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Book Review: ‘All Heart’

Second in the Stay the Distance series by Mara Dabrishus.

Any young adult fiction centered on the racing world invites inevitable comparisons to the much-loved Thoroughbred series — so if we’re going there, consider Mara Dabrishus’ mini-series Stay the Distance the top shelf version, written for a young adult audience but so vibrantly and realistically portrayed that adults can equally enjoy every thrilling breeze and race.

All Heart picks up where Stay the Distance left off — if you’re interested in the series, stop reading now and click back to Eileen Cody’s review of Stay the Distance because there are spoilers ahead!

July Carter has navigated a lot in her last summer before she was to apply to NYU: dealing with the return of her seemingly long-lost mother who had headed to California to chase her dreams of being a jockey; a new relationship with Beck Delaney, the owner’s son; successfully purchasing her first OTTB Kali; and the earth-shattering news that Blackbridge, the Delaney family Thoroughbred empire, was selling the majority of its stock and cutting back its string after bad financial news.

All Heart picks up here, nearly without missing a beat but rapidly escalating as July makes a last-minute decision to apply not to NYU, but to Jericho College, a fictional equestrian school. Kali is not transitioning well to her second career; simultaneously, Beck’s irascible but talented colt Lighter ships to Santa Anita, favorite for the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, but during a workout under July goes lame. Events in July’s life are coming fast and frequent as Beck pulls back in their relationship. July is sent south for the winter to Florida with new assistant trainer Leo, but when Leo suffers a major accident during Lighter’s rehabilitation, she is suddenly left on her own to manage the entire training string.

When the events of the story are all written out in a condensed paragraph like that, I realize it sounds incredulous — but after all, if you were to condense the events of any horse person’s life with horses into a single paragraph, who hasn’t had to juggle job responsibilities, healthy and lame horses, personal relationships and major changes all in one go? July is truly tested throughout the pages of All Heart, and thanks to Dabrishus’ skilled character creation, she is not an infallible golden girl who soars through every challenge gracefully.

As with Dabrishus’ previous works, one of this book’s best strengths is its accurate portrait of the racing world in screaming detail that truly puts the reader trackside — from watching horses fade in and out of the morning mist at a Florida training track to the mad shouting and cheering from an owner’s box watching a beloved horse drive for the lead. Equally, it’s refreshing to find a strong female heroine who still has a full range of human imperfections and foibles.

With a healthy balance of horses and drama — in which the horses themselves are vivid, real parts of the story — All Heart (available via Amazon) is a delectable follow-up to Stay the Distance.

The story concludes in Derby Horse — review coming soon!

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