Horseman Alex Brown (also an exercise rider, professor, writer and horse-welfare advocate) wrote a racing novel, Missionville, which was released last year. He sent us an excerpt and a little bit of the thinking behind the book.
Why I Wrote this Novel.
I’ve spread my 30-year career between horse racing and academia. The cross section of the two careers led me to develop a blog that documented Barbaro’s time at the New Bolton Center, which I turned into my first book, Greatness and Goodness: Barbaro and His Legacy. Missionville is my third book, and first novel.
Writing fiction always seemed a bit of a pipedream for me, and certainly a departure from my normal writing, which has included writing the Barbaro biography, covering horse racing for the Cecil Whig newspaper, and covering the Triple Crown as part of the team that worked on the New York Times’s The Rail blog. I took some creative writing classes, and started with a couple of short stories. These stories evolved into Missionville.
I wanted to write about my experiences, traveling and working at different racetracks around North America. I wanted to shine a spotlight on the claiming system, which is the bread and butter of our sport. I also wanted to continue to pursue my mission of horse welfare, more generally. My hope is that Missionville allows horse welfare advocates to better understand the pressures on those who eke out a livelihood on the low-level racing circuits. And because of that, how some horses slip into the slaughter pipeline.
While I wanted to show how prone the horses are, who compete at the lower-level racetracks, I also wanted to show that not everyone in racing is bad; nor is everyone good. But the racing system – the claiming system, and the liberal use of drugs – is not good for the horses at the end of the chain, as it were.
I really enjoyed developing the characters, both good and bad, and equine, and showing that even in dire circumstances, there is good.
While much of my direct experience is woven into the story, it is fiction. This story could be playing out at one of many racetracks around the country, for sure. Some of the characters are based off people I’ve met, during my travels. For a few of those people, I didn’t change their names; Chaplain Shawn is the racetrack chaplain at Woodbine, for example. The settings were also a mix of a few of the tracks I worked at. A couple of the backstories were based on my experiences at the Cecil Whig, and banking at the Cecil Bank! All in all, it was a fun experience to write.
– Alex Brown
Excerpt from Chapter 4.
Alfie leads Pink Slippers into the paddock for the seventh race. She looks good; her bay coat shines under the lights. She has a big white stripe down her face which always makes her stand out from the other fillies.
“All good?” I check in with Alfie.
“No problems.” Alfie waits with all my runners during the afternoon before the races. He needed to be there when the filly received her Lasix shot, he would then wait until it was time to bring her over for the race.
They circle the paddock with the seven other fillies who had been led over from the backside. I wait in the saddling box until the valet comes out with the jockey’s saddle and number cloth. When he does, I nod to Alfie, who brings the filly in.
We tack her up and Alfie leads her back out for a few more turns around the paddock. Emma Sparks files out of the jocks’ room with the other seven jockeys and comes over.
“What do you think?” I always like to ask jockeys first for their thoughts. There’s a well-known saying on the backside, good jockeys will know how to ride the race and don’t need instructions, bad jockeys can’t follow instructions.
“There seems to be plenty of speed in the race, so I thought I’d just sit off it a little, and then bring her with a run once we straighten up for home.”
“Sounds good to me.” Alfie brings Pink Slippers back to the saddling stall.
“Riders up!” is the call from the paddock judge. Emma props up her left leg and I lift her up.
“Good luck, Emma. Have a safe trip.”
“Thanks, Pete. She looks great.” Emma gives Slippers a pat as they depart with Alfie.
I will admit it, I’m pretty much a nervous wreck when I run my own horses. There’s plenty at stake. I want to know that I’ve done right by the horse by putting it in a race that it’s ready to win. There’s some vanity there, I want to prove to whomever that I am a good horseman, but I am also concerned for the horse. I want the horse to do well, while I have it in my care. Aside from all that, I kind of need this win. Money is getting very tight.
