The Horse God Built: The Untold Story Of Secretariat, The World’s Greatest Racehorse, by Lawrence Scanlan
In reading this book I had the melancholy feeling that it could have been so much better than it was had it been shortened in two ways–less about the author’s own meandering search to understand Secretariat better, and less political grandstanding about Eddie Sweat. This book is a case where more is definitely less, where the author’s desire to get political about the way that grooms and other low-level workers with horses are economically exploited in the face of austerity within the business of horse racing as a whole gets in the way of him telling a compelling story about a successful horse. The author seems to believe mistakenly that most people know the legend about Secretariat in the first place, when many people who are casual fans of horse racing (which I would consider myself) know only that he won the Triple Crown in 1973 and was one of the best horses ever in American history. And this book does not really go into the heart of what made him a great horse, as the author is more content to engage in self-referential naval gazing about his own bad navigation and the contemporary state of horse racing while miring this book in downbeat political grandstanding.
This book of more than 300 pages has nine chapters and several other various interludes, but in terms of its structure it is a mess. The book begins with a look at a horse and his groom, then discusses the black groom some more (1). After that there is more ranting about the injustice done to various minority grooms who live in third-world conditions (2) like other agricultural labor. Then there is a discussion about Secretariat’s breeding and life on the farm (3) before there is more discussion about the groom (4). This leads to a discussion of Secretariat’s racing career (5) as well as a discussion of those who enjoyed traveling to see him after he stopped racing because of his celebrity horse status (6). Then the author returns to discussing the groom and the circumstances of his retirement and death (7) before looking at the author’s own pilgrimage to various places related to Secretariat (8) as well as a eulogy for a horse (9). Interspersed with these chapters are various shorter discussions of various matters related to horse racing in general or Secretariat and his place in history in particular, after which the book closes with an epilogue that praises the bond between man and horse as well as acknowledgements, sources, and an index.
In looking at the history of Secretariat, this book could have been so much better if the author would have realized that writing about an amazing horse who captured the imagination and gained the support of many millions and who had a wonderful legacy in the lives of other winning horses that came after him in his bloodline was so much better than ranting about supposed mistreatment and neglect of one Eddie Sweat, who appears to have been a poor steward of his wealth and possibly someone who drank or gambled away his money and certainly gave it unwisely to various fairweather friends and parasitic relatives until he died destitute himself. Leave it to a writer to market a book as an untold story and include little in it but politically correct whining that blames racism and the cruelties of capitalism for the suffering of people who choose to live and work with horses and who appear to do a terrible job at handling what money they do make when they are able to work with amazing horses like Secretariat.