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A lifetime in the stables and the grandstands makes for some happy insanity


Along with the high rise in attendance at the nation's racetracks has come a plethora of books on horse racing—though there is still some doubt that horseplayers can read. Many of these books are written by professors turned handicappers. Their style tends to be gobbledegook, their subject matter the trite and obvious. Most of them offer systems of betting no more original than those developed by anyone who can read past performances.

In a new book called Crazy Over Horses (Atlantic-Little, Brown, $5.75) Sam Toper-off has reversed this process. He is a Brooklyn horseplayer turned professor of English at Hofstra University on Long Island. He clearly demonstrates that he knows Thoroughbred racing from observation rather than theory, and he manages to be entertaining as well as opinionated.

In common with the late Joe Palmer, whose horse-racing column in the New York Herald Tribune was perhaps the most interesting and pertinent ever published in a daily newspaper, Sam Toperoff possesses a discerning eye for character and an accurate ear for lingo. There are few places that offer more characters and stranger lingo than racetracks—in the stable area as well as in the stands—and Toperoff has explored both since, as a boy, he began mucking out horse vans and betting.

Crazy Over Horses takes its title from a pop song of the 1920s: "Horses, horses, horses, crazy over horses, horses, horses," and the words fit both him and his weirdos. The latter range from a chatterbox Irishman who talked in stilted abstractions to a Broadway moll whose weekend at Saratoga was first described in SI (Nov. 11, 1968) to an ineffectual scion of wealth whose name is changed to Quentin Rausch III, called "Junior." Junior's father owned a magnificent, immaculate horse farm on Long Island, where Toperoff spent hours observing wild, crap-shooting stable hands. There are also some pleasant vignettes of assorted jockeys and trainers.

Toperoff relishes the beauty of Thoroughbreds even more than he does the peculiarity of people. Horses, he realizes, can be mean, but it is not they who try to con you out of your money. Toperoff's own betting experiences, like those of the rest of us, sway between glory and disaster. His wife of two years loves to watch him at his track antics, which indicates that some marriages, at least, are made in heaven. But Crazy Over Horses is not designed for crazy people alone. It will interest even those who have never been to a recetrack and do not intend to start. It will fascinate those who are addicted.