A Baker’s Dozen (Plus One) of My All-Time Favorite Books: Part III

As I write this, I’m still riding the wave of elation and rapture that is the beautiful beat-down my Carolina Panthers gave to the Dallas Cowgirls on Thanksgiving.  Luuuuuuuuke!!!!!  Cam and the Dab!  11-0 baby!  And to think the Vegas odds makers initially had a 3-7 Dallas team as the favorite over my undefeated boys.  What in the fuck were they thinking?  I guess the Panthers still are, as they always have been, the Rodney Dangerfields of the NFL.  But that was one collarbone and a 33-14 game ago.  How ‘bout some respect now, suckas?!

But forgive me my gloating.  Let’s get back to business.  Part III of the Baker’s Dozen (Plus One) is fresh out of the oven.

Fair and Tender Ladies – Lee Smith

I read across all genres, fiction and nonfiction, so long as it’s well written.  But Southern literature in all its variations is where my heart is, being a daughter of the South and all.  From Eudora Welty to George Singleton, from sweet, honeysuckle-scented stories to edgy Grit Lit, I love it all.

There are a multitude of contemporary authors you could start off with if your Southern lit education is lacking:  Reynolds Price, Kaye Gibbons, Jill McCorkle, Allan Gurganus, Ron Rash, Wiley Cash, Tim Gautreaux.  Or you can go old school:  the aforementioned Eudora Welty, Carson McCullers, Flannery O’Connor, Walker Percy, William Faulkner, Katherine Anne Porter.  The list is endless and stacked with literary behemoths.  I’d even go so far as to say that, in my opinion, no other region of the country is so steeped with written tradition and essence.

Fair and Tender Ladies

While there are any number of biscuit-and-gravy flavored books I could trot out here (it’d be easy to produce innumerable blogs posts about my Southern favorites alone), Lee Smith’s Fair and Tender Ladies has held a revered place in my heart for a long, long time.  One of my dirty little secrets is that I’m a sucker for epistolary novels, stemming from my reading at a very young age of Jean Webster’s Daddy-Long-Legs, and Fair and Tender Ladies is composed entirely of the correspondence of Ivy Rowe, a young girl growing up in the mists of Appalachia.  The epistolary tale is a rare bird these days, as is letter writing itself, an art lost to the millennial generation born of the instant gratification of texting.  If I shoved this book into the arms of an under-thirty-something, most of them would look at me as if I’d sprouted two heads.  So all you millennials out there:  download this one onto your Kindle or your iPad or your smartphone and find out what real correspondence looks like.

Ivy’s first letters bear the misspellings and colloquialisms of her age and her environment, but this book wouldn’t have worked nearly so well if Lee Smith had prettied up the grammar.  It’s Ivy’s unaffected, down-home voice that, as politely as possible, still smacks you upside the head and knocks you flat on your ass squarely in the middle of a holler in the Virginia mountains.  As Ivy grows up and becomes a mother, then a grandmother, her words gain maturity and polish but her voice never loses its direction.

I had the opportunity to meet Ms. Smith a year or so ago at a book signing for her then-new release Guests on Earth, but it was Fair and Tender Ladies that I wanted her to sign.

 A Game of Thrones – George R.R. Martin

Call me a sellout for placing A Game of Thrones on my all-time favorites list, since by now everybody and his brother has either read the books or seen the HBO series, but hear me out.

A Game of Thrones

I had never been much of a fantasy or sci-fi reader (other than Tolkien) and, like what I imagine are quite a lot of folks, I might have even considered myself above genre fiction of that sort.  I lumped it in with romance and took a literary snob’s view that most of its writers were hacks.  I have to admit I still feel that way about romance novels – I have yet to find a romance author who I think has any serious literary chops (yes, I hear the boos and hisses from the romance crowd – just don’t throw any tomatoes!).  Keep in mind it’s just my opinion so if I’ve now managed to alienate you romance aficionados out there, try to change my mind and let me know who you think is worthy.  I can be open-minded . . . I think.

