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On the Right Track
Charles Hirshberg
April 17, 2006
The author of an American turf classic delivers another winner with a paean to Irish horse racing
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April 17, 2006

On The Right Track

The author of an American turf classic delivers another winner with a paean to Irish horse racing

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by Bill Barich
Alfred A. Knopf, 228 pages, $23

No nation loves horse racing more than Ireland, where the most successful bookmaker is a guy named Paddy Power. Seriously. When asked what makes his chain of 200 betting shops so profitable, Power replies, "The Irish bet with the heart, not the head. And they love to beat the English."

What does horse racing have to do with beating the English? Bill Barich answers this question, and many others, in the best Irish tradition--with a story. In 1907 a horse named Orby shocked the British by becoming the first Irish-bred entry to win the Epsom Derby. Spontaneous celebrations erupted throughout Ireland, and in Dublin one old woman, standing before a crackling bonfire, was heard to shout, "Thank God! We've lived to see a Catholic horse win the English Derby!"

The ever passionate and frequently hilarious world of Irish steeplechase racing is a splendid subject for Barich, whose 1980 book, Laughing in the Hills, is regarded as one of the best ever written about horse racing in the U.S. But it wasn't Barich's love of horses that drew him to Ireland. It was his love of an Irish woman, Imelda Healy, whom he met in London in 2001, followed to her homeland and later married. It was only a matter of time until he found his way to the Irish racecourses, which compare more than favorably with our own. "Nowhere did I witness the air of drudgery that hangs over most American tracks," writes Barich, "where the regular customers could be punching a clock at a factory they hate."

In Ireland, Barich encounters what has to be the most charming collection of horse-loving trainers, jockeys and bookmakers ever assembled. Any good book set in Ireland is bound to be full of beguiling characters. The surprise here: The most beguiling, by far, are the horses.

Nearly everyone in Irish racing (or, at least, in Barich's book) is convinced that each horse has a personality nearly as complicated as a human's, and the animals are treated accordingly. Best Mate, three-time winner of the Cheltenham Gold Cup (steeplechasing's Kentucky Derby), receives hundreds of greeting cards from fans, "often," Barich writes, "with sprigs of heather or clover enclosed, to wish him good luck." When the legendary Florida Pearl's skills begin to decline, he is sent to an equine physiotherapist named Grainne Ni Chaba, who spends months nursing the horse back to health with a regimen of massage, electrotherapy and laser treatments. The book's most captivating horse, however, is Moscow Flyer, whom the author describes as cerebral but frustrating, invariably following up a string of victories with a disastrous race. "He's never been beaten," writes Barich, "except when he's beaten himself." The problem: Moscow's tendency to "go all dreamy," rather like the author himself.

It may be Barich's dreaminess that accounts for his only stumble. Having humanized the racehorses and assured readers that "the Irish treat their horses with love and respect," he is puzzlingly blas´┐Ż about the animals' deaths. According to animal welfare advocates, 250 steeplechase horses die in competition in Britain and Ireland in a typical year, a fact Barich fails to mention. One of last year's victims was the beloved Best Mate, who, at age 10, dropped dead shortly after a race--he literally ran to death.