This is for everyone who traces their obsession to the same source that I do. The wellspring of Thoroughbred adoration. The font of racehorse worship. That dynamic duo, old and young, who showed us a dangerous, enticing world.
Alec and Henry.
You know Alec and Henry! Of Black Stallion fame! Come on, I want to know, how many of you are Black Stallion fanatics at heart? How many of you still have cracking, yellowing, mildewing, pages-falling-out paperbacks that you’ve re-read at least once, more likely a half-dozen times, in your adulthood? Better still, how many of you have gone out on vintage-book-hunts, flipping through the stacks like record-collectors at a flea market, but instead of looking for promos and rare singles, you’re looking for fabulous old first editions of The Black Stallion, you know the one, with the white cover and the black silhouette of The Black, and the orange sun?
Oh wait, I don’t have to describe it to you, I can just show you the picture of the one I already have.
Because yeah, I did that hunt already.
Of course I did!
I was thinking of the Black Stallion because of last night’s Carter Handicap. Yesterday evening, if you weren’t watching, was host to simply spectacular horse racing. I was at work (haven’t said that in a while) and didn’t get to go to Aqueduct to see the Wood Memorial and the Carter in person as originally planned, but that meant that I got home in time to sit on the couch and scream myself hoarse at the tremendous finish in the Santa Anita Derby, and we were just as loud a few minutes later, when three familiar faces came pounding home together in the Aqueduct dirt for the finale of the Carter Handicap.
Shackleford, that gorgeous chestnut all the girls go wild for, four years old, winner of the Grade 1 Preakness Stakes.
Jackson Bend, that adorable little pony from Florida, five years old, winner of the Grade 1 Forego Stakes.
Caleb’s Posse, Grade 1 winner of the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile, four years old. (I wish I had something more descriptive to go with Caleb’s Posse, but he’s never really gained any sort of fandom, has he? Clearly being a fast racehorse is not enough; fame requires some compelling back-story, some gorgeous blaze, some adorable lack of size, some run of bad luck. His name is not particularly thrilling, either.)
Jackson Bend disappeared briefly in the towering outline of Shackleford as he made his move on the turn. He’s always been that little horse that could. Shackleford was consigned to second. The pony came thundering towards home. Caleb’s Posse appeared, driving, threatening. And Jackson Bend dug deeper, and hung on.
“When Caleb’s Posse started coming at me … this horse has so much heart,” winning jockey Corey Nakatani said. “It brings a tear to my eye. He’s Mighty Mouse. He’s so little, 15 hands, but he’s got so much heart.”
The thrill of the race, seeing those three campaigners coming down the homestretch like that, reminded me of one thing. A book that defined my ideals about racing, a book that I read over and over as a child, a book that made New York racing the center, forever and ever, in my mind at least, of horse racing in general.
The Black Stallion’s Courage.
That cover! With three horses charging towards you, the apartment blocks of the urban setting in their background, as Eclipse, Casey, and The Black come pounding home in the Brooklyn Handicap. This book set in my mind, at a very young and impressionable age, that the most important races of the year were the Belmont spring handicaps: The Suburban, the Metropolitan, the Brooklyn.
To that end, twenty years later, I do my damnedest to make it to each one of them now that I’m in New York. You never really get over the things that you learned in The Black Stallion, do you?
Last night, in the Carter Handicap, racing looked like I imagined it when I was ten. The big handicap, on the New York track. The older horses, champions all, that I remember from years past. Maybe four and five years aren’t that old. But when so few three year old stars reappear to thrill us, and all in the same race, I can’t help but be excited. It’s racing the way Alec and Henry told us it was supposed to be.
And with that, I’m going to end this with a question.
What’s your favorite Black Stallion novel? You know you have one.
- “Personality Plus” — Jane Smiley’s “A Year at the Races”
- Other People’s Horses