Wednesday Book Review: ‘Duel For The Crown’
Nurse your California Chrome hangover with Linda Carroll and David Rosner’s new book about the great racing rivalry of Affirmed and Alydar, as reviewed by Erin McCabe.
High Stakes Racing in Duel For The Crown
The problem (okay, one of the problems) with horse racing is that the races are just so darn short. That is probably one reason we love the Triple Crown: we can spread the racing glory over more than a month for a grand total of six-plus minutes (not including all the pre-race hoopla and post-race wrap up and horse commercials ON TV! Foals! Galloping! Through bluegrass!). Of course, the other reason to love the Triple Crown is that it’s so darn elusive, as California Chrome’s heartbreaking performance in last Saturday’s Belmont proved yet again.
This year’s results also underscore one of the big take-aways from Linda Carroll and David Rosner’s new book, Duel For The Crown: Affirmed, Alydar, and Racing’s Greatest Rivalry. According to the authors, the last Triple Crown winner was produced in a time when racing was more sport than business, more focused on producing winners than breeding weanlings who can command high auction prices and more interested in actually racing horses as opposed to retiring them early to collect enormous stud fees. It certainly offers a tidy explanation for why there hasn’t been a Triple Crown winner in recent memory, though I still want to believe there will be another Triple Crown winner in my lifetime.
But I’m jumping the gun. The great thing about books in general and books on racing in particular is that they can be savored for hours rather than minutes. And Duel For The Crown is a book you can savor, offering a detailed look at the horses and people behind Affirmed’s 1978 Triple Crown win. Not only do the two horses, Affirmed and Alydar, offer up a great rivalry, racing neck and neck in almost every single one of their meetings, but there’s also the long-standing rivalry between the new blood of Florida horse racing (Harbor View Farm) and the old guard of Kentucky horse racing (Calumet Farm), between new money and old money, between young and old. It’s a classic story of the underdog with the rivalry between the two horses underscoring almost every divide that can be charted in American society: class, ethnicity, even gender to some degree. It’s all here.
The book manages to strike that perfect balance between trusting the reader to understand the ins and outs of racing and explaining enough so the finer points are clear. Early on, I found myself a bit overwhelmed with names (both horses and people, but mostly people), but this is where my love of reading fiction puts me at a disadvantage—I am always chasing the story as opposed to gobbling up names, dates, facts (though I love the inclusion of each horses’ race record, pedigree, and stats in the Appendix). Still, I’m willing to bet $2 that once each of the key human players are fleshed out, any reader will come to love Affirmed’s trainer Laz Barrera. And once the book gets down to the business of following the horses through their racing careers, it builds momentum tearing down the backstretch with descriptions that are lean and race-fit, with just enough detail to allow the reader to sense the promise and imagine the glory of both Affirmed and Alydar.
The great strength of the book, however, is the way it manages to make each of the Triple Crown races between the rivals exciting, when of course the outcome is already well-known from the outset. The book becomes more about the how of racing—how Affirmed and his team pulled off the Triple Crown win, how Alydar rose as such an impressive challenger—rather than about the event itself. That said, the recounting of the races themselves (especially the four pages devoted to the Belmont, which is told in present tense) really put me in the moment and had me turning the pages well into the night. The excitement I felt on this year’s Belmont race day had a lot to do with how keyed up I was for a Triple Crown winner after finishing Duel For The Crown.
Of course, any book about racing will probably forever be compared to Seabiscuit, though I would argue that Duel For The Crown has different aim. Yes, both are about race horses, underdogs, and a racing rivalry, but Duel For The Crown has a much more laser-like focus on the world of racing, whereas Seabiscuit goes wide and uses the story of a race horse to illuminate the history of The Great Depression.
Be that as it may, if you’re finding yourself nursing a California Chrome hangover or wondering what it was like to live through that moment when a horse actually won all three races, Duel For The Crown offers up a satisfying look into horses, horse racing, and THE TRIPLE CROWN that no YouTube video of Affirmed digging in repeatedly to beat Alydar can offer (though after reading the book, it is so much fun to watch, having all the context in mind). This book is just the thing to take you right into the winner’s circle, and to keep the dream of a Triple Crown winner alive for another year.
Erin McCabe rides two OTTB mares and hopes to someday soon get back to competing at horse trials. Her first novel, I Shall Be Near To You, was published earlier this year. You can learn more at erinlindsaymccabe.com.
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