Blood Horses: Notes of a Sportswriter's Son

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"One evening late in his life, veteran sportswriter Mike Sullivan was asked by his son what he remembered best from his three decades in the press box. The answer came as a surprise. "I was at Secretariat's Derby, in '73. That was...just beauty, you know?"" John Jeremiah Sullivan didn't know, not really: the track had always been a place his father disappeared to once a year on business, a source of souvenir glasses and of inscrutable passions in his Kentucky relatives. So Sullivan decided to educate himself. He spent two years following horses
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Blood Horses: Notes of a Sportswriter's Son

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Overview

"One evening late in his life, veteran sportswriter Mike Sullivan was asked by his son what he remembered best from his three decades in the press box. The answer came as a surprise. "I was at Secretariat's Derby, in '73. That was...just beauty, you know?"" John Jeremiah Sullivan didn't know, not really: the track had always been a place his father disappeared to once a year on business, a source of souvenir glasses and of inscrutable passions in his Kentucky relatives. So Sullivan decided to educate himself. He spent two years following horses across the country. He watched one season's juvenile crop prepare for the Triple Crown, and he tracked the animal's evolution in literature and art, from the ponies that appeared on the walls of European caves thirty thousand years ago, to the mounts that carried the Indo-European language to the edges of the Old World, to the finely tuned but fragile yearlings that are auctioned off for millions of dollars apiece every spring and fall.
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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Horse racing does not lend itself easily to the drama and characters of most sports, because, as the author puts it, "when your Sammy Sosa has four legs, cannot speak, and has, to all appearances, no idea what people are so worked up about, you have to work harder to generate narrative." In his own quest to trace racing's history and capture its urgency, Sullivan, a former Harper's editor, has indeed worked hard but made it look effortless. He has found narrative not in a particular horse but in The Horse-the cultural, literary and biological phenomenon. It would be easy to expect, in this post-Seabiscuit age, a tale of the triumphant underdog, but Sullivan has more reflective pleasures on his mind. He alternates a history of the South, particularly of Lexington, Ky., where he spent time as a child and where much of the American horse-racing industry is concentrated, with a larger cultural and historical examination. His riffs are also unexpectedly hilarious, especially when he takes a gonzo-ish trip to the Kentucky Derby. Running throughout is the story of Sullivan's late father, a longtime sportswriter and dreamer whom the author lovingly, but largely unsentimentally, worships, and whose presence provides a kind of magnetic pull without overwhelming the book. Sullivan, who won a National Magazine Award for the piece on which this book was based, has a fairly liberal approach to structure and pace, but no matter: he has written a history as sweeping as it is personal and whose coherence is made more impressive by its lack of central drama-a book that is, in short, as remarkable as the finest horses it documents. (Apr.) Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
The offspring of a journalist tells of equine bloodlines and, not incidentally, his own family history. Growing up, newcomer Sullivan, son of quirky sportswriter Mike Sullivan, was never a sports fan. Not long before he died, his father recalled for him the astonishing beauty of Secretariat when that great horse took the Derby a generation ago. The father's reverie awakened something within the son. The result is an entertaining, often erudite history of horse matters beginning even before the animal became friendly to mankind. Sullivan fils reviews the use of the stud book and matters eugenic, both equine and human. He traces the lore of American thoroughbred racing from Britain, through Virginia to the Blue Grass State (which is blessed with favorable limestone geology) and on to Churchill Downs. Virtually all horsehood is considered, from hobby horses to full-blooded Arabians, horses in war and peace, literature and art, glory and commerce, history and fable, horses as symbol and horses as presence, horses bound for pasture and horses destined for the boneman. The preparation and auction of yearlings, the art and practice of training and the industry of racing all receive avid attention as we are taken to the author's old Kentucky home and, finally, to Belmont. Sullivan is sad to note "that all this horseracing business is about the rich, for the rich are hideous. There is nothing they cannot ruin." The diverting facts and opinion comprise very agreeable reportage. It is unreined information, cantering or tantivy. But it is not simply a love letter to horseflesh; it is a warm elegy for a man, a father, as well. Reflections from horse country about equine bloodlines, as well as theauthor's own. (20 b&w illustrations) Agent: Jin Auh/Wylie Agency
From the Publisher
"Wisdom that is both personal and universal . . . Brilliant"—Chicago Tribune

