Friday, May 29, 2009

Spring Comes Riding
Betty Cavanna, il. Beth Krush
The Westminster Press, 1950

When she first saw him, Meg was standing alone.

It's September when the novel opens, and Meg Sanderson is a senior in high school, living an idyllic life on a small gentleman's farm in suburban Philadelphia, near the fabulously named town of King of Prussia. Her father is a fiction editor for a Philadelphia publisher, her mother and four sisters are avid equestrians who spend every waking moment riding and taking care of their four horses, and Meg - is tired of it. Tired of being just one more red-headed Sanderson girl who rides, who appears at local shows and acquits herself well, of the press of the sizable family in their shabby-classy old farmhouse, of the labor of caring for a small stable of horses.

Her first rebellion is to sit out the local horse show, while her sisters participate as usual, but she begins to regret her decision when she falls in love for the first time, violently and illogically, with a boy she glimpses riding in the show. Alan Randolph is riding a fidgety young palomino named Romance and Meg is aware, sharply, how very appealing she finds that little coincidence. When Alan comes around looking for a place to board Romance, Meg changes her mind quickly about how tired she is of barn work. But her flirty, femininely overwhelming older sister Joanna has already made a conquest, leaving Meg to fume while Joanna idly adds Alan to her string of dates. The tables turn when Meg takes Joanna's place at a major social event, the Naval Academy Hop in Annapolis, where Meg begins to find herself a place in a world where she's not automatically the person she is at home.

In the brief span from September to Christmas, Meg learns to stand outside her family, finds the confidence to act naturally for better or for worse instead of mimicing her suave older sister, and discovers new things about herself and her family.

Then, with a shocking wisdom beyond her years, Meg realized that Joanna could, and would, do this or anything else that would help her to gain her own ends. Joanna, her own sister, had a ruthlessness that would never yield to sensitivity or pity. A ruthlessness that she, Meg, couldn't ever hope to fight.

Most importantly, from the point-of-view of someone reading with an eye to the horsey plot, Meg progresses from a girl who finds horses interesting but takes them largely for granted to someone in love with a horse. Of course, it helps that she's in love with his owner, and this plot point could easily be read as an echo of her affection for Alan.

It was new to Meg to feel a definite affinity for a horse... And the strangest thing of all was that she felt she needed Romance, needed his animal affection as some girls seem to need a dog's.

But beside that, there's a glimpse of the Devon show grounds, a foxhunting scene, and various other horsey moments in the very East Coast style of everyone being casual country folk who ride well and have impressive professional jobs elsewhere in the city. Meg begins the book not very interested in horses or riding, and ends it much more alive to and in tune with horses, and the action reflects this, going from rather distant descriptions of a horse show to much more intense scenes at a foxhunt.

In summary, not so much a horsey book as a coming-of-age novel with a nice horsey background and plot. Although it's nearly 60 years old, it's not too dated because it focuses so much on Meg's personal struggle with herself. She's a very strong character; I was reminded of all the horsey books, particularly the modern ones, where the heroine is baffled and condemnatory of a fellow rider who isn't 110% into horses, while this old book has a heroine whose loss of interest is believable and sympathetic. The revelation about her sister comes late and is never 'satisfied,' Meg doesn't denounce her or run away or never speak to her again - she just realizes something and goes on.

Tinka - mother's mare
Firefly - shetland pony
Silver - grey gelding
Beau - chestnut gelding
Romance - Alan's palomino

About the illustrator
Beth Krush and her husband, fellow illustrator Joe Krush, lived in Wayne, Pennsylvania and often worked together. Joe, like Cavanna, was born in Camden, while Krush taught at Moore College of Art for many years.

The Malt Shop
The de Grummond Collection
Children's Literature Research Collection at the University of Minnesota (Beth Kush)
Children's Literature Research Collection at the University of Minnesota (Joe Kush)
Moore College of Art & Design

Friday, May 22, 2009

A Girl And Five Brave Horses (Sonora Carter, 1961)

It's Memorial Day weekend, and the kickoff to summer. In honor of the summer season, here's a horsie memoir from the heyday of Atlantic City, that faded queen of American shore resorts.

