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Book Review

coverThe Story of Your Life: A History of The Sporting Life Newspaper (1859-1998)
By James Lambie
Troubador Publishing Ltd., September 2010, 611 pages hardcover

Followers of sports have their "go-to" publications where to read news and editorial opinion on current events covering many disciplines. In America, Sports Illustrated and The Sporting News have been enjoyed for years and continue to serve this market. Unfortunately, England's equivalent, The Sporting Life, shut down in 1998 after 139 years in print. The paper, which began as a weekly and gradually expanded to a daily, was best known for its extensive horse racing coverage, and for its most famous reader, racing fan and horse owner Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother. She said in 1987, "Of course I read The Sporting Life." James Lambie, who served as the Life's chief northern correspondent from 1982 until the paper's demise, writes a very fitting tribute to this storied publication, complete with excerpts and photographs.

Followers of horse racing will find Lambie's stories to be entertaining and educational, as the book is written in chronological order and serves as a comprehensive history of the sport in England. Readers will learn about a phony race meeting set up by bookies that slipped through the cracks with "results" and payouts published in the paper. As early as 1900, there was talk of illegal drugs used in American racing so the Jockey Clubs in European countries moved quickly to ban and test for them, and to this day medications are still illegal in most of the world. Racing was severely limited during the two World Wars, and the book covers how important race meetings such as the Derby were run at wartime, but at alternate locations. Lambie conveniently adjusts all monetary amounts for inflation, allowing the reader to compare values (given in pounds sterling) from the past to the present.

In more recent events covered in the book, the reader learns about the political battle to legalize betting shops in 1961, with many of the same arguments pro and con we hear today in America with the expansion of gaming into new markets. Today these shops are ubiquitous on the high streets of most English towns. John McCririck, well-known from his TV appearances on both sides of the pond, uncovered a Tote scandal in 1979 after observing unusually low payouts on dual forecasts (exactas) given the win odds of the horses, a situation reminiscent of the Fix Six at the 2002 Breeders' Cup. Racing in England is year-round, with flat racing dominating the summer months and National Hunt (jumps) taking place primarily in the winter, and the reader will learn about greats both human and equine from both camps.

Although The Sporting Life is best known for its horse racing, it was not the English version of our Racing Form, covering just one sport exclusively. An entire chapter of the book covers the very first heavyweight boxing championship fight, a bare-knuckle bout between American John "The Benicia Boy" Heenan and Englishman Tom Sayers in April 1860 at Farnborough. Boxing in those days was an outlaw sport, with the location of the fight not made known until hours before it took place in order to avoid police intervention. In fact the Life article stated that the fight would take place "within 100 miles and above 20 miles from London"! After 41 grueling rounds of indefinite length (a round ended when a knockdown had occurred), the fight ended in a draw when police arrived causing spectators to panic and riot. The Sporting Life covered football (soccer) extensively, as well as rugby, cricket, and greyhound racing.

As expected there is minimal coverage of American racing in the book. Editor Monty Court frequently wrote negatively about American racing's use of Lasix, proposing that the Jockey Club regard the Breeders' Cup as "an unlicensed event" if medications are allowed. He wrote "the fact the almighty dollar has caused U.S. racing to swallow its principles should not mean that (drugs should also be allowed in England)." This was the only place the Breeders' Cup is mentioned in the entire book. The final chapters cover the takeover by the Racing Post and the lawsuits that ultimately led to the demise of the historic paper, its final issue dated May 12, 1998.

The sport of Thoroughbred horse racing originated in England and The Sporting Life covered the sport extensively through its golden years. In his work, Lambie artfully pieced together excerpts from 139 years of racing coverage excellence and added writing of his own, to tell the colorful story of British horse racing and sports in general. Fans of racing history will learn so much from this publication, about the great horses and people that make the sport great, and how the sport gradually evolved from the mid 19th century to the present. This was a truly enjoyable, entertaining read and an excellent reference book for racing fans anywhere in the world.

The Story of Your Life has a list price of £25.00 (about $40) and can be purchased from Amazon.com for $36.03.

Rating:     5/5

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