Book Review #1: The Great Match Race

Rating: Fair Hill   (*** for you non-eventers)

Last year I had Jordan and Kat to entertain my winter evenings with the cooking contests. While I would love to resume those – it would be Meika vs. Mark. And I don’t think that is probably very healthy week after week, neither for our waistlines nor our relationship. It works perfectly well to have one of us cook and the other one be deeply grateful, we are both winners this way.

So, I decided that I would review a book instead.  I just finished The Great Match Race, by John Eisenberg. The book is about what the author calls the largest sporting event of the time, when in 1823 close to sixty thousand people showed up to watch  American Eclipse race head to head with Sir Henry. To understand the race, the author explains a little background: the south was known to be heavily interested and invested in horse racing, owning plantations and slaves, while the north was busy with industry and made morose by bad weather. Leading up to the famous match race, Eclipse defeated a dandy southern horse, Sir Charles. To have a famous southern horse beaten by that northern Johnny-come-lately apparently made the southerners mad as bulldogs. Eclipse was an undefeated wonder even at 8 years old then, which was old even in those days for their style of racing. The southern trainer demanded a match race to avenge his honor. The terms agreed upon were that the southern trainer had 6 months to pick any horse from anywhere in the south to match against Eclipse. $20,000 was put on the line for the race. I just found a website that adjusts for inflation and that would be: $359,283.46 in 2010 prices. That is a LOT of money, and it speaks volumes about the size of the bruise on his ego. Henry was the horse ultimately chosen to fight the epic battle.

Sir Archie, sire to Sir Henry

While I enjoyed knowing who won in the end, I mostly enjoyed reading the book with my handy dandy by my side. I am fascinated with all things thoroughbred, and I could look up information about both horses, their ancestors, find pictures and generally wonder at the bizarre names of horses back then (Cripple, Blank and Sister to Soreheels are a few of my favorites).

Knowing what racing Thoroughbreds look like today, I was not surprised that the author described them as giant, powerful, huge striding athletes, which Im sure the author gleaned from articles written about them at the time. I was imagining Zenyatta in my head or at the very least, Cochlear.  But late in the book he says that Sir Henry stood 14.2 and Eclipse at 15.0….. and all of a sudden I felt like I had been duped!  But after some thought and a spell to retrieve the book from across the room, I knew they had to have been that small. Eclipse was only 5 breedings away from the Godolphin Arabian. Henry was 6 away from the Beyerly Turk and The Darley Arabian, they had to have been little wild screwballs with Arabian blood that close.

It is par for course that when you, an avid horse person, read a book written by a non- horse person, are tortured by colorful inventions of plot. How easy would it have been for Mr. Author to check with an actual jockey to see if they are “holding on for dear life” throughout a race? Even Steven Spielberg checked with his daughter and wife before releasing War Horse, to make sure that he was not embarrassing himself.  The most repeated barefaced absurdity in the book were the statements about Eclipse’s age. He probably said Eclipse was one foot in the grave at least 50 times and how you could see his skin “sagging” and his muscles tired and drooping. His eyes were often hollow and his hair was old and fading. I nearly threw the book across the room for the second time. It reminded me of how once I was talking to a person who tried to impress me with the fact that his horse was 15.8 hands!!! If you don’t know much about a subject, then don’t open your mouth! Furthermore, jockeys don’t grip to hold on for dear life. I guarantee you that any rider back then has more hours logged on the back of a horse than me and 5 other riders combined. Horses were the only mode of transportation back then – and they HAD to know horse flesh and how to ride properly. It wasn’t optional. The next most annoying part of the book had to do the descriptions about the races. Apparently, horses back then only ran if they were whipped and flogged every step of the way. Again, a tiny bit of fact checking would have helped immensely here.

Ok, enough about my complaints. The best part of the book was learning about how racing has developed through the decades to the sport it is today. The best, mature racehorses in 1820s raced a 4 mile race….. for 3 heats! That is 12 miles at a gallop (with some idiot jockey flogging you every step of the way?). I guarantee you that 75% of the horses today, with proper conditioning, could not manage such a feat of endurance. The horses back then were not the same creatures as the ones we bandage, ultrasound, ice therapy and shockwave today. Those vintage Thoroughbreds were 1/12 Arab and possibly 1/8 cob, depending upon who paid for a breeding.  Hybrid vigor goes a long way to developing a more resilient horse that doesn’t break down just because you turned it out in a grassy field. (Hmmm, then again, that ancestral horse was named “Cripple”).

Despite my rantings about a few details in the book, if you are a Thoroughbred lover, you should read The Great Match Race. Its as much a history about Eclipse and Henry and their supporters as it is about the roots of racing as we know it today.


2 Responses to “Book Review #1: The Great Match Race”

  1. Krista

    Meika, great review. You are an exceptional writer. I found myself quite disappointed when your review was over. So off to add this to the list of books on my kindle. Have you read War Horse. A good, brisk if brief read. I’m in the middle of Snowman and a book on Man O’ War (the greatest TB of all time in my book). Ruffian is in the mix when I can put down Jimmy’s book on training eventers or one of the others. LOL

    Happy 2012!

  2. Maggie

    Fantastic review Meika- I see a 2nd career if this horsey stuff fails LOL

Leave a Reply