A Girl And Five Brave Horses
Sonora Carter, as told to Elizabeth Land
1961, Doubleday & Company

Wanted: Attractive young woman who can swim and dive. Likes horses, desires to travel.

It is 1932, and Sonora is a young high school dropout working her first job in Savanah, Georgia, when her flighty mother shows her this newspaper ad and urges her to take the job. At first unenthusiastic, Sonora falls in love with the diving horse act after attending a showing.

To my everlasting memory I saw she was dapple-gray, her forequarters wholly white, her flanks heavily marbled with gray. She had a white mane, which was flung to one side, and a white tail like a plume to the flow, and she looked as proud as any duchess, yet full of strength and power. I might have guessed, had I not already known, that her name was the Duchess of Lightning. I, who had loved horses since I was old enough to know what they were, was completely spellbound. I thought she was the most beautiful animal I had ever seen in my life or was ever likely to see.

Sonora joins the act and falls in love with diving, with the thrill and freedom of plunging through space. That addiction carries her through her rough training, and the eccentricities of her first boss. She learns how to ride the easiest dive, the extreme plunge, aboard the chestnut Thoroughbred Klatawah:

Klatawah's hoofs hit the ramp with a crash. The whole tower vibrated and shook as he rushed up at me, and I knew in a split second he would be going past. Then he was there and I grabbed for the harness and swung myself into place.... Finally, however, he gave the audience one last look, then he clattered down onto the kickoff board with an almost running motion and immediately kicked off. I felt his muscles tense as his big body sprang out and down, and then had an entirely new feeling. It was a wild, almost primitive thrill that comes only with complete freedom of contact with the earth. Then I saw the water rushing up at me, and the next moment we were in the tank.

The act undergoes various changes, including the tragic loss of Lightning in the Pacific, and Sonora falls for a replacement, a paint gelding they name Red Lips and who proves instantly successful at diving. It will be aboard Red Lips, who tends to the dramatic, hard-to-ride nosedive, that Sonora's face hits the water hard cause enough damage to her eyes. Blind, and depressed, she continues with the act (by now, she's fallen in love with and married the boss) and eventually returns to diving, although now she must do everything by sound. This continues for 11 years; the act eventually ends in 1942, as gasoline restrictions and a lack of manpower overwhelm Sonora and her husband.

The narrative is quick and clear, with helpful descriptions of the human and horse training, and an insight into the life of the performers on the famous Steel Pier. In one riveting scene, a blind Sonora is a witness to a tragic accident during an aerial act, where the rigging comes apart. The narrator's love for the horses comes through strongly, as does her enjoyment of the power and thrill of plunging through the air, a temporary Pegasus.

Of course, the diving horse act was always controversial - the idea of setting a horse up to fall 40 feet just sounds bad. Sonora comments that the ASPCA sometimes came around to examine the horses, and always found them in excellent health. It is worth remembering that the diving act originated in and largely died after a now departed era. In 1932, most children still suffered chilblains every winter. Everyone who knows what a chilblain is, raise their hand. It was a harder era, one where horses were much more commonly used and undoubtedly, abused. That doesn't mean that the diving horse act was humane, simply that it probably didn't look so bad at the time. Second, Sonora maintains that the horses were not forced to jump. At most, in preliminary training, they were encouraged by longe lines and ropes. Some weren't any good at it, and one developed dangerous habits - lack of willingness and unfortunate creativity both disqualified a horse. In the black-and-white photos included in the book, it's clear that the horses wear no bridles during the dives, only a harness that the rider clings to, and in one case, what looks like a crupper. The rider is wearing a bathing suit and carries no crop or whip.

