Black Maestroby Joe Drape
In Black Maestro, Joe Drape meticulously brings to life the drama, adventures, romances, and heartbreaks of an unlikely participant in the greatest historical events of the twentieth century. It is a breathtaking narrative that takes you from pastoral Kentucky to Mob–controlled Chicago, from the horse country of Poland to the chaos of Red Square, and from… See more details below
In Black Maestro, Joe Drape meticulously brings to life the drama, adventures, romances, and heartbreaks of an unlikely participant in the greatest historical events of the twentieth century. It is a breathtaking narrative that takes you from pastoral Kentucky to Mob–controlled Chicago, from the horse country of Poland to the chaos of Red Square, and from freewheeling Paris to the hard–luck American South of the Depression. It is also a story that returns Jimmy Winkfield to his rightful place as an original American hero.
In 1919, at the age of thirty–seven, as Bolshevik cannon fire thundered above, the already epic life of Jimmy Winkfield turned into an odyssey. With a ragtag band of Russian nobility and Polish soldiers, the son of a black sharecropper from Chilesburg, Kentucky, was entrusted with saving more than 250 of the most royal but fragile thoroughbreds left in crumbling Csarist Russia. They trekked 1,100 miles from Odessa to Warsaw for nearly three months amid the bloodiest part of the Russian Revolution, surviving gunfire and starvation....
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Meet the Author
Joe Drape is a reporter for the New York Times. He has won numerous national awards for news and sports writing, including the Eclipse Award for outstanding achievement in horse racing writing. He is the author of The Race for the Triple Crown. He lives in New York City.
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Black MaestroThe Epic Life of an American Legend
By Joe Drape
HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.Copyright ©2006 Joe Drape
All right reserved.
The Fence Runner
Jimmy's classroom was the Bluegrass. His desk was any of the limestone and dark plank fences that he climbed on to while away the day. His field of study was concentrated: horses. George and Victoria Winkfield were surprised that their youngest boy remained small; after all, there were a couple of six-footers among their seventeen children. If there was ever a place for an undergrown boy to be dropped, even a black one, it was amid these gently rolling hills and a people who believed that horses were more than the fastest way to get them between two points or to pull a plow. Horses were partners who conjured up magic as well. Jimmy's classroom was gorgeous and the earth beneath it was a fount for healthy horses and a mother lode of wealth for their gentlemen breeders.
The story goes that after Daniel Boone settled in Kentucky, he declared that "every man needs a wife, a gun and a good horse," which perhaps mutated into the Bluegrass proverb that "a good horse never stumbles and a good wife never grumbles." In fact, he introduced a bill to improve the breed of the horses at the territory's first legislative assembly, in 1775. The Virginians who followed Boone into theBluegrass had experience breeding thoroughbreds, long importing them to their plantations from England, where the wealthy and titled mated and matched the descendants of the Darley Arabian, Godolphin Arabian, and Byerly Turk stallions from which all thoroughbreds descend. England and the Bluegrass shared the same goal: creating a swifter, stronger horse. In the spring, bluish-purple buds carpeted the thousands of acres of Bluegrass and, with his legs dangling off a limestone wall, Jimmy could imagine pushing himself off and wading into an ocean. The Bluegrass was actually a vivid green tapestry of thin blades -- its origins are traceable to the Black Sea -- and anchored in dense sod by a root system that constantly regenerated itself. The explanation for how it came to these seven counties of central Kentucky was a guessing game worthy of a good tongue-twisting tavern debate: Did the Mennonites ousted from Russia import it here when they settled in Pennsylvania? Or did an Englishwoman who might have accompanied Boone here bring the seed from her native country, wrapped up snugly in the corner of her handkerchief? Or did an early settler, old Thomas Goff, unearth a section of sod from somewhere near the Blue Ridge Mountains and then plant it in Clark County, to watch it take off like the most beautiful weed in the world? Wherever it came from, everyone agreed that it tattooed central Kentucky with a little bit of perfection. "When God made the picturesque valleys of Southwest Virginia, He was just practicing for the Bluegrass country," a turn-of-the-century circuit judge once wrote.
It was the core of limestone beneath the ground -- in places 25,000 feet thick -- that horse people were most grateful for. It meant greater concentrations of calcium and phosphorous, which meant that their horses grazing in its pastures received ample supplies of vitamins and minerals, enough to transform a 120-pound foal struggling to reach its feet into a 600-pound fence runner as a yearling and a half-ton racehorse with steel in its legs and wings on its feet by the time it was three years old.
Jimmy was a fence runner himself as a young boy, racing along the stone walls, hoping to get a peek through one of the planks as the young colts and fillies darted in and out of the Bluegrass as if they knew they had something better to do but had not yet figured out what. He climbed the fence -- his school desk -- when the exercise riders mounted the older horses and walked them out in the field. The riders were like him, small and black, but older. He watched intently as they burrowed their tailbones into the horses' backs, finding their balance as the animals flexed their legs and sidestepped, adjusting to the weight on their backs. Jimmy watched as they pulled their knees up and braced either side of the horse and gripped it gently. When it came time to trot the racehorse, to limber up its legs, he watched them stand up in their stirrups nearly stiff-legged, their heads bobbing to an inaudible beat. When a trot gave way to a canter, the boys relaxed their legs, took up the slack in the reins, and let their rumps bump in rhythm to the muffled fall of their mounts' hooves. It sounded like heads hitting a pillow hard, one after another. The boys would show their strain when their horses reached a full gallop, tugging on the reins until the muscles in their forearms looked as if they were pulled straight through with knotted rope, easing a little lower in a crouch, a pigeon-toed grip pinning their knees to the horses' flanks. Only when they gave the horses their heads and let them run did they relax, sinking into that cannonball crouch, burying a nose in the horses' stringy manes, scrubbing the horses' necks as loose reins laced their fingers. The sound of the hooves hitting the ground played like a drum duet -- pftt, pftt, pftt, pfft -- picking up the tempo until, at full stride, the four-beat cadence dissolved into just two thunderous thuds pounding deep into that limestone, accompanied by the horses' snorts and heavy breaths, the boys' smooching sounds and chirping and whoops, and the Bluegrass singing right along.
After Jimmy could no longer hear the horses, the ritual reversed itself as the boys slowed down in the distance. The strain in their arms was back as they galloped, their crouch once more coiled high to gear the horses down, and finally they stood tall in their stirrups. When they returned to the barn, the boys were again burrowed into their horses' backs. Each one of them was smiling.
Excerpted from Black Maestro by Joe Drape Copyright ©2006 by Joe Drape. Excerpted by permission.
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