John Jeremiah Sullivan begins Blood Horses, an exceptionally literate
ambitious book, with his father's observation that Secretariat's
performance in the 1973 Kentucky Derby was "just beauty, you know?"
Sullivan's father was a disappointed poet who turned to sportswriting
sometimes took his young son along for the ride, so to speak. The son's
homage to his dad turns out to be, among other things, an extended
investigation of the history of the relationship between man and horse, an
exploration of various Kentucky characters and stories, and a thoughtful
and moving meditation on the relationship between this particular father
and son and fathers and sons in general. The writing in this book is so
often so good that it is impossible to resist quoting from it extensively.
Here is Sullivan on one aspect of the Kentucky Derby:
"What kind of person would voluntarily endure what is
foodless outdoor cocktail party of strangers in heavy sun,
in a prison-yard- style enclosure, wearing outlandish
clothes and trying to appear relaxed while being gawked at
and openly insulted by hundreds if not thousands of
drunken hill people? It is sad to be reminded, once again,
that all this horse racing business is about the rich, for
the rich are hideous. There is nothing they cannot ruin.
And if there is one other thing that horse racing is
about, it is people who do not have money - much less
money to lose - losing it."
I hope that passage adequately conveys the problem anybody trying to
Blood Horses is bound to have, namely that Sullivan's stuff is so much
more effective than anything anybody is likely to write about his book
that a normal approach to the task is impossible. Or at least it is for
me. I'm thrown back on the stuff itself, as when Sullivan circles around
to the matter of Secretariat toward the end of Blood Horses: "And still the question hangs over it all: Why? Why did he
run as he
did, with no one forcing him, or even urging him, with no
one or thing to defeat anymore, with no punishment waiting
for him if he slowed? For this morning, at least, the
answer is clear. It requires no faith. He ran that way, I
know, because he could, and we cannot. One does not, if
one is beauty, have to know what beauty is."
So, no more gilding of this particular lilly. Go get the book and
This program aired on October 31, 2005. The audio for this program is not available.