Training is a length process, taking weeks and sometimes months, during which a horse progresses from the low tower to the high just as a rider does. In the beginning a lead rope is put on the horse, attached to his diving harness and long enough to reach out to the front of the tank. Here the trainer takes his position, coaxing the horse to come off the twelve-foot tower and dive into the tank. This he does by tugging gently and constantly urging in a calm, sure voice. Sometimes a horse simply refuses to be budged by the tugs or the voice, and if he continues to do so over a reasonable length of time, all efforts are abandoned and he is sold.

Klatawah - chestnut sorrel Thoroughbred gelding, 1250lbs, perfect conformation
John the Baptist - light brown gelding with roan spots, almost roan ears, 1400lbs
The Duchess of Lightning - grey mare
Snowy - grey mare
Judas - white gelding with roan ears and roan spots
Apollo - buckskin gelding who didn't work out
Red Lips - brown and white paint gelding with blue eyes
Silver King - former horse
Powder Face - former horse

Other animals
King Tut - turtle

Steel Pier with video and pics of the diving horse show
Various acts on the Steel Pier, horse act at the end

Related Books and Movies
There was, of course, a film based on this book, 1991's Wild Hearts Can't Be Broken, which Carter didn't particularly like (understandable, as it discarded 99% of the actual story for a fiction that was not more film-friendly but was inferior; predictable and flattened . There is also a children's book based on the diving horses, Girl On The High-Diving Horse by Linda Oatman High (2005). And Patsey Gray wrote a fiction book on the topic, 1960's Diving Horse.

Wild Hearts Can't Be Broken at IMDB
The Girl On The High-Diving Horse at Amazon
Diving Horse at Amazon

About the Author
Sonora Webster Carter was born in 1904 and died in 2003 at the age of 99. Her obituary ran in the New York Times.

Devon!!!! (May 21-May 30)

And this year the weather promises to be cooler and clearer than usual (annual ritual: peer up at the rapidly blackening sky from beneath the sky-blue roof of the grandstand and groan) This is Junior Weekend; the regular hunter divisions start on Monday. And on Tuesday, there are tours of the barns! I've always wanted to do this, but usually by 3pm, there's a godawful thunderstorm crashing down and I'm cowering in the ladies room (which is hysterically pretty, btw; potpouri at a horse show!) Maybe this is the year!

Tuesday, May 26, 3:00 - 6:00 p.m. (ongoing) Back Barn Tour.
Go "behind-the-scenes" and visit some of the most interesting areas of the Show. Look through a barn, or tour an equine ambulance, all the while learning about Devon and its history. Meet for this walking tour under the tent behind the Pavilion (across from the Garden Café). Free

Devon links

The Devon Horse Show
The Devon Blog

Coming later next week - photos and a review of a Devon-related kid book, Spurs For Suzanna.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Rachel Alexandra to run in Saturday's Preakness Stakes!

And she's the favorite. How great is this? After a Kentucky Oaks dominated by Rachel Alexandra and a Kentucky Derby stolen by an outta nowhere run by Mine That Bird, we get a Preakness that promises more excitement. Rachel Alexandra's regular jockey, Calvin Borel, having committed to the filly before taking on Mine That Bird, will ride the filly instead of the Derby winner. Mike Smith will ride Mine That Bird. And the forecast for Friday and Saturday for Baltimore is thunderstorms and rain, so Mine That Bird may be very comfortable with the going again.

There are depressing stories aplenty surrounding the Preakness; the fate of the racetrack itself is uncertain, there were unattractive stories of an attempt by Mine That Bird's owner to get the filly bumped from the race, and the whole spectre of ZZ Top and beach volleyball in the infield trashfest. But forget it all and watch the filly run.

Television coverage begins at 4:30 on NBC, following a one-hour special about this year's Rolex 3-Day Event. The network won a media award last year for its coverage of the Preakness in the wake of both the breakdown and death of Derby runner-up Eight Belles and steroid controversy about Derby winner Big Brown.