"A splendid account of [the] Triple Crown . . . In horses' beauty and power, and with their hint of danger even when schooled, Sullivan senses a restoration of what has been lost to us."—The New York Times

"As unconventionally lovely a book as you are likely to read for some time."—The Arkansas Democrat Gazette

"A clear picture of a highly specialized world . . . A gem of curiosity."—The Associated Press

"Sullivan subtly extends the theme of bloodlines to make this book as much about family as it is about horses . . . Its appeal isn't limited to the equine crowd."—Outside

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780374172817
  • Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
  • Publication date: 4/1/2004
  • Pages: 272
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 8.50 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

John Jeremiah Sullivan is a writer-at-large for GQ and a contributing editor at Harper's Magazine.

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Read an Excerpt

Blood Horses

Notes of a Sportswriter's Son
By John Jeremiah Sullivan

Picador USA

Copyright © 2005 John Jeremiah Sullivan
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0312423764


Chapter One

THE KID

It was in the month of May, three years ago, by a hospital bed in Columbus, Ohio, where my father was recovering from what was supposed to have been a quintuple bypass operation but became, on the surgeon's actually seeing the heart, a sextuple. His face, my father's face, was pale. He was thinner than I had seen him in years. A stuffed bear that the nurses had loaned him lay crooked in his lap; they told him to hug it whenever he stood or sat down, to keep the stitches in his chest from tearing. I complimented him on the bear when I walked in, and he gave me one of his looks, dropping his jaw and crossing his eyes as he rolled them back in their sockets. It was a look he assumed in all kinds of situations but that always meant the same thing: Can you believe this?

Riverside Methodist Hospital (the river being the Olentangy): my family had a tidy little history there, or at least my father and I had one. It was to Riverside that I had been rushed from a Little League football game when I was twelve, both of my lower right leg bones broken at the shin in such a way that when the whistle was blown and I sat up on the field, after my first time carrying the ball all season, I looked down to find my toes pointing a perfect 180 degrees from the direction they should have been pointing in, at which sight I went into mild shock on the grass at the fifty-yard line and lay back to admire the clouds. Only the referee's face obstructed my view. He kept saying, "Watch your language, son," which seemed comical, since as far as I knew I had not said a word.

I seem to remember, or may have deduced, that my father walked in slowly from the sidelines then with the exceptionally calm demeanor he showed during emergencies, and put his hand on my arm, and said something encouraging, doubtless a little shocked himself at the disposition of my foot-a little regretful too, it could be, since he, a professional sports-writer who had been a superb all-around athlete into his twenties and a Little League coach at various times, must have known that I should never have been on the field at all. Running back was the only viable position for me, in fact, given that when the coach had tried me at other places on the line, I had tended nonetheless to move away from the other players. My lone resource was my speed; I still had a prepubescent track runner's build and was the fastest player on the team. The coach had noticed that I tended to win the sprints and thought he saw an opportunity. But what both of us failed to understand was that a running back must not only outrun the guards-typically an option on only the most flawlessly executed plays-but often force his way past them, knock them aside. Such was never going to happen.

In fairness, the coach had many other things to worry about. Our team, which had no name, lacked both talent and what he called "go." In the car headed home from our first two games, I could tell by the way my father avoided all mention of what had taken place on the field that we were pathetic-not Bad News Bears pathetic, for we never cut up or "wanted it" or gave our all. At practice a lot of the other players displayed an indifference to the coach's advice that suggested they might have been there on community service.

