Monday, February 15, 2010

Horse Racing Mysteries by John McEvoy

The latest issue of the Mystery Readers Journal focused on Sports Mysteries. John McEvoy wrote an essay on Horse Racing Mysteries that is can be read at our online addendum. I thought I should reprint it here on Mystery Fanfare for lovers of the sport, especially in light of Dick Francis's passing yesterday. John McEvoy is the author of four horse-racing thrillers, five non-fiction books, and a book of poetry. He and his wife Judy live in Evanston, Illinois.

John McEvoy:

One of the features of what my parents considered my misspent youth was learning about the sport of thoroughbred racing and how to bet on horses at a bookie joint in my hometown of Kenosha, Wis. A buddy and I would finish our baseball games in the summer league for teenagers, then sneak down the dark stairway of a downtown office building into a basement pool room/horse room known as “The Hole.” There, under the permissive eye and occasional guidance of the owner and his adult clientele, we gained valuable knowledge regarding odds, past performances, parlays, round robins, bad beats, how to lose with at least some semblance of grace, and how to win without gloating too irritatingly. You could bet as little as 50 cents. The proprietor, a one-time Major League baseball player, did not see himself contributing to delinquency by tolerating our youthful presence. Far from it. “You gotta water the seedlings,” he often said, “so they can grow into full-fledged suckers.”

I can’t look back at my educational background and find any experience more instructive, or with cheaper tuition.

A year or two later, when we had driver’s licenses, my buddy and I headed south on summer afternoons to Arlington Park in nearby Illinois. An epiphany occurred. We realized that there was nothing more exciting than seeing your picks perform in person. We were hooked for life on the sight of these beautiful competitions. The sport of racing had captured us.

As Dick Francis firmly established years ago, thoroughbred horse racing is replete with mystery possibilities. The tremendous commercial success of Francis’s efforts lured many writers into this field, both in the United States (William Murray, Kit Ehrman, Stephen Dobbins, etc.) and the United Kingdom (John Francome, Lyndon Stacey, etc).

Racing is fertile ground for fertile imaginations for many reasons. Perhaps major among them is the microcosm of the world that racing is, with its very wealthy owners and breeders at the top of the economic scale, its poorly paid track workers at the bottom, and a vast middle class striving for success. Competition can be ferocious. As the great racing columnist Joe Palmer put it, “The professional horseman is a thorough individualist. He has to be, for his hand is against every man, and every man’s hand is against him.”

That horses are athletes is obvious to anyone who has ever seen one in motion. What is less well known by the general public is the strength, superior reflexes, and courage brought to the sport by jockeys. They are the only professional group I know of that, when going about their work aboard these l,000 pound animals that speed along at 40 miles an hour, are followed by an ambulance. Every race. And for good reason. Since 1940, when these records began to be kept in the U. S., 150 jockeys have died as a result of racing accidents. The most recent was Mark Pace, killed in October, 2009 at Blue

Ribbon Downs in Oklahoma. The current list of “permanently disabled” jockeys, many wheelchair- bound, measures 55.

As to the riders’ athleticism: there was a study conducted many years ago by the renowned California physician Dr.Robert Kerlan. One August, Dr. Kerlan brought America’s leading jockey to the training camp of the Los Angeles Rams professional football team. Bill Shoemaker (a very good amateur boxer in his youth) measured 4”11 and weighed between 95 and 100 pounds as he had for most of his terrific career that saw him win an astounding 8,833 races. Shoemaker was an excellent golfer and tennis player as well. Kerlan put all the football players and Shoemaker through the same testing drills—for agility, strength, reaction time, sprints. His conclusion: little Bill was, pound for pound and inch for inch, the best athlete of them all. “Shoe,” as he was known, won the world’s most famous horse race, the Kentucky Derby, four times.

My involvement with the sport began in 1953. It was the young age of television. One of the media’s athletic stars was a horse named Native Dancer, who seemed to be on every other Saturday afternoon winning races. He won 19 of them, only losing the Kentucky Derby in a photo. He intrigued me.

After a few years in daily journalism, and three years teaching college English, I went to work for “Daily Racing Form,” known as the Bible of horse racing. That stint covered more than three decades. In 2000, I wrote a non-fiction book called “Great Horse Racing Mysteries.” It won a Benjamin Franklin Award. Three other non-fiction efforts followed. Then, in 2004, Poisoned Pen Press published my first racing crime novel, “Blind Switch;” which involved horses being killed for their insurance values. My second novel, “Riders Down,” has as its villain a brilliant sociopath and serial killer who fixed races; it won another Franklin Award. “Close Call” followed in 2008. In it an Irish bookmaker attempts to forcibly take control of a Chicago area racetrack. In April 2010 will come my fourth racing thriller “The Significant Seven” from Poisoned Pen.
“Great Horse Racing Mysteries—True Tales From the Track” covered a dozen cases. They included the mysterious death of the Australian “wonder horse” Phar Lap in northern California, the deadly shooting of her horse-owning husband by a wealthy Eastern woman, the bridge-jumping suicide of America’s leading trainer after he had saddled a winner, the still unexplained 1948 disappearance of a leading jockey and his friends from a fishing boat off the Florida Keys, the theft in Ireland of the equine national hero Shergar.

The plots in my novels are sometimes suggested by real incidents, others by incidents that could have been real, considering the elements of intrigue that permeate racing. Although there is far more provable chicanery in banking and the stock market than in this sport, racing has the reputation as a haven for shady characters. What major enterprise involving money does not? But racing, as a source of important revenue to states and municipalities, is stringently policed. Jockeys step on the scales under the eye of an official before and after each race to insure their mounts carry the assigned weight. Winning horses and losing favorites have their blood and/or urine tested by chemists for illegal drugs. This applies to every one of the thousands of the races conducted each year in this country.

Any enterprise featuring fierce competition, major money, and sometimes jealous rivals, contains possibilities for mystery fiction. Some of my fiction was suggested to me by real happenings. Most of it is the product of my imagination. And that’s the fun we have, we racing novelists.


Keith Raffel said...

Terrific piece, John. One more unsolved mystery for us Northern Californians -- the disappearance of one-time leading jockey Ron Hansen. Also, one more horse racing mystery to add to your list: the wonderful Doubting Thomas by Robert Reeves, currently head of SUNY Southampton's writing program.

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