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Book Review

Blood Horses
Notes of a Sportswriter's Son
by John Jeremiah Sullivan
Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2004, 261 pages hardcover

Louisville Courier-Journal sportswriter Mike Sullivan plied his trade for over thirty years at baseball diamonds, football stadiums, and racetracks across America. Accompanying him in many of those press boxes was his son John. When the elder Sullivan passed away after a lengthy illness, John set out to write not only a tribute to his father's career but an examination of his father's favorite sport, Thoroughbred horse racing. The result is Blood Horses: Notes of a Sportswriter's Son, his first book.

John Sullivan, winner of multiple awards including an Eclipse Award for turf writing and a National Magazine Award for best feature, admits that initially he was not a sports fan like his father. When he asked him what he remembered best from his thirty years in the press box, his answer was the 1973 Kentucky Derby, as Secretariat began his bid for the Triple Crown which he would eventually capture. The track was always a mystery to him, a place his father would disappear and return from with souvenir glasses in hand, even though he spent most of his childhood in Kentucky.

Over a two-year period, Sullivan followed in his father's footsteps visiting racetracks, horse farms, and auction rings to gain a deeper understanding of the sport his father loved so much. As a beginner to racing, he brings a fresh perspective to the game, observing things that long-time racegoers may not. From his travels he expanded his research beyond the sport of racing, examining humankind's relationship with the horse over the millennia. He found that the horse is paradoxically man's most loved and most hated animal. Throughout human history, we have deified these graceful animals yet at the same time abused and killed them for our own benefit or out of sheer cruelty. Man and horse have walked alongside each other for over thirty thousand years in this uncomfortable love-hate relationship. Sullivan draws from many literary and historical sources to demonstrate this to the reader.

During the course of his research, Sullivan experienced two Triple Crown near-misses with War Emblem in 2002 and Funny Cide in 2003, but also was one of the many stranded in Lexington while attending the Keeneland September sale on September 11, 2001. In the auction pavilion he observed the reactions of everybody around him to the events of that day, especially Prince Ahmed Salman of the Thoroughbred Corporation and trainer Bob Baffert.

At Churchill Downs, he observed the segregation of rich and poor, white and black. The "poor" people in general admission, mostly white, have no recourse but to jeer at and heckle the "rich" VIP's in the paddock, which include black rappers like P. Diddy, one of the few blacks he saw at the Derby other than janitors sweeping the losing tickets off the ground. He comments that "the horseracing business is about the rich, for the rich are hideous. There is nothing they cannot ruin." He also describes the effect of too much money and alcohol concentrated in the same place, scantily-clad women lying drunk in puddles of beer, fist fights galore, and an unfortunate incident where he was accosted on the street by some drunk thugs while leaving after the races were over. Despite his press credential, Sullivan chooses to watch the race from the apron with everybody else rather than in the friendly, exclusive confines of the press box where his father once stood.

As he continues his examination of man's relationship with the horse and the sport of racing, Sullivan never strays from the original aim of the book as a tribute to his father. The book is interspersed with flashbacks to the times he and his father spent together, both in the press box and at home. Sullivan shows much respect for his father, but does not hesitate to bring out his weak spots as well, especially his addictions to smoking and alcohol and his many failed attempts to quit. It was this failure to quit that led to Mike Sullivan's death at a relatively early age.

The main weakness of the book is that the two stories, that of father and son and the other of man and the horse, did not parallel each other well. Each story is worthy of its own book but having to switch between the two over the course of one volume gave the impression of a lack of focus. Despite this, the junior Sullivan definitely learned from his father as the quality of the writing is very high indeed. The reviewer recommends Blood Horses: Notes of a Sportswriter's Son to followers of the human side of horse racing, those who wish to understand the relationship between man and horse, fans of Mike Sullivan's writing, and those wishing to pursue a career in sports writing. With the father-son relationship explored as deeply as it was, this book would also make for an excellent Father's Day gift. However, fans of specific racehorses, younger racing fans, and those who follow the sport strictly for its gambling aspect would be better served by one of the many other racing books that have been released in recent months.

Blood Horses has a list price of $24.00 but can be purchased from Amazon.com, for $16.80.

Rating:     3/5

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