According to the itinerary for the Smithsonian Tour entitled Classic Mystery Lover’s England, this activity is scheduled for October 20:
Step into a Dick Francis mystery during a morning focused on horse racing. Witness a display of strength and discipline during the morning “gallops” and view these fine race horses up close at the stable. Over coffee with the trainer, take an in-depth look at the culture of horseracing in the Cotswolds, described in Francis’ novels, from his first, Dead Cert, to the most recent, Under Orders.*
Ron and I took this tour in 2006. At the time, we weren’t sure that this particular excursion would prove to be worthwhile. After all, we were not actually going to meet Dick Francis…
In the event, this visit turned out to be one of the highlights of the trip. We got to the stables early in the morning, when the horses are first taken out to be exercised. The Downs were enveloped in a fine mist, which gradually cleared as the sun grew warmer. Two of the stable’s employees took obvious pleasure in showing us around and answering our questions. A small dog – a Jack Russell terrier, I believe – was delighted to have such a large company of amiable humans on hand and darted back and forth among us.
In the chill air of morning, you could see the horses’ breath. They were beautiful animals.
Dead Cert (1962) was featured on the reading list prepared for out trip. Although I have long been a reader of Dick Francis’s books, I had never read this one, the author’s first, and was afraid it would come across as dated. My reservations turned out to be completely unfounded. Dead Cert was a joy to read: the character were engaging, as was the racing lore. The plot moved at lightning speed, like – well, like a steeplechase jockey and his mount headed confidently for a first place finish.**
Dick Francis was born in Wales in 1920. Prior to the First World War, his father had been a steeplechase jockey; after the war, he managed the W.H. Smith Stables in Maidenhead (Berkshire, England). Immersed from childhood in a world of horses and racing, Dick Francis became devoted to that world. It was an ardor born early and destined, in the coming years, to increase in intensity. He left school at the age of fifteen to pursue his own dream of become a jockey. The rest, as they say, is history; you can read about that history here.
My own interest in horse racing was bequeathed to me by my father. When we were kids, he used to spend his Saturdays at the track. (In the way of children, I assumed at the time that this was what everyone’s Dad did on weekends.) These weekly excursions were his chief means of escape from the pressures of work. When Dick Francis began writing his novels of the racing world, my Dad was pleased to discover them. I like to picture the two of them encountering each other in the hereafter. If you see my Dad, Mr. Francis, be sure to greet him warmly. In later years, he was a great fan of yours.
*This needs updating. As of now, the latest novel is Easy Money (2009), co-authored with Francis’s son Felix. Crossfire is due out in August of this year.
**The early 1960s were pivotal years for British crime fiction. Like Dead Cert, Cover Her Face, P.D. James’s first entry in her acclaimed Adam Dalgliesh series, came out in 1962. Ruth Rendell brought out the first Wexford novel, From Doon with Death, two years later.
The ponies look like something out of a fairy story; they seem by their very existence to confer a blessing.
Having written about this year’s Kentucky Derby, I now feel I should say something about the Preakness. This race does, after all, take place at Pimlico Racetrack*, a Baltimore venue which I have frequently driven past. (But have I ever attended the races there? Don’t think so, and can’t say why not…)
It’s hard not to be stirred by Big Brown’s stellar performance. (That’s him, in the above picture.) Here’s John Scheinman of the Washington Post:” With the jockeys on Racecar Rhapsody [love that name!], Stevil, Hey Byrn and others pushing mightily to keep up. Kent Desormeaux shook his reins at Big Brown and got a response rarely seen in horse racing.”
I love the excitement of the announcer as he proclaims that “Kent Desormeaux looked in the rear view mirror and nobody was there!”
And yet…think of the pressure now being brought to bear on this magnificent animal, his jockey, and his trainer. After the tragedy of Eight Belles at the Derby, the anxiety is palpable.
The last Triple Crown winner was Affirmed in 1978. He was the third horse in that decade to gain thoroughbred racing’s greatest prize. Seattle Slew won in 1977; he was preceded by the great Secretariat in 1973. Before that, no horse had won all three races since Citation in 1948. (Click here for a complete list of Triple Crown Winners.)
My parents frequently attended the Belmont Stakes and occasionally traveled to Baltimore for the Preakness. They had never been to the Kentucky Derby. In 1973, Dad said, “Lil, let’s go to all three races. They’ve got a real winner this time.” And so it proved. I still remember my mother describing the near-hysteria in the grandstand and the clubhouse as Secretariat galloped toward the finish line. Many of the spectators were in tears.
The next day’s headline in the New York Times, if I remember correctly, was “Thirty-one Lengths to Immortality.” Talk about seeing no one in the rear view mirror!
The Belmont takes place on June 7. We wish Big Brown well. No – let me broaden that: We wish all the participants well, both equine and human.
*This interesting, rather poignant article appeared recently in the Washington Post. It seems that some of the stable hands at Pimlico live in small rooms in the training stables. The accommodations, though austere, are rent free. Darryl Scott, one of the residents, says, “I could make more money doing something else, but if you love horses the way I do, you’re going to stay.”
Horse racing is the only sport I care about. This interest is a legacy bequeathed to me by my Dad, who went to the track religiously every Saturday. (This led me as a child to believe that everyone’s father worshipped at the shrine of Belmont, Flamingo Park, Hialeah Raceway, etc. etc.)
So yesterday, we watched the Kentucky Derby and witnessed the triumph of Big Brown and the simultaneous tragedy of Eight Belles. Veterinarian Larry Bramlage called the breakdown of Eight Belles “almost inexplicable,” but according to Sally Jenkins’s angry hit-’em-where-they-live opinion piece in today’s Washington Post, it was anything but.
Since leading a discussion of The Professor’s House, I’ve been needing more Willa Cather in my life. Recently I listened to a wonderful reading by Barbara McCulloh of O Pioneers. Then last night we watched the Hallmark Hall of Fame production made in 1992 and starring Jessica Lange and David Strathairn. It was, quite simply, outstanding.
O Pioneers is the story of Alexandra Bergson and her family, immigrants who came to America in the late 19th century in order to farm the rich, open prairie lands of Nebraska. The Bergsons are Swedish, but they count the French and Bohemians among their friends and neighbors. This is a tale of struggle, conflict, sorrow, and ultimately, endurance. The film brings Cather’s story vividly to life: it is beautifully acted and visually very compelling. The drama is abetted by Bruce Broughton’s surging soundtrack- maybe too surging, in some spots? – but never mind; it was great, too, Mr Broughton seems to have channeled Aaron Copland in this magisterial score, for which, BTW, he won an Emmy.
O Pioneers was shot entirely on location in the Cornhusker State. There’s plenty of “waving wheat” – the place looked gorgeous! If you have a chance to see the film, watch for the scene in which several dozen young men on horseback ride out to meet the bishop. They have come to receive his blessing and escort him safely back to their church, where is to officiate at a funeral. It is a deeply stirring sequence.
There is much great writing in the novel. I was really pleased that the film included this sentence: “The history of every country begins in the heart of a man or a woman.”
And speaking of terrific writing…
I continue to make my way, slowly and carefully, through The Age of American Unreason. Susan Jacoby’s erudite book – is it a treatise? a jeremiad, perhaps? A polemic? – demands close and careful reading, filled as it is with history, philosophy, and portraits of fascinating – and often infuriating – people.
Anyway, in order to describe certain metaphysical theories, such as social Darwinism, that fly in the face of actual facts, she came up with a phrase that I just love: “bloviating arrogance.” From now on, I shall have my antennae attuned to pick up signs of bloviating arrogance in everyday life. Something tells me I won’t have to look far!