So around early spring 2011, I hit a wall in my reading.  I was coming off a rough two or three years with my dad’s illness and then passing, and all of a sudden I found that I just didn’t want to read about real people with real problems (i.e., pretty much all fiction AND nonfiction).  I had had enough problems of my own to deal with for a while.  “Bon”, the attorney I work with who I’ve mentioned in a previous post, and a serious fantasy buff, suggested several of his sword and dragon favorites as potential escapes and alternatives.  I was skeptical but I figured, what the hey . . . so I picked up A Game of Thrones . . . and LIFE WAS NEVER THE SAME!

I landed smack dab in the middle of Westeros somewhere near The Wall and suddenly I knew I wasn’t in Kansas anymore, and no amount of heel-clicking was going to bring me back home any time soon.  That was fine with me; I didn’t want to be at home anyway.  I had developed some pretty asinine assumptions over the years about fantasy novels and their authors in general, but George Martin and his Starks and Lannisters put paid to that in short order.  These weren’t your cookie cutter wizards, fairies, knights saving damsels in distress.  These guys (and the girls too) were snarky, conniving, deadly, and charming as hell all at the same time.  Plus there were badass dragons.  Dragons are like horses, if horses could fly and barbecue your ass to cinders.  I fell in with Ned, Jon, Arya, Sansa (well, maybe not Sansa; she’s a little too sniveling for my taste), Tyrion, Jamie, Cersei, Daenerys, the Hound, et al. like I’d known them my whole life, then proceeded to be absolutely astounded at the rate in which George Martin slashed and burned his main characters.  Oh, and did I mention the man can write?

In all fairness, I should probably have just listed the entire A Song of Ice and Fire series as my entry here.  I read all five of the existing books in the series straight through, something I NEVER EVER do with series fiction.  Placing them here on a list of what is supposed to be my great literature recommendations may still seem like a cop-out to some of you higher-minded readers.  But what makes these books so special to me is that they accomplished two important things:  they provided me a welcome and ready safe haven when real life was taking a toll, and they offered a jumping-off point into a genre at which I’d previously sneered and of which I’m now a giant fan.  I’ve since read Nalo Hopkinson, Kevin Hearne, John Scalzi, Patrick Rothfuss, Robin Hobb, Ursula K. Le Guin, Philip K. Dick, Neil Gaiman, Lois McMaster Bujold, Glen Cook, China Mieville, Anne McCaffrey, Jack Vance and Arthur C. Clarke, and the list goes on.

Do yourself a favor and try reading something outside of your comfort zone.  It doesn’t have to be fantasy or sci-fi.  For you it might be horror or biography, mystery or history.  You might surprise yourself (like I did) and open up whole new worlds of exploration, enjoyment and knowledge.  And isn’t that what reading’s all about?

Oscar Hijuelos’ Twain & Stanley Enter Paradise

Twain & Stanley Enter Paradise

I receive advance reading copies (ARCs) from publishers for review purposes from time to time and I always make it a practice to read them in order of publication date.  I do this so my reviews will be as timely as possible and roughly coincide with each book’s release.  So when I finished The Early Stories of Truman Capote (November 23, 2015), I flipped to the next ARC on the list and came up with Oscar Hijuelos’ Twain & Stanley Enter Paradise.  Okay . . . so . . . the book I read immediately preceding the Capote collection was Lynn Cullen’s Twain’s End.  Were the book gods really going to make me read two Twain-based novels nearly right in a row?   Apparently so.  If I weren’t so damned OCD about my hard and fast publication date rule, I would have just put the Hijuelos aside for a month or so and come back to it later, but I’m a little anal about these things so I hunkered down and prepared to dive back into the world of Samuel Clemens.

If you read my November 11, 2015 post on Lynn Cullen’s book, you know that her Twain was a rancorous dude not much interested in giving a rodent’s posterior about anyone but himself.  So I wondered what kind of light Oscar Hijuelos was going to shine on the old coot.  A radically different one as it turns out.

