Book Review: ‘The Lucky Thirteen’

By Edward L. Bowen.

Most serious American horse racing fans can name the 13 Triple Crown winners since 1919, when Sir Barton’s sweep first created the link between the Kentucky Derby, Preakness Stakes and Belmont Stakes. Beyond that, however, it takes a real racing junkie to be intimate with the details on those 13 horses: how they were bred, how their connections found their way to racing history, and what turns each horse’s career took next.

For racing aficionados and casual fans alike, Edward L. Bowen’s The Lucky Thirteen has all of those details, bringing the history to life and creating living, breathing horses out of the names we might be familiar with in reading┬áracing history. While each of the 13 has the highest challenge in horse racing in common, their stories are as unique and individualized as the horses themselves — and indicative of the time in which they made their achievement.

This book is not just a chronicle of the horses who conquered the Triple Crown, but the changes and shifts in racing that have taken place over the past century. While the tight turnaround between Sir Barton’s Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes (four days, including a journey by rail from Louisville to Baltimore) would be unheard of in today’s racing environment, horseman early in the 20th century would be stunned to hear about the international partnerships that own and race horses today (such as Justify, the 2018 champion, owned by WinStar Farm, China Horse Club, Starlight Racing, SF Bloodstock and Head of Plains Partners).

Bowen draws on the existing resources and publications detailing the rise of these horses, as well as his own experience as a writer and editor of The Blood Horse. Later chapters include snippets of his own observations and reflections as a witness to history.

History, even racing history, relies on good retelling to truly come to life in the mind of the reader, and Bowen does an excellent job of presenting the facts without embellishment but with storytelling that keeps the reader engaged throughout. Despite knowing that early Triple Crown winners faced the same grueling challenge that modern racehorses face, the winners prior to American Pharoah and Justify — the first I’ve witnessed in my lifetime — seemed to be relegated always to being just names on a page. Bowen’s book brings those horses back to life and details the connections and the pivotal moments that a Thoroughbred becomes a Triple Crown champion.

For any racing fan, this book deserves a place on the shelf both as a general reference and as a good read, especially in a year such as 2020 as the COVID-19 pandemic dramatically changes the scope of the racing season!

The Lucky Thirteen is available via Amazon.