The coach's son, Kyle, was our starting quarterback. When practice was not going Kyle's way, that is, when he was either not on the field, having been taken off in favor of the second-stringer, who was excellent, or when he was on the field and throwing poorly, Kyle would begin to cry. He cried not childish tears, which might have made me wonder about his life at home with the coach and even feel for him a little, but bitter tears, too bitter by far for a twelve-year-old. Kyle would then do a singular thing: he would fling down his helmet and run, about forty yards, to the coach's car, a beige Cadillac El Dorado, which was always parked in the adjacent soccer field. He would get into the car, start the engine, roll down all four windows, and-still crying, I presumed, maybe even sobbing now in the privacy of his father's automobile-play Aerosmith tapes at volumes beyond what the El Dorado's system was designed to sustain. The speakers made crunching sounds. The coach would put up a show o ignoring these antics for five or ten minutes, shouting more loudly at us, as if to imply that such things happened in the sport of football. But before long Kyle, exasperated, would resort to the horn, first honking it and then holding it down. Then he would hold his fist out the driver's-side window, middle finger extended. The coach would leave at that point and walk, very slowly, to the car. While the rest of us stood on the field, he and Kyle would talk. Soon the engine would go silent. When the two of them returned, practice resumed, with Kyle at quarterback.

None of this seemed remarkable to me at the time. We were new to Columbus, having just moved there from Louisville (our house had been right across the river, in the knobs above New Albany, Indiana), and I needed friends. So I watched it all happen with a kind of dumb, animal acceptance, sensing that it could come to no good. And suddenly it was that final Saturday, and Kyle had given me the ball, and something very brief and violent had happened, and I was watching a tall, brawny man-child bolt up and away from my body, as though he had woken up next to a rattlesnake. I can still see his eyes as they took in my leg. He was black, and he had an afro that sprung outward when he ripped off his helmet. He looked genuinely confused about how easily I had broken. As the paramedics were loading me onto the stretcher, he came over and said he was sorry.

At Riverside they set my leg wrong. An X ray taken two weeks later revealed that I would walk with a limp for the rest of my life if the leg were not rebroken and reset. For this I was sent to a doctor named Moyer, a specialist whom other hospitals would fly in to sew farmers' hands back on, that sort of thing. He was kind and reassuring. But for reasons I have never been able to fit back together, I was not put all the way under for the resetting procedure. They gave me shots of a tranquilizer, a fairly weak one, to judge by how acutely conscious I was when Dr. Moyer gripped my calf with one hand and my heel with the other and said, "John, the bones have already started to knit back together a little bit, so this is probably going to hurt." My father was outside smoking in the parking lot at that moment, and said later he could hear my screams quite clearly. That was my first month in Ohio.

Two years after the injury had healed, I was upstairs in my bedroom at our house on the northwest side of Columbus when I heard a single, fading "Oh!" from the first-floor hallway. My father and I were the only ones home at the time, and I took the staircase in a bound, terrified. Turning the corner, I almost tripped over his head. He was on his back on the floor, unconscious, stretched out halfway into the hall, his feet and legs extending into the bathroom. Blood was everywhere, but although I felt all over his head I couldn't find a source. I got him onto his feet and onto the couch and called the paramedics, who poked at him and said that his blood pressure was "all over the place." So they manhandled him onto a stretcher and took him to Riverside.

It turned out that he had simply passed out while pissing, something, we were told, that happens to men in their forties (he was at the time forty-five). The blood had all gushed from his nose, which he had smashed against the sink while falling. Still, the incident scared him enough to make him try again to quit smoking-to make him want to quit, anyway, one of countless doomed resolutions.



Continues...


Excerpted from Blood Horses by John Jeremiah Sullivan Copyright © 2005 by John Jeremiah Sullivan. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Sort by: Showing all of 3 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted October 2, 2012

    It was a nice book i liked it

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 26, 2013

    Heartfelt Research That Goes Beyond the Horse

    If you like Sullivan, you should read this. It is his investigation into thoroughbreds and his deceased father's life as a sportswriter in Kentucky. It is done with intelligence and sensitivity--Sullivan is digging into the obsession we have with the ineffable, be it the thoroughbred or are own fathers.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 5, 2004

    Excellent work,great read

    The author has captured all the nuances of a fascinating sport. His open relationship with his sports writer father and wonderful mother provides an interesting interwoven aspect to a study of the horse and the horse industry.

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