Twain & Stanley Enter Paradise orbits around the actual, lifelong friendship of Mark Twain and Sir Henry Morton Stanley, controversial African explorer and supposed utterer of the legendary “Dr. Livingstone, I presume” line.  Twain comes off more like the revered figure most of us imagine, a better family man and friend than the one Lynn Cullen would have us know.  He’s a relatively considerate pal, a devoted husband and father, and just an all-around much nicer bloke to hang out with.  However, Stanley, not Twain, is the real star of the show here, as his voice is the principal one Hijuelos uses to narrate his sprawling tale.  The novel spans at least 50 or so years and we’re with Stanley every step of the way in his life, beginning with his arrival in New Orleans as a penniless orphan from Wales, to his first meeting with Twain on a Mississippi River steamer (Twain then being known only as Samuel Clemens and prior to his immense literary fame), to the sweltering jungles of both Cuba and Africa and finally to pastoral England.  We even backtrack a little to Stanley’s childhood before his abandonment by his mother and his eventual orphandom (okay, so the jury’s still out on whether “orphandom” is actually a word).

Hijuelos employs several narrative devices to relay the intertwining stories of Twain and Stanley.  At times he writes in the third person, giving the novel the feel of a Stanley biography instead of a fictional interpretation, and I frankly had to remind myself on a multitude of occasions that this wasn’t a biography.  Other times the epistolary voice takes over in the form of letters between Stanley and Twain and correspondence exchanged between Twain and Dorothy Tennant, Stanley’s portraitist wife.  Yet other chapters are set forth in the first person as either Stanley’s or Dorothy’s journal entries.  This constant tone shifting has the whole thing coming off as slightly schizophrenic, and truly the thing works best when it’s simply Stanley doing the talking from the pages of his diary.

For those expecting Hijuelos’ usual exuberant, Cuban-American themed fare, Twain & Stanley is a divergence, although the two men do venture together into Cuba searching for Stanley’s potential adoptive father (NOTE:  The Cuba jaunt is completely fictional, not based on any actual trip taken by the pair, although much of the book is rooted in the facts of their relationship as best could be gleaned from Hijuelos’ extensive research).  In all fairness, the author died unexpectedly before he ever submitted Twain & Stanley for publication so one can only presume that he didn’t get the chance to further shape, polish and winnow down his manuscript prior to his death.  According to his wife’s afterword, Hijuelos had been fascinated by Henry Morton Stanley since his teenage years, and the research and travel that form the underpinnings of this book were a labor of love that spanned more than twelve years.  You have to wonder though, had Hijuelos lived, would he be completely satisfied with the rambling Twain & Stanley we’re left with or would he still have some tweaking to do?

Full Disclosure: A review copy of this book was provided to me by Grand Central Publishing via NetGalley.  I would like to thank the publisher for providing me this opportunity. All opinions expressed herein are my own.

The Early Stories of Truman Capote

The Early Stories of Truman Capote

Growing up in the ‘70s, I always thought Truman Capote was an actor.  You see, I had only seen him on the multitude of talk shows (Mike Douglas, Merv Griffin, Dinah Shore, etc.) watched by my parents and grandparents, and as Lionel Twain in the movie Murder by Death.  It wasn’t until a good deal later, probably in junior high or even high school, that I realized he was far more well known as an author, and a damned good one at that evidently.

But even having been clued in to his status as a fine, fine writer for some time now, of all of his works I still have only managed to read In Cold Blood to date.  I realize I have a lot of catching up to do.

The stories collected in The Early Stories of Truman Capote are thought to have been written by Capote between the ages of 11 and 19 and, in truth, seven of the stories were actually published in his high school newspaper.  According to the book’s afterword, “Louise”, one of the seven, was awarded second place in his school’s writing contest.  Second?  You have to wonder how the winner felt years later when Capote became a literary force.  Did she (if it was a she) giggle to herself that her writing was once judged better than Truman Capote’s, or did he (if it was a he) want to crawl under a rock?

