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Book Review

Race Day: A Spot on the Rail
by Max Watman
Ivan R. Dee, Publisher, July 2005, 256 pages hardcover

The sport of thoroughbred racing is rich in history and tradition. Casual and long time fans alike can name their favorite racetracks, their favorite horses, and their favorite races ever run. In his new book, Race Day, New York Sun turfwriter Max Watman gives us his picks in these very categories. As he says in the preface, "at the racetrack, history is made two minutes at a time." Some of the most memorable 2 minutes of racing in America are documented here.

Watman takes a unique approach to exposing his picks. Each chapter is dedicated to one racetrack. He details how the track came into being, the people who were behind its development, and the characteristics of that track that set it apart from run-of-the-mill facilities of lesser importance. He then introduces us to the stars of the sport, the trainers, jockeys, and horses who made their way to that particular track. Finally, he puts the pieces together with some of the greatest horses of their era meeting up at one of America's greatest racetracks in one of the biggest races in history. In most cases, the race he chose was the crowning moment of that track's history. This was most evident for Arlington Park, where John Henry's thrilling win by a nose in the inaugural Arlington Million not only ushered in the era of the million-dollar race, but also put Chicago racing firmly on the map.

Racing history buffs will enjoy Watman's colorful writing style. His race descriptions are very thrilling reading, painting a picture of excitement making the reader wish he or she were there in person. Fans will also forever debate his selections of which races were chosen to represent each track. For example, the 1933 "Fighting Finish" Derby was chosen for Churchill Downs, while Watman went for more recent history for Belmont Park with the 2004 Belmont Stakes where Birdstone spoiled Smarty Jones' Triple Crown bid by a length. Twenty black and white photographs accompany the text to illustrate the tales. He does not rank his selections, giving equal weight to all the tracks he covers.

In the final chapter, Watman breaks away from his greatest tracks and races list and looks at three facilities that are no longer the greats they once were. He pays tribute to Hialeah, a track his grandfather took him to regularly as a young boy which is all but condemned to the developers' wrecking ball today. Pimlico may be the home of the Preakness, but the rest of the year it is a desolate wasteland. Finally, Gulfstream may still be a premier track in the winter months, but the old, original grandstand was torn down by owner Frank Stronach to be rebuilt, with the idea that "racing is not popular, so why not surround it with things that are" such as shopping, a movie theater, and a poker room.

Watman's work is a great tribute to American Thoroughbred racing, highlighting some of the greatest equine contests ever seen at America's most celebrated racetracks. Any racing fan will enjoy this tour across the country and across history, learning about the people and the horses that have made the sport what it is today.

Race Day has a list price of $24.95 and is available from Amazon.com for $16.47.

Rating:     5/5

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