News Stories
Rachel Wears The Bullseye - ESPN
Rachel Alexadra Adds Girl Power To The Preakness - AP
A discussion of Rachel Alexandra's pedigree - Paulick Report
Can Mine That Bird Repeat His Derby Run? - Philadelphia Daily News
Preakness Future Clouded By Bankruptcy - Baltimore Sun
Mine That Bird Owner Mark Allen Won't block Rachel Alexandra's Preakness Bid - Fox Sports


The Preakness home

Odds and ends about the Preakness and its racetrack, Pimlico:
It was run for 15 years in Brooklyn (1894-1909)
The first winner was named Survivor
Pimlico was where the 1938 match race between Seabiscuit and War Admiral took place.

And a past winner:
Sir Barton at the 1919 Preakness Stakes. The first winner of the Triple Crown, he won it in slightly more than a month but his reputation suffered inevitably due to his contemporary, Man O'War, and a largely unspectacular record as a sire. He ended his life as a ranch horse in Wyoming, where he was buried.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Salute - C.W. Anderson (1940)

C.W. Anderson, author and illustrator
1940, The Macmillan Company

Peter is a small boy living on a farm in New York state when the famous racehorse War Admiral comes to nearby Saratoga for a race. Peter adores Thoroughbreds, having read all the stories of Man O'War and Exterminator, and he longs to see the race. When his father takes him, he gets more than he bargained for when he becomes the owner of a broken-down racehorse.

Gorgeously fantastic story where a little boy with almost no riding experience rides and rehabs a former racehorse. Lovely illustrations, dreamy story of a child's dream come true, with enough details to make it convincing. Perfectly suited to a child, with enough truth to make it attractive to an adult. For instance, the trainer who gave Peter his horse tells him

Don't ever sell an old horse that is no longer useful to you. If you do, you may someday see a horse who has run his heart out for you pulling a junk wagon. A thoroughbred is as proud as a man - prouder, maybe, and don't think his heart can't break.... if you can't afford to put an old campaigner out to pasture the rest of his life, then you must put him away as mercifully as possible - or else do what I did with Mohawk (ie, he gave him to the boy).

Other Books (picture)
A Pony For Linda
The Crooked Colt
Pony For Three
Lonesome Little Colt

Other Books
High Courage
The Horse of Hurricane Hill
Afraid To Ride
Phantom, Son Of The Gray Ghost
A Filly For Joan
Great Heart
Another Man O'War
The Outlaw

Billy And Blaze
Blaze And The Gypsies
Blaze And The Forest Fire
Blaze Finds The Trail
Blaze And Thunderbolt
Blaze And The Mountain Lion
Blaze And The Indian Cave
Blaze And The Lost Quarry
Blaze And The Gray Spotted Pony
Blaze Shows The Way
Blaze Finds Forgotten Roads

Other Books (nonfiction)
Tomorrow’s Champions
Horses Are Folks
The Smashers
Heads Up, Heels Down
Deep Through The Heart
Twenty Gallant Horses
Complete Book Of Horses And Horsemanship

PS: NBC will broadcast their one-hour coverage of the Rolex **** on Saturday, May 16 at 3:30. It was originally supposed to air today, but their hockey coverage ran over. The Preakness Stakes coverage will begin that same day on NBC at 5pm, post time 6:15pm.

Mine That Bird wins Kentucky Derby!

I missed the race but caught it on YouTube (I love the internet) and was amused by how the winner caught everyone, including the announcer, by surprise. The bay gelding, who was once bought at auction for $10,000, was ridden to victory by Calvin Borel, the colorful Louisiana jockey who rode Street Sense to victory in the 2007 Derby. He also rode Rachel Alexandra to her win in Friday's distaff, the Kentucky Oaks.