Most of these stories take place in the South of his early childhood and you can practically feel the sticky summer heat and humidity rising sinuously off the pages.  In “Mill Store”, a jaded store clerk watches picnickers fish, swim and chow down on the banks of the creek behind her workplace, remembering a moment when she had fished the stream herself and caught “two moccasins.  How she had screamed when she pulled the snakes up, twisting, flashing their slimy bodies in the sun, their poisonous, cotton mouths sunk into her hook.”  First of all, I screamed myself when I read this and the visual still gives me the shiverin’ heebie-jeebies.  Secondly, that memory becomes even more prescient when the clerk is called upon to save a young victim of snakebite.

A stubborn boy fails to heed the advice of his cagier friend and pays a deadly price for his actions in “Swamp Terror”, while the swamp is also the downfall of a desperate woman newly escaped from jail in “The Moth in the Flame”.  Two high school girls each possess their own dark secrets in “Hilda” and “Louise” and add to the sense of desolation that washes over many of these stories.

But all isn’t complete doom and gloom in these worlds the youthful Capote asks us to inhabit.  While still a tearjerker, “This Is for Jamie” is my favorite of the bunch in which a selfless eight-year-old generously brings gifts for a sick boy he’s never met and reaps the reward, proving that good things do happen to good people.  Or maybe I just like this one because there’s a dog.  I’m a sucker for dogs.  Dogs make everything better.

If you’re like me and a relative Capote rookie, I probably wouldn’t recommend The Early Stories of Truman Capote as a place to start your Tru education.  It’s not that I didn’t enjoy the collection.  I actually did.  But I don’t think it provides a newbie with anything remotely approaching a good overview of what he later produced.  As a rule, these stories lack polish (not unexpectedly) and some end so abruptly you feel like you’ve been left dangling precariously over a gaping hole.  But despite all that there’s no doubt that, even at such a young age, Capote was going to be a master at setting a stage, creating a world in which to plunk his characters down so they could take root and blossom.

Full Disclosure: A review copy of this book was provided to me by Random House Publishing Group – Random House via NetGalley. I would like to thank the publisher for providing me this opportunity. All opinions expressed herein are my own.

 

 

 

A Baker’s Dozen (Plus One) of My All-Time Favorite Books: Part II

Only two titles on the list today.  I was going to add a Lee Smith novel here as well but I ranted on so long about Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged (which is kinda funny given the reason I give below for not finishing it) and The Fountainhead that I think I’ll give Ms. Smith’s lovely little book its due in the next installment.  With that said, you’ll find two more of the BESTEST BOOKS EV-AH below.

Far Tortuga – Peter Matthiessen

Far Tortuga

If you’re familiar with Peter Matthiessen’s work, Far Tortuga may seem an odd choice for this, a list of books I’d want with me on a desert island.   He’s far better known for novels such as At Play in the Fields of the Lord and the Shadow Country trilogy, as well as nonfiction like In the Spirit of Crazy Horse.  Far Tortuga is, or was at the time, worlds apart from anything else he’d produced, a novel written almost in verse and definitely in a non-traditional format.  The sea and its Caribbean environs are characters just as important as the crew of the ill-fated turtle hunting boat, the Lillias Eden, whose last voyage is the subject of the book.  I came to Far Tortuga already a Matthiessen devotee, having discovered him along with Edward Abbey (see my Baker’s Dozen, Part I post, October 19, 2015) in my mid-twenties, and I had already read In the Spirit of Crazy Horse, The Cloud Forest, and African Silences (all nonfiction) when I picked this up for the first time.  The words on the page look and read like a prose poem, not the pedestrian paragraphs of your Average Joe of a novel, so I, not being the biggest poetry fan in the world, gave this book the big ol’ side-eye when I turned to the first page.  But I found myself drawn into the Calypso-like rhythm of the sailors’ voices (“…Speedy-Boy, you best cotch turtles one time in dis life just so you know it”) and what I thought was going to be a chore to read flows like the clear, blue Caribbean itself.

