakness win in 1980 with Codex, Landaluce was set to be the horse to launch him into true superstardom.

Perdue paints each of her races against the backdrop of Landaluce’s increasingly excited fanbase, who showed up in great numbers for each of her races. “When race day arrived (for the Oak Leaf Stakes),” writes Perdue, “many of the cars came pouring into Santa Anita sported ‘I Love Luce’ bumper stickers, and some of the 37,000 fans who emerged from their vehicles in the parking lot wore green T-shirts with the same slogan.”

These fans, Perdue notes, were excited for Landaluce not just on her own merit, but as a symbol of the ascendance of California racing. For years, racing fans on the east coast had considered their product superior to that on the west coast, but the tides were turning. The Hollywood Futurity, inaugurated the year before, was worth $750,000, by far the richest race in California history. Recently renovated Hollywood Park would host the first-ever Breeders’ Cup in 1984. A filly like Landaluce gave California racing credence on a national stage, and if she soared to greater heights, all the better.

Although she was named the champion 2-year-old filly of 1982, it’s hard to not feel wistful when thinking about Landaluce’s career. She was unspeakably dominant, then gone in a flash. Through Perdue’s writing, fans can remember Landaluce not for what she could have done, but for what she did: run incredible races, leave lasting memories, and give southern California racing fans a horse to be proud of.

The Fast Ride: Spectacular Bid and the Undoing of a Sure Thing, by Jack Gilden

Even though his name is in the title, and his picture is on the cover, the great Spectacular Bid is a background character in Jack Gilden’s spellbinding book. After all, racing fans know all about “the Bid”: he was the 1979 Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes champion, Horse of the Year in 1980, and an Eclipse champion at ages 2, 3, and 4.

The story racing fans knew for decades went like this: the Bid, owned and trained by Marylanders Harry and Tom Meyerhoff and Buddy Delp, respectively, was undone in his bid for the Triple Crown by Ronnie Franklin, a local Maryland jockey who gave his mount a terrible ride in the Belmont Stakes. After that ride, Franklin was replaced by the great Bill Shoemaker, and Bid went on to further glory he could never have achieved under Franklin. That’s that, right?

Not quite. Gilden’s 300-page tome takes a deep dive into the players. He provides plenty of background information on every character, taking time to explain their significance in the story. He goes into detail on Franklin’s upbringing in the gritty Dundalk suburb of Baltimore, and how he found his way to the Pimlico backstretch. He tells of Delp’s meteoric rise in the Maryland training ranks and the cold way he treated many of the people and horsemen in his life, referring to him as “a bully, a brawler, and an admitted (drug user).”

Other figures not always associated with Spectacular Bid become main characters, including Angel Cordero Jr., the rough-riding leading jockey of his day who caused Franklin problems both on and off the track, and racing writer Andy Beyer, whose scathing columns during Triple Crown season did Franklin no favors in the court of public opinion.

The safety pin story also receives a treatment. The story went that Spectacular Bid stepped on a pin in his stall the night before the Belmont, and the subsequent pain cost him a Triple Crown. It had been brushed aside in recent years as an excuse for Franklin’s poor riding, but Gilden reviews the incident in detail. His telling casts Delp as someone caught up in a pursuit of glory, and a subsequent financial windfall, rather than the welfare of the horse.

Gilden also weaves the cultural climate of the late 1970s into his story. With such a large Latino presence in the sport nowadays, it can be easy to forget, but the ascension of riders such as Cordero, Ruben Hernandez (who rode Coastal, the upset winner of the Belmont), and Jorge Velazquez was met with, at best, unease, and at worst, outright hostility from the racing community, including Spectacular Bid’s people. The emergence of recreational drugs such as cocaine also infiltrated their way into Franklin and Delp’s lives, with both of them avid users. The drug ultimately led to Franklin’s downfall, while Delp did little to discourage him.

It’s a darker and more complex story than anyone might’ve given it credit, but Gilden tells it in spellbinding fashion. It’s unlikely one will end the book with the same opinions on Franklin and Delp as when they started. For anyone who wants to know the real story behind the people with one of racing’s brightest stars, it’s a must-read.