Alfie comes over to me, after leading Emma and the filly out to the track and handing them off to Jake.
“All good, boss.”
“Thanks. Are you betting?” I ask Alfie.
“No, I just hope she wins for you.”
“Thanks. I’ll put ten dollars on for you.” Alfie smiles. I walk away. I want to place a bet, and I need a Budweiser to settle my nerves.
“Mary, Budweiser please?”
“Here you go, it’s ready for you. Good luck!”
I head over to the betting windows. My filly, Pink Slippers, is the 3-1 second choice. I place a hundred dollars on her to win. Stupid really, because I need that cash, but I decide to go all in on this filly. If she wins tonight, we are in great shape for the next month or so. She’s been training well, so I want to try to take an edge.
I watch the TV screen nervously as the horses are being loaded. My filly walks right into the starting gate with no problem. She looks calm and quiet, Emma appears to be relaxed. Exactly how you want it in the gates.
“They’re in the gate,” the commentator announces over the p.a. system. “And they’re off!”
I watch the race unfold on the screen. She breaks well, may be a little too well. Emma has Pink Slippers head and head on the lead. This could be good, this might not be good. The early fraction is fast, 22 and change. Christ, I hope Emma has plenty of horse underneath her.
They move around the turn. The horse on the inside of Emma begins to retreat, leaving my filly in front on her own. Emma has only one choice, to really go for it. She pulls out her stick and gives the filly a couple of quick cracks and then starts to hand ride. Coming off the turn they shoot three lengths clear.
“Come on, Slippers! Come on!” I start yelling, wrapped up in the moment. At the eighth pole she is still in front, but her lead is shrinking, she’s tiring.
“Hold on! Hold on girl!” I yell. Her lead shrinks more and as they cross the wire two other horses flash by heads apart and a neck in front of her.
Damn. She’d run a great race, despite how the race set up, but the result is costly. I finish my Budweiser.
I wander down to where the horses are being unsaddled. Alfie is already with the filly. Emma and her valet are busy taking off her saddle.
“Sorry, Pete. She should have won that race.”
“She ran a gutsy race. Tough loss in the end.”
“Yes, she broke so well, I really didn’t have much choice but to sit on the lead. This was unknown to her, but the other speed in the race never set up like I thought it would.”
“No worries. I get it. You’ve got to make quick decisions, and then go for it. I thought it was going to work out at the eighth pole.”
“Thanks, Pete. I know you really wanted this. I’ll stop by tomorrow and catch up.”
“Cool. Catch you later.”
Now the hard part, I had to call Ray. He was probably expecting a win; I have been pretty enthusiastic about her training. When Ray’s expecting a win, he bets big, not here at Missionville, but in Vegas, so as not to impact the odds.
I pull out my phone and call up Ray. I get his voicemail, which is a relief. “Ray, the filly ran third, only just got beat. The race didn’t set up well, but she ran very game. I’ll call you in the morning.” Hopefully by tomorrow morning, if Ray’s upset, he might have settled down a little. I put my phone back in my pocket. Thirty seconds later it vibrates.
“Pete, I saw the race.”
“She was very game, things just didn’t work out.”
“Why was she on the lead? What was Emma thinking?”
“She broke so well she didn’t have much choice.”
“C’mon. This filly needs covering up. She has a late kick. We know that. She’s not a speed horse.”
“I really think Emma was taken by surprise by how well she broke. She made a decision, perhaps not the best decision, but she tried.”
“She screwed up. I know you like Emma, but there’s a reason she’s not a leading rider at the track.” I didn’t like the direction of the conversation.
“I get what you’re saying. But Emma’s loyal, works our horses and for the most part does a decent and honest job. She only got beat less than half a length.”
“That less than half a length just cost me thousands of dollars.” It cost me a few hundred too, a few hundred I really need right now.
“I want to see Longman, or one of the other leading riders, on one or two of my horses more often.”
* * *
Missionville is available on Amazon.