The name? He's by Birdstone out of Mining My Own. Birdstone's grandsire was Unbridled, who was in turn a grandson of Mr. Prospector. Birdstone won the 2004 Belmont Stakes, crushing the Triple Crown hopes of sentimental favorite Smarty Jones. He also won the Travers Stakes before retiring to stud at Gainesway. Mining My Own is a chestnut granddaughter of Mr. Prospector who never raced because she fractured a leg; Mine That Bird was her first foal.

News Stories/Sites
Kentucky Derby caller fails to keep his eye on longshot Bird - USA Today
Mine That Bird Uses Shortest Route To Win Derby - NY Times
The Canada Connection - The Globe & Mail

The Kentucky Derby - YouTube

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Rachel Alexandra wins Kentucky Oaks by record 20 1/4 lengths

The filly Rachel Alexandra won the Kentucky Oaks, the 'filly' version of the Derby, by a record 20 1/4 lengths. Her owner, 75-year-old Dolphus Morrison, has drawn attention to himself in recent days by his gender-based reasons for not running his filly in the Derby. He apparently made a few early comments about not wanting to run his filly in the Derby due to her gender and then, when the press pushed a little on that, got defensive and stubborn.

"I don't think a stallion should be messed up by the occasional really, really outstanding filly. They should run on their own."

"Stallions should run against stallions because the Triple Crown races are the showcase for the future stallions of our industry, and they should not be messed up by the occasional really, really outstanding filly."

"I thought it was dumb to come right behind Eight Belles with something that possibly could cause that kind of problem... Eight Belles had the physical (attributes) to compete in the Derby, which she did. One bad step got her.”

“I’m kind of weird. I think the Derby is a colts' race and it’s there to showcase the horses that are the top potential stallions. It’s kind of stupid for some jerk with a filly to screw that up. I also just don’t like the idea of 20 horses clang-banging her and knocking each other’s brains out in that first 200 or 300 yards trying to get to that first turn.”

Should the filly have run today with the boys? I certainly don't know. Maybe the sex issue is just a cover for an owner who thinks his filly would be outclassed purely on speed for the big race. But I vastly prefer trainer Hal Wiggins' comment about Rachel Alexandra to the New York Daily News.

"This is the type of horse you're always looking for. I'm just so glad she finally came along."

Rachel Alexandra Is Special - The Sacramento Bee
Rachel Alexandra Wins 2009 Kentucky Oaks - Louisville Courier-Journal
Alexandra The Great Breezes In Oaks - New York Daily News
For a beautiful photo of Rachel Alexandra, see this pre-Oaks article at

Fillies who won the Kentucky Derby
Regret in 1915
Genuine Risk in 1980
Winning Colors in 1988 lists all the fillies that have raced in the Derby, and their results here

Eight Belles was, of course, the most recent filly to run in the classic. Her death last year after a catastrophic injury just beyond the finish line shook the Derby, which had been unusually lucky in never seeing a fatal accident, and put new life into discussions of racetrack safety and drug use. The 2008 Derby winner, Big Brown, was on a regular steroid schedule that many think allowed the colt, whose notoriously bad hooves led to his early retirement that fall, stay sound enough to race.

The filly has been remembered this year at Churchill Downs with a race named after her on the card, and eight bells will be rung before the Derby.

Owner Rick Porter and trainer Larry Jones are back in the Derby with the colt Friesan Fire.


There is Walter Farley's book about a filly training for Kentucky Derby in The Black Stallion's Filly.

Blanche Chenry Perrin's Born To Run also centers around a filly's pursuit of the classic.

And there is
an entry in the Thoroughbred series by Joanna Campbell, Wonder's First Race. Other Kentucky Derby children's fiction includes Kentucky Derby Winner by Isabel McLennan McMeekin (1949) about the first Derby, and Old Bones, The Wonder Horse by Mildred Mastin Pace (1955) about Exterminator, the unlikely winner of the 1918 Derby.

The latter book, illustrated by Wesley Dennis, is a very nice story of a classic underdog, and much more appealing in a way than the similar Seabiscuit story.