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Galloping into history: Two books on the sport of kings

July 25,2016 06:23

Arguing that the kingly sport historically has fired up the dreams of small Oklahoma kids, Lou Dean writes in “The Boys From the Bushes” about last century's Oklahoma bush tracks and the daring young jockeys who often rose to big-time horse racing and ...



“American Pharoah: The Untold Story of the Triple Crown Winner's Legendary Rise” by Joe Drape (Hachette, 304 pages, in stores) and “The Boys From the Bushes” by Lou Dean (Oklahoma Heritage Association, 272 pages, in stores)
For 500 years, horse racing was “the sport of kings,” but it became a favorite spectacle for everyone in 2015 when the thoroughbred American Pharoah thundered to a rare Triple Crown victory.
In “American Pharoah,” Joe Drape explains how that equine magician was packaged to win two-minute performances. 
Arguing that the kingly sport historically has fired up the dreams of small Oklahoma kids, Lou Dean writes in “The Boys From the Bushes” about last century's Oklahoma bush tracks and the daring young jockeys who often rose to big-time horse racing and cash-rich prizes.
The two books bring together legacies that have built an equine history and a sport legacy in Oklahoma that adds nearly $4 billion a year to the state's economy and provides more than 35,000 jobs.
In a masterful worldview report detailing the fine horses and multitude of folks involved in racing, Drape explains facets of the world's oldest sport while unfolding the critical path that led to American Pharoah, the first Triple Crown winner since 1968.
In her older work, first published in 2013, Dean reaches to the era before television, when folks in Oklahoma gathered at dusty pastures or fairground racetracks to watch tiny riders race on horses of all breeds and pedigrees.
In both stories, daring jockeys riding talented horses with strong hearts are the top stars of the sport. Both books deliver intimate insight into the 120-or-so-pound riders who share the glory with half-ton horses.
“Horse racing is an easy game to love and too often a hard one to like,” Drape opines. “Horses are beautiful animals. The humans around them mostly are” — but plenty aren't.
Dean's book largely is about Oklahoma jockeys and horses, but it touches on informal trackside betting that offended early-day Puritans who fought legalized races and gaming.
A veteran racing reporter for The New York Times and a Kansas City, Mo., native, Drape defines the sport's history. He reports that King James I, whose name is on many Bibles, also made horse racing the “sport of kings” during his 17th-century reign. The sport is even older, going back to at least 1174.
In what would become Oklahoma, Comanche Indians raced horses that were delivered and set loose in America by invading Spanish explorers some 400 years ago.
It was not until 1870 that Oklahoma folks launched the first jockey club, Dean writes, giving the sport a definition. While the equine industry exploded in Kentucky, opponents of racing and gaming succeeded in stunting the growth of horse racing in Oklahoma until 1982.
A 2012 study by the Oklahoma Equine Alliance revealed that the horse industry delivered $3.96 billion to the economy and added 35,070 jobs. It showed a 14,100-racehorse industry at 800 breeding, training and racing sites.  
The unorganized but popular sport flourished in Oklahoma since before statehood, until pious Gov. Lee Cruce and National Guard soldiers cracked down on a Tulsa racetrack in 1914, Dean writes. Until then, “almost every county had a temporary racetrack.”
As a result of the raid, plus being stunted by the economic perils of the Dust Bowl and Depression, the sport languished in Oklahoma while it prospered in Kentucky, giving that state a head start to become the mecca of the horse industry.
Post World War II, local racing informally was revived in Oklahoma, and the equine industry began a renewed struggle upward. This is the period Dean's book spotlights, when jockeys learned their trade in primitive gear and on rugged makeshift tracks. The experience propelled some jockeys to big-time tracks and fortunes.
When pari-mutuel betting was approved by Oklahoma voters in 1982, rousing world-class quarter horse and thoroughbred races followed. Both now prosper under less dangerous conditions with clear rules. For fans, there are comfortable and civilized clubhouses and published rules at superb, modern racetracks like Oklahoma City's premier Remington Park.
A rich, growing equine industry is a vital engine inside Oklahoma's economy and a vital part of agribusiness. Yet, as Drape reports, “despite its global reach, despite the hundreds of races run simultaneously daily, horse racing is a very, very small world and the community that bets is even more compact.”
Early in 2015, he said, “the old sport needed another immortal thoroughbred.” That was Kentucky-bred American Pharoah, whose Triple Crown fete triggered new interest and Drape's compelling book.
— Joseph H. Carter Sr., for The Oklahoman

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