Matthiessen, along with that cantankerous Abbey, was somewhat of a hero of mine back in the day.  In addition to being an award-winning writer (he won the National Book Award three times), he was a naturalist, environmental activist, co-founder of The Paris Review, and, believe it or not, for a period of time a CIA agent!  Matthiessen and Abbey went to town on my brain in the early ‘90s as I gobbled up book after book written by the both of them, and together they imbedded into my grey matter a still-unwavering love of nature and wilderness.  I was never the same after encountering those two.  Sadly, Peter Matthiessen died last year at age 86 after a battle with cancer.  We still have his words.

The Fountainhead – Ayn Rand

The Fountainhead

And I bet you thought Atlas Shrugged was going to be my Ayn Rand choice.  Not hardly.  I have yet to finish that effin’ doorstop of a book.  It’s not that I don’t get that Atlas is supposed to be one of the greatest books ever written, and it’s not that I didn’t even like it somewhat, finding it, as I did, actually pretty relevant to some of the economic issues America is experiencing today.  It’s that, in Atlas, Rand becomes the absolute queen of belaboring the point.  Why be concise and clearly express an idea once when you can pound it into someone’s friggin’ head fifty different ways?  There’s a Dilbert comic strip that expresses my sentiments about Atlas Shrugged perfectly (I can’t reproduce it in its entirety here, but I will quote it, with many thanks to Scott Adams).  Imagine I’m Alice and Ayn Rand is Topper (at least I think it’s Topper in this particular strip):

Frame 1:          Alice:  “Excuse me, by my count, you’ve said the same thing 27 times, using different words.”

Frame 2:          Alice:  “If I can get sworn statements from everyone here that we understand your point, will you stop talking?”

Frame 3:          Topper:  “That’s mighty rude of you.”

Frame 3:           Alice:  “I don’t get your point.  Can you repeat it 26 more times?”

But, unlike Alice, I do get Rand’s point.  She told me once and I got it the first time.  Didn’t need to hear it again.  I finally gave up about two-thirds of the way through.  I’ll give it another shot sometime in the future.   After all, my relatively non-bookish Hubs finished it and liked it, and I can’t let him show me up.

But, oh yeah, I was supposed to tell you why I like The Fountainhead, which is, in my opinion, the best Ayn Rand book and one of my favorite books of ALL TIME.  It was given to me, again in my mid-twenties, by an attorney I worked for at the time who was also a good friend.  I don’t know why he thought I’d like it and I was a little perplexed when he gave it to me, but his gift was spot on.  Rand’s story is of an unconventional, Frank Lloyd Wright-ish, up-and-coming young architect, Howard Roark.  Roark is highly innovative, absolutely refusing to give in to convention with his designs, and this is the account of his fight against rivals who are threatened by his genius and will try destroy his reputation at all costs.  His unwillingness to cave in the face of the interminable obstacles that he faces in his rise to the top of his profession is pretty damned admirable.  Believe me, his enemies throw everything AND the kitchen sink at him trying to bring him down.

You know, I really can’t pinpoint exactly why I like this book so much.  It’s about architecture, which doesn’t exactly blow my skirt up.  I know an ugly building when I see one, but other than that, my knowledge and interest in the subject goes about as far as Frank Lloyd Wright.  And who doesn’t know Frank Lloyd Wright?

It’s a book I don’t think I would have picked up on my own at the time (or maybe even now), but since it was given to me I felt obligated to read it and then, all of a sudden, I couldn’t get my sniffly, allergy-ridden nose out of it.  It is very dramatic, with lots of tension and teeth-gnashing, and I think it just comes down to the fact that Ayn Rand wrote an epic potboiler of a novel.  In any event, along with Far Tortuga, it’s time for a re-read.

