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Original Issue

A warm history of the Thoroughbred world that was born during an eclipse

At noon on April 1, 1764 England observed a total eclipse of the sun—and it was in those moments of darkness, in a stone barn at Cranbourne Lodge, that a mare named Spiletta foaled an ugly, dwarfish colt to be named Eclipse. Today, some 200 years later, more than 36,000 racing Thoroughbreds are direct descendants in the male line of that puny foal "born to darkness at noon in England in 1764." But David Alexander's book A Sound of Horses (Bobbs-Merrill, $6.50) is more than a labor of tracing the lineage of fine horseflesh. It is an illuminating history and a vivid commentary on the world of racing: its heroes, villains, builders, destroyers, that band of "migratory gypsies of the turf, the smaller owners and trainers and jockeys and stablemen and camp followers who trail the horses from place to place"—a band of devotees of whom the author says they are "completely insular in character and their island is bounded by a paddock fence."

We meet first the fat, drunken, somehow pathetic Duke of Cumberland, third son of King George II, whose only saving grace seems to have been his fanatic devotion to horses. Somewhere along the line he decided that the Arabian strain was perhaps being overrefined, and so he bred the delicate beauty of Spiletta to an ugly, swaybacked English stallion named Marske and got Eclipse. The duke never lived to know that he had founded a dynasty. It is often such an unforeseen circumstance, the accidental contribution, that makes the world of racing the magic world it is. For example, at the end of the 19th century, the circumstance of Jockey Tod Sloan's abnormally short legs, which forced him upward and forward on his mounts, a style called "monkey-on-a-stick" by those who jeered but which eventually became the famous crouch style now used by all American jockeys. The British use the style, too, in modified form, though the French still sit more or less militarily upright in the saddle.

There was the circumstance of Jack Keene, who dynamited his property in Kentucky in search of capstones for a couple of gateposts and had so much rock left over that he decided to build a barn—which led to other things, namely the Keeneland racetrack. "Things happen like that in the world of racing where the laws of logic are the same as those of the Land of Oz. It is the dissertations of the Mad Hatter rather than the critiques of Immanuel Kant that govern the course of racing."

If Thoroughbred racing properly began in a barn in England, then modern American commercial racing, says the author, began in a barber shop in San Francisco on another day of darkness, Black Tuesday, October 29, 1929, for it was there that Charles Strub, former painless dentist and successful stock-market speculator of the West, learned by telephone that Wall Street had crashed, taking his millions with it. Doc Strub took his shave anyway and, there in the barber chair, conceived the notion of a racetrack, which came to be built on borrowed money at Santa Anita, coming to full flower on Christmas Day 1934. From that point on, the country was off to the races. Today 200 million tax dollars help support the governments of 27 states.

If Mr. Alexander is generous with his praise of those who have benefited racing, he is justifiably bitter about those who would unwittingly or otherwise destroy the sport of kings, namely, tax-hungry politicians who decree longer and longer racing seasons to provide more and more tax revenue. Thus horses, which in the Duke of Cumberland's day were not raced until they had reached a maturity of 5 years, now go through the gate when barely turned 2, or even before, and often suffer sudden and complete breakdowns from too much racing. "The supply simply cannot keep up with the demand, and the horses who fill the races are forced to run far too frequently." The politician then "becomes a ravening spoiler insanely intent upon destroying the goose—or horse—that lays the golden eggs."

If the author seems to harp a bit in his book about these dastardly villains, it is because the real hero of his labor of love is the horse itself. David Alexander, perched on his father's shoulder at the age of 8, won his own first wager at the Kentucky Derby in 1915, a year when the "hero" turned out to be a filly named Regret. Any kid who lived in Kentucky, he informs us, who did not bet on the Derby was considered a kook. Horses are often kooky, too, for they are "as varied in their natures as the people who own, train, groom, ride and bet on them." There were Exterminator, who used to acknowledge the applause of the crowd with a polite bow; No Robbery, who "would cavort from rail to rail, as if he were doing an uninhibited bacchanalian dance" and liked to win races running sideways; a horse named Pageboy, who was no great shakes at the races but much beloved by his owner. Movie Producer Harry Warner, because he preferred California oranges to heavy oats; Jaipur, who sulked and kicked down fences when he was put on a diet before a race. And there is Kelso, whom the author calls the greatest racehorse in history, a horse that bears a striking resemblance to Sartorius' painting of his great ancestor, Eclipse. "If Kelso were managing his own financial affairs," Alexander says, "he'd have spent every nickel on chocolate sundaes." So horses, like people, are funny, and "the world of racing has all the components of the greater world except one. It is never, under any circumstances, a world of boredom."