Dickie or Aidan? There's something for everyone here
Racing Post Annual for 2017 heads our survey of new books for Christmas
Racing Post Annual 2017 (edited by Nick Pulford)
£12.99, published by Racing Post – shop1.racingpost.com
Of course, it's a book to dip into. You're more a jumps man and Dickie's first title means much more to you than the social butterflies on Royal Ascot's pampered lawn, so you'll seek out the relevant pages. Or you're quite the opposite and Aidan O'Brien's never-to-be-repeated feat of saddling the first three in the Arc eclipses everything else.
It hardly matters because, soon after picking up the Racing Post Annual 2017 you'll probably decide it's best to start at the beginning and work your way through. No sport has better writers than racing; no sport has a more imaginative photographer than Edward Whitaker.
My copy fell open at the double-page spread, Chester on the opening day of the May meeting, with Whitaker so high up infield that much of the old city is visible behind the grandstand. The streets are strangely quiet as Sir Maximilian stretches four lengths clear on one of Kieren Fallon's happier days. Maybe all the locals knew and had to be this side of the turnstiles.
As editor Nick Pulford points out in his introduction, 2016 was some year. He deserved the good luck which comes with sheer hard work because, in quoting Nicky Henderson following Sprinter Sacre's almost unbelievable comeback, he could not have known that the horse would be in the headlines again, for very different reasons, at the time of publication.
Imagine a book like this trying to be as up to date as possible. You can't quite have the Hennessy or the Tingle Creek, that's for sure, but alongside the enthralling Paul Nicholls v Willie Mullins champion trainer battle, you can have Mullins losing 60 Gigginstown Stud horses, and that really wasn't all that long ago.
Peter Thomas and Steve Dennis produce more of the beautifully crafted and thoughtful pieces we have become accustomed to. Here, Dennis is in sublime form on the subject of Sprinter Sacre and Thomas coaxes a string of wry, amusing comments from Fiona Johnson on the subject of the new champion jump jockey, her husband Richard.
And, to choose just two more examples, I was greatly taken by Lewis Porteous's piece on Adam Kirby, who broke through at Group 1 level at Royal Ascot while his wife was giving birth. Kirby clearly lives on the edge – 5ft 11in and as tall as the door of the Brighton weighing room, see the photo - he'll drive himself right through the winter on the AW to make sure he can still do 9st. Not eight; nine.
It would take more space than one has here to do justice to Alastair Down's tribute to the sadly departed JT McNamara. Did we really know how dreadful it was after the Cheltenham fall? No movement at all below the neck? What would we do: soldier on like that or look for a way to end the whole wretched business?
The point about a Down piece, and this one is quite magnificent, is that it makes you think you might opt for the former, with your family flatly refusing to consider the alternative anyway. In a way, Down has made jump racing, and Cheltenham in particular, his own personal fiefdom. No wonder the Irish love him.
Incidentally, I thought only a few of us knew about 7lb claimer David Egan and the likelihood he'll rattle through his allowance as soon as the new turf season begins. Needless to say, he's in the Annual 20 at the back of the book. Typical.
All I can say is if I'd contributed to this tome I'd have gone to bed a happy man and if I'd edited it I'd be in Barbados. A faultless piece of work.
It ain't cheap – but you get what you pay for
In Our Time – Memories of Great Racehorses by Tony Morris and John P Sparkman
£55, published by Thoroughbred Advertising, Oxted – email@example.com or telephone 01883 714800
In an era when attention spans rarely extend beyond 140 characters, it seems a touch ambitious to publish a tome costing £55 that features 280 pages of high-quality paper to enhance the reproduction of more than 180 photographs – many of them black and white.
But then, In Our Time is no ordinary project. Its cover price is bound to put people off, yet rarely in the genre of horserace writing will you find such commendable value for money. All true lovers of the sport, in particular those keen to enhance their understanding of breeding racehorses, will be enriched by the prose of a pair of pre-eminent writers in Tony Morris and his US counterpart, the bloodstock authority John P. Sparkman.
The book is accurately portrayed by its title. In Our Time provides the platform for Morris and Sparkman to reminisce about their favourite horses, which invariably include most of the greats on both sides of the pond over the last 60 years. The outcome is a pleasing blend of fact, opinion and anecdote, and in Sparkman's case, valuable insight into the physical traits of breed-shaping American horses.
Morris needs no introduction to a European audience. His style remains as direct and informative as ever, and while he has documented his early conversion to the sport at some length over the years, what comes across vividly here, albeit a shade repetitively, is the lasting passion it aroused in him.
