Book Review: “Better Lucky Than Good: Tall Tales and Straight Talk from the Backside of the Track”

An excellent book showcasing and humanizing a side of Thoroughbred racing most don’t see and, equally important telling the stories of the community around Churchill Downs.

“Better Lucky Than Good” provides a glimpse of the racing industry that few get to see – the backside. Specifically, the backside of the legendary Churchill Downs. As someone who spent a summer working security and patrolling barns on the backside of my local Thoroughbred racetrack, I wanted this book as soon as I heard about it. I received the book as a holiday present and decided to review it because, again, this is a side of the industry and sport that people don’t hear about.

The book is a product of the Louisville Story Program, an organization working to amplify “unheard voices and untold stories by partnering closely with historically underrepresented Louisville residents to develop professionally-designed books, audio programs and exhibits where our authors tell the stories of their lives and communities,” says a thank-you postcard packaged with the book. The proceeds from the book go directly back to the program, enabling them to continue their mission.

Back to the book – it’s worth a read for anyone with even a passing interest in racing. I see it as a definite must-read because it tells the stories of the backside from many perspectives:

  • Trainers/Assistant Trainers/Barn Managers
  • Grooms
  • Hotwalkers
  • Exercise Riders
  • Lead Pony Riders & Outriders

Those are only a few categories covered. Truly, if they play a role in the community on the backside of the track or if they grew up in the neighborhood around Churchill Downs, they are probably in this book.

However, this book isn’t all happy sentimentalism. People get real. Probably the most striking example of this is former jockey and assistant trainer Greta Kuntzweiler’s story of overcoming drug addiction. Then there are the stories of the workers who migrated from other countries, that drive home just how hard these people work – one hotwalker featured is a high school student whose family migrated from Guatemala. Her entire family works on the backside, she works at the track in the mornings and is a National Honor Society student who plans to apply for US citizenship when she turns 18.

That’s what makes this book amazing – it doesn’t shy away from the truth even when the truth gets a little gritty. The reader comes away with the sense that, yes, racetrack life involves a lot of hard work, that it maybe isn’t always pretty, but the common thread throughout is the love of the horse and the sport. Nearly everyone’s story includes how they do this because they love the horses and the life and can’t imagine doing anything else.

That said, even with the grittier truths, there are still some amazingly cool tales and some wild, semi-dubious potential tall tales – the subtitle is, after all, “Tall Tales and Straight Talk from the Backside of the Track.” Readers hear from the outrider who took California Chrome to the starting gate at the 2013 Kentucky Derby, for example, and I’ve lost count of how many people have had some contact with a noteworthy horse or a noteworthy or notorious person at some point.

This book is great simply because it humanizes the sport and industry of Thoroughbred racing and shows that every person has a story, both of which I think racing sorely needs now more than ever.

You can get more information on the Louisville Story Program or order a copy of “Better Lucky Than Good” at the Program’s online store here.