Part III of the Dozen is in the offing, and I suspect it will have strong whiff of Southern Lit to it (smells like magnolias, ya’ll) as well as a little dab of fantasy.  Adios, peeps!

Lynn Cullen’s Twain’s End

Twain's End

Who knew Mark Twain was such an ass?  According to Lynn Cullen’s Twain’s End he was a nasty, bitter old man, and now my perfect little Twain bubble has been burst.  I love Mark Twain – Huck Finn, Tom Sawyer, The Innocents Abroad, Life on the Mississippi – all classics that I’ve read, and sometimes re-read.  No one disputes his status as one of this country’s literary greats.  He was even pretty hot as a younger man (think Tom Selleck in his Magnum, P.I. days).  Not that I’ve got a thing for dead guys, but still.  Mark Twain has always been on a pedestal, unassailable in my mind, and now I might have to rethink this relationship!  But seriously, I do get it that just because the man was an American icon doesn’t mean he was a good person to boot.

 Twain’s End chronicles the relationship between Mark Twain and his personal secretary of many years, Isabel Lyon, and while reading, I had to constantly remind myself that this was a fictionalized account, not necessarily a true telling.  Although written in the third person, the story is told mainly from Lyon’s point of view and Cullen is definitely sympathetic to her.  I’m not sure I was though, but neither was I rooting for Twain.  The relationship between Samuel Clemens and Isabel Lyon was almost certainly more than that of employer/employee, with the two becoming especially close after the death of Clemens’s wife.  Lyon occupied a bedroom adjacent to Clemens’s in his home in Redding, Connecticut even though he had provided her with a residence (oddly referred to as The Lobster Pot) located on his property, and she referred to him incessantly as “the King” or “my King” (with a capital K no less – creeeeepppppyyyyy!)  WTF?  I detect an unhealthy case of hero worship (to put it mildly) here.

Clemens is drawn as a deeply troubled, boorish, egotistical man without much concern or care for the feelings of others, including his own family.  He spends most of his time parading around as Mark Twain (partly to satisfy his fawning public and partly, I suspect, to feed his own massive ego), the bigger-than-life caricature that his fans, and a surprising number of his “friends”, expected to encounter.  Unfortunately, Mark Twain tended to steal the show from Sam Clemens, and as a result, his family and others suffered for it.

Twain sacked Lyon not long after her marriage to Ralph Ashcroft, Twain’s business manager (he fired Ashcroft as well).  Although the marriage was initially blessed by Twain, he ultimately accused Isabel of trying to steal from him and of being a “filthy-minded and salacious slut.”  To back his play and to keep her from speaking out against him, Twain penned a 400-plus page diatribe outlining all of her supposed transgressions.  Tell us what you really think, Mark (or Sam, or whatever you think we should call you).

All of this ugliness really occurred and it’s no spoiler to clue you in on these facts here:  Lynn Cullen reveals the dust-up at the beginning of her book.  Cullen did her research and most of the book is built around and recalls actual events (trips, meetings with celebrities, etc.) that happened among Clemens, Lyon, his wife, his daughters (Clara Clemens in particular, and also seemingly not a very nice person), and others.  Cullen admits she relied heavily on Isabel Lyon’s own diary for her facts so you can’t help but wonder if this might have slung the book too far in Lyon’s favor.  That said, and even though I have yet to read Twain’s own autobiography (Volume One of which was published for the first time in 2010, 100 years after Twain’s death per his wishes), I understand from various reviews that the autobiography tends to back up the fictional account portrayed here.

I enjoyed this book for the most part, being a fan of historical fiction and all, but I have to emphasize again that it reads like a non-fiction report of Twain’s later years, or like Lyon’s memoir (albeit in the third-person) had she actually written it.  You may find yourself taking it as the gospel.