The flexibility in the format permits Morris to include Time Charter and Persian Punch among his 15 favourites without finding room for Dancing Brave. But the concept works well: we all have sentimental attachment to horses who do not rank among the elite. Indeed, it's the personal slant that sets this book apart from countless forerunners about great racehorses.
Sparkman, for his part, brings hands-on experience of working with horses to the mix. He is one of the few contemporary writers of this ilk, and his ability to enunciate racing from a horseman's perspective is perhaps the most endearing of the book's many qualities.
Sparkman also expands beyond his chosen horses to amplify some salient trends in the horse business, which serve to underline how racing has changed. This is best illustrated by the essay on Bold Ruler, one of a trio of colts from a vintage crop foaled in 1954. Bold Ruler won 23 of his 33 starts, Gallant Man 14 of 26, and Round Table an astonishing 43 of 66 over four seasons. Their regular jousts ensured that Sparkman, still to reach his teens, was hooked for life.
The book is beautifully illustrated throughout, although a valid gripe is that one final sweep over the finished version before printing would have revealed some minor errors that characterise contemporary books but serve to undermine one of this quality.
Overall, however, this is suitable for the aficionado and young enthusiast alike. It is informative and entertaining in equal measure, a balance that has eluded many previous books on a similar theme. It may be expensive but this is very much a case of getting what you pay for.
Absorbing trip down memory lane
Best Horses of the Decade 1970-79 by John Crofts
£29.95, published by Miralgo Publications – miralgopublishing.co.uk; also available by post from Miralgo Publications, 30 Midland Road, Gloucester GL1 4UL
John Crofts has done it again. Last year the long-serving racecourse photographer tapped into the warm and limitless wellspring of nostalgia with his luxurious Classic Winners 1980-2015, and this year he has slipped a little further back in time with this equally absorbing paean to the 1970s.
For many, mention of the 1970s brings memories of the three-day week, power cuts, paranoid presidents and punk, but for Crofts – and, one suspects, you, dear reader – the mental reflex conjures up Mill Reef, Sagaro, Rheingold and Roman Warrior, all of whom share these pages, locked into a time capsule between Absalom and Youth and liberated by Crofts' trenchant prose and (mainly) colour photographs.
Crofts follows the template of 'Classic Winners', with each horse allotted a photo, a list of major achievements, a pedigree chart and an essay illustrating its merits and its career as a stallion or broodmare. As a work of reference it is a godsend; as an aid to reminiscence it is heavenly, a retrospective recipe to feed the soul.
All the old heroes are here, Brigadier Gerard, Grundy, Alleged, Dahlia, Nijinsky, all with lavish space for Crofts to outline their remarkable careers in detail, including his from-the-horse's-mouth account of Buckskin, whom he looked after as a stable lad with Peter Walwyn. Crofts reckons the book is a sophisticated version of the scrapbooks he used to compile at school, and that brand of undiluted passion comes through loud and clear.
There are also plenty of less well-remembered names – Bruni, Attivo, Lochnager, Relkino and the like – and their portrayal will rekindle a hundred happy memories of hot afternoons, big races and bets well made. As ever, the pictures do the job best of all – Blushing Groom thrashing his rivals on ground baked hard by the long summer of 1976, a bare-headed Frank Conlon riding fast work on Bolkonski, Steve Cauthen holding tight to Tap On Wood, a young and excited Criquette Head with Arc heroine Three Troikas.
Crofts is already working on a book of the 1980s and other decades are in the pipeline. This volume is available in a limited edition of 500, a bespoke vision of the way we were, not Thatcherism but Thatch and Thatching, not Watergate but Flying Water, not Star Wars but Star Appeal.
As evocative of a bygone era as the crackle emitted when needle meets vinyl, this is a glorious book for those who lived through the 1970s, and for those unlucky enough to miss that opportunity.
The kids are all right with Balding's latest
The Racehorse Who Wouldn't Gallop by Clare Balding
£10.99, published by Puffin – penguin.co.uk
In one respect, it is probably a waste of time and energy recommending Clare Balding's first foray into the world of children's books. Surely any self-respecting household with a pre-teen horse enthusiast within will have long since earmarked this high-profile offering for the Christmas stocking?
Just in case you need persuading, however, be assured this book is sure to delight its target audience.
Sleep is for ninnies but you'd have every right to feel tired just thinking about Balding's workload and, it is probably needless to say, she has taken this new departure entirely in her stride. Of course.
Aimed at seven- to 11-year-olds, The Racehorse Who Wouldn't Gallop tells the story of horse-mad country girl Charlie Bass, who dreams of owning her own pony. Despite her family's hand-to-mouth farming existence, she does rather better than that when she accidentally puts her hand up at the wrong (or right) moment at an auction, leaving her as the unlikely trainer of the recalcitrant thoroughbred Noble Warrior. Plus his constant companion, the farting palomino pony Percy.
