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- Published on Amazon.com
The bookstore near where you live probably has many categories --- fiction, nonfiction and children's books, if nothing else. If it's a large enough bookstore, there are perhaps books that focus on religion and spirituality, health, self-help, recovery, and sorrow.
It is one of the deficiencies of the bookstore experience that there is not a corresponding section about joy. If there were, this new book by Sally Jenkins would be there. The improbably titled FUNNY CIDE: How a Horse, a Trainer, a Jockey, and a Bunch of High School Buddies Took On the Sheiks and Bluebloods ... and Won, is steeped in joy. It is a gambler's joy, the joy you get when you figure out a point spread or get the right scratch-off lottery ticket or hit the winning exacta. But it is a pure, untrammeled joy, nonetheless. And in a culture so steeped in loneliness, anxiety and depression, anything that can promote and celebrate joy is a universal good.
The story begins where stories about horses usually commence --- in a stable. In the wee small hours of the morning, an Oklahoma-bred mare gave birth to a foal at a New York farm. He was one of 33,689 foals born that year, and as Jenkins says, there were no thunderbolts present at his birth. He was a young colt, given the name of Funny Cide, and largely left to grow up to see if he could amount to anything. No one at this stage of the game expected that this horse would be anything special.
Jenkins --- writing on behalf of the entire Funny Cide "team" --- tells their stories as well. The reader might know about the small-town friends who purchased the horse, how they pooled their money together in what seemed like a mad venture, how the circle of friends formed the "Sackatoga Stables" so they could get better seats and parking spaces at the track and feel like bigshots, and even make it to the winner's circle once in a while. What's not so well known --- and what Jenkins makes clear to even the casual race fan --- is the enormous gamble that putting money up to buy a horse is.
Putting a two-dollar bet down at the track is a known proposition; in pari-mutuel racing, you're betting against your peers and conceding a small percentage of the bet to the track and to the state to help cover expenses. Putting two hundred thousand dollars down on a horse --- and purebred Kentucky yearlings can go for higher than that --- is much more of a sucker's bet, with a higher risk of loss than even the most rapacious Las Vegas casino would allow. You're all but guaranteed, Jenkins tells us, to lose half the money you invest in any given racehorse --- that is to say that what you pay for the horse, and what the horse eats while you own him, generally won't recoup you half of what the horse earns in his lifetime. You must have an above-average horse to even think of breaking even --- and an exceptional horse, a classic horse, to think about making money off the deal.
On top of that, it helps to have top-flight people around the horse, people who know horses. (The principal partner in the Sackatoga circle is allergic to horses, we find.) Some of the best writing in FUNNY CIDE is about the horse's trainer, Barclay Tagg, and his lifelong struggle against pushy owners who think they know how to train a horse. Additionally, there's jockey Jose Santos, stuck on the backstretch at Belmont Park, waking up at five in the morning to exercise horses and riding longshots, hoping for the big score.
This makes FUNNY CIDE sound a bit like Laura Hillenbrand's magisterial SEABISCUIT, but the two works are very different. First, the Hillenbrand book was written with a certain grave, elegiac style; Jenkins's prose is much more bright and breezy, free and easy, with a certain Texas lilt here and there. Hillenbrand was rescuing a lost tale from the collective unconscious; Jenkins is retelling us information we largely already knew from ESPN coverage. Most importantly, SEABISCUIT is filled with loss, regret and nostalgia. FUNNY CIDE is about joy piling on top of joy, as everyone around the horse realizes what his true capacities and skills actually are. (A little too late, as it happens; we learn about Funny Cide's gelding in the story, which wipes out any future stud fees.)
Jenkins reminds us of the controversy surrounding Funny Cide's triumphant Run for the Roses, how a newspaper story alleging cheating was used to taint the horse's record and the jockey's reputation. That story is the only blot in the last hundred pages of FUNNY CIDE, all of which takes place amidst a torrent of joy, sparked by one horse who learned the right way to run, and to win, and never once forgot how.
--- Reviewed by Curtis Edmonds