Full Disclosure: A review copy of this book was provided to me by Gallery Books via NetGalley.  I would like to thank the publisher for providing me this opportunity. All opinions expressed herein are my own.

A Grand Slam . . . and I Ain’t Talkin’ About the World Series!

Over a year ago, I made plans with a close friend to attend the 2015 Breeders’ Cup World Championships at Keeneland, one of America’s most storied and sublimely beautiful horse racing venues.  Little did I know then that I would be witnessing history on a steel-grey, autumn day in October.

Thirteen times since Affirmed won the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness Stakes and the Belmont Stakes in 1978 had a horse taken us into the final leg of the Triple Crown with the hopes of a nation astride him, only to be beaten in that grueling mile-and-a-half test of endurance that is Belmont.  Many folks (most notably, California Chrome owner Steve Coburn in his 2014 post-Belmont rant) thought there would never be another Triple Crown winner, at least not in their lifetimes.  However, between that day in March when I purchased our Breeders’ Cup tickets and a week ago Saturday when I stepped onto the Keeneland grounds, something happened that the horse racing industry, and the entire country for that matter, had been anticipating for 37 long, seemingly hopeless years:  American Pharoah, an unassuming-looking, bay 3-year-old colt won the Triple Crown.

(Yeah, I took this photo!  Me!)
(Yeah, I took this photo!  Me!  Ears up!)

Unassuming, that is, until you saw him run.  Never have I seen a horse run so smoothly, so effortlessly, making it look fun and running with his ears up, a sign all horse people know means that horse is enjoying the hell out of himself!  Pharoah makes the others look like they have to fight for every step while he’s out front on the lead, good-bye, sayonara, catch ya later!  He won on every surface, in every condition, at every length from 7 furlongs to a mile and a half.  In what I think might be the coolest looking race he won (although definitely not against the strongest field he ever faced), he bested the rest of the bunch in the 1 1/16 mile Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn Park, leading it wire to wire again with his ears up almost the entire way, leaving the other contenders in the final furlong to trounce them by 6 ¼ lengths in the slop!  And jockey Victor Espinoza never even went to the whip!

Only twice going into the October 31 Breeders’ Cup Classic was Pharoah ever beaten:  Once in his first race as a 2-year-old and then again on August 29 in the Travers at Saratoga, a race that came after a 3-year-old season having, up to that point, consisted of two Derby prep races, the punishing Triple Crown campaign and the Haskell Invitational a few weeks earlier in August.  Is it any wonder the horse was pooped going into the Travers, especially when you also take into account the cross-country shipping he endured almost every time he raced? And he still ran a gallant second even then.

A horse like Pharoah runs like he does because he’s bred to do it and he’s bred to love it, and love it he does.  Watch his body language:  Does this horse look like he’s being forced to do something he doesn’t care for?  Horses, all of them, not just Pharoah, are bigger and stronger than us.  They don’t have to do what we ask of them.  If they only knew, they could take charge and tell us humans to take a hike.  Yet they don’t (or at least most of them don’t).  They readily submit to what we ask of them, and a true horseman, one who respects his or her four-legged partner, doesn’t ask more than the horse can give.  Both horse and rider feed off of the bond of trust that’s established between the two.  It’s hard, maybe even impossible, for a non-horseperson to understand.  But because I do understand it, and experience it on a regular basis with my two American Saddlebreds, it makes what American Pharaoh has accomplished even more incredible to me than the average layperson may ever be able to comprehend.

So after Pharoah’s history-making win in the Belmont Stakes, it hit me that possibly, quite possibly, if the stars aligned just right and Pharoah stayed healthy and sound, I was actually going to witness a Triple Crown winner in the flesh come Breeders’ Cup time in October.  But he’s just a horse one might say.  A word of advice:  Don’t ever say those words to a horse owner.  A horse is never just a horse, and this horse in particular is beyond special.