Charlie is convinced Noble Warrior could save the family farm – if only he can be persuaded to exit the starting stalls. A plan is hatched for Derby Day, and it probably isn't giving too much away to suggest that what transpires is a sort of National Velvet of the Flat-racing world.
Occasionally the adult voice seeps in – Balding goes a bit Victoria Meldrew in one exchange about new media, for instance – but generally speaking she is spot-on in a lovely, heart-warming tale. It is funny too, and comes complete with wonderful cartoons from top children's illustrator Tony Ross, plus a touch of girl-power: Balding gave her can-do heroine ‘big thighs' to show body positivity. Enjoy.
Can’t go wrong with charity walk diary
Jockey Jack's Jaunt – A Blistering Experience by Jack Lander
£6.99, published by Racing Post Books (all proceeds to be donated to Injured Jockeys Fund)
You can't go too far wrong with this lovely little volume detailing the then-nine-year-old Jack Lander's sponsored walk on behalf of the Injured Jockeys Fund: it's cheap, cheerful, "a short feel-good book with some lovely pictures," as John Francome says in his foreword.
Determined to become a jump jockey when he grows up, racing-mad Jack got the idea for his fundraising effort after watching his idol Aidan Coleman come to grief in the Grand National, and then suffering one too many falls from his own pony River, notably when the equine miscreant ducked out of a jump and threw him into the wings during a riding lesson. "On the way home, I thought about all the jockeys and how they do it," he says. "Dad told me there was a charity called the Injured Jockeys Fund. I decided I wanted something good to come from my cuts and bruises."
Hence Jack's 56-mile charity walk – from Stratford, his local racecourse, to Oaksey House, the IJF Rehabilitation Centre in Lambourn – detailed here with a little help from his 'assistant author', Gloucestershire Echo racing correspondent Melissa Jones.
En route to Lambourn, Jack meets many of his heroes and stops off at Richard Phillips' Adlestrop yard before being joined by Francome and Jamie Osborne for the final haul to Oaksey House. More significantly, having set an initial target of £1,000, 'Jockey Jack' ends up getting close to £14,000 in what was a remarkable effort by a determined young man.
This won't take you half an hour cover-to-cover, and it's for a good cause. Stick it in your young’un's Christmas stocking.
Reverential approach to Irish success story
Coolmore Stud: Ireland's Greatest Sporting Success Story by Alan Conway
€22.49, published by Mercier Press – mercierpress.ie/irish-books
The thoroughbred industry is one of the great success stories of the modern Irish economy and Coolmore Stud plays a pivotal role domestically while also exerting worldwide influence, primarily in the United States and Australia.
The Tipperary farm owes its origins to the collaboration of two great visionaries, trainer Vincent O'Brien and his son-in-law John Magnier. For the past 20 years the stud's inexorable progress has gathered pace, with Aidan O'Brien taking over the assembly-line process of turning racehorses into stallions, sustained by a weight of numbers far beyond anything available to his predecessor. This narrative is told by Alan Conway in Coolmore Stud, with its tagline, Ireland's Greatest Sporting Success Story.
A phenomenon of the Irish bloodstock world, Coolmore has developed a certain mystique, due in large part to the aura surrounding Magnier. Remote and aloof in terms of public persona, he has wielded enormous influence on the industry, dictating strategy through a small army of trusted advisers and managers, and inspiring unwavering loyalty among his employees.
Conway supplies historical context in chapters devoted to Vincent O'Brien, Northern Dancer and the original 1970s syndicate that derived its financial muscle from Robert Sangster. Coolmore's most influential stallions, Sadler's Wells, Danehill, Galileo and Montjeu, receive due tribute, while he goes on to chronicle Aidan O'Brien's achievements in detail and describe the involvement of current partners Michael Tabor and Derrick Smith.
Much of the detail will be familiar to anyone with a passing knowledge of the contemporary racing environment, though a younger generation may enjoy Conway's summary of the early years. Great races are recalled, great names are liberally sprinkled through the text, albeit with a curious tone of reverence, a relentless emphasis on the positive and a careful skirting of issues that could have been tackled with more rigour.
All becomes clear in an epilogue chapter entitled "What Coolmore Means To Me". Conway, it transpires, is a "fan" of Coolmore. More than that, he approaches his subject with religious like zeal. Without any sense of irony, he employs the letters BC to stand for "Before Coolmore", belittling Ireland's centuries-old tradition of organised racing and thoroughbred breeding. The author’s enthusiasm is irrepressible; the shame is he does not offer more genuine insight into a fascinating operation.