We got up before daybreak on Thursday, October 29, in hopes of seeing Pharoah work on the Keeneland main track.  I had a blistering migraine but that didn’t matter.  I was going to see Pharoah close-up if it killed me.  It had rained the day before and Pharoah’s trainer, Bob Baffert, had then decided to hand-walk him under tack in the shed row instead of taking him to the track, so the anticipation was high that he would make an appearance Thursday morning.  Although the rain had moved on, the main track was still sloppy when we arrived at 6:15 a.m. along with several hundred other folks who also wanted to catch a glimpse.  We waited about two and a half hours with no Pharoah, although we got to see plenty of other Breeders’ Cup contenders exercise.

About thirty minutes before the track was scheduled to close for the morning, the PA announcer oh-so-politely let us know that Pharoah’s connections had determined the main track was still too sloppy.  It had been decided that the mighty Pharoah was going to work on Keeneland’s synthetic training track instead.  At that, we all bolted the quarter-mile down the hill to wrestle for a good spot on the training track rail.  You ever tried to run that far with a migraine?  It ain’t easy, peeps, but I did it.

We waited about another 10 minutes and then here he came, down the hill at the far end of the track, in the company of his sidekick and stable pony, Smokey.  They traveled clockwise about halfway down the backstretch and disappeared behind some trees.  And then . . .a bay streak came flying from behind the tree cover and he was on his way towards us . . . fast!  Finally, I was watching Pharoah run with my own eyes and it was beautiful.

He made three circuits of the training track and then his exercise rider pulled him up just to our right.  He turned and trotted by us one last time about 20 feet away . . . and then he was gone.  It was enough.

(Yeah, I took this one too!)
(Yeah, I took this one too!)

I love horse racing, but it does have a dark side, one that I sometimes struggle with, being a fan of the sport but also being an animal lover.  That’s another topic for another blog post however, and on this weekend, I just hoped to be lucky enough to witness history.  Importantly though, as far as the Breeders’ Cup Classic was concerned, yes, I wanted to see Pharoah race and yes, I wanted him to win, but more than anything I just wanted Pharoah and all of the other horses running to come out of the race safe and sound.  I got my wish.

Having attended the Breeders’ Cup in 2010 when Zenyatta ran (and sadly, lost) her last race, I knew there would be no getting near the paddock to see American Pharoah during saddling for the Classic, so we contented ourselves with waiting for his appearance on the track in the post parade.  Nervous is an understatement as to how I felt when he emerged from the tunnel, and I said a little prayer for everyone’s safety.  Post parade completed, they loaded the contenders into the gate and they were off!  Victor Espinoza sent Pharoah straight to the front and when they came by us the first time, he had his ears up yet again.  Our seats were such that we could see the entire track, backstretch and all, and for most of the race, his ears never wavered.  Pharoah opened up a little lead on the other horses and everyone settled in.  As they neared the end of the backstretch, the field started to come to Pharoah a little bit and I began to get worried.  Silly me, I forgot Pharoah’s and Espinoza’s M.O.:  Espinoza hadn’t even asked his horse for anything yet.  As they came around the final turn, he did . . . and Pharoah opened up!

Just like that American Pharoah and Victor Espinoza came down the homestretch for the final time, this time right in front of me, widening the gap and winning the Breeders’ Cup Classic by a dominating 6 ½ lengths.  Needless to say, no other horse was even closing at the finish.  I know it’s cliché, but I did have chills, chills on top of chills.  I cried, we screamed, we hugged strangers, strangers hugged us back.  And on that day, the last Saturday in October 2015, I, and 50,000 of my closest friends, witnessed a horse do something no other horse has ever done in the history of this great world, something that had to be given a new name:  American Pharoah had won the Grand Slam of horse racing.  It was enough.

(POSTSCRIPT:  In a bit of coincidence, or serendipity, or whatever you want to call it, American Pharoah now resides at Ashford Stud in Versailles, Ky. in a stall formerly occupied by a now-deceased stallion who previously stood there.  The stallion’s name:  Grand Slam.)