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Any sports book that costs $40 or $50 and weighs more than a holiday turkey should meet certain criteria before being considered as a Christmas gift. To wit:
?The contents should be original. No recycled golf and tennis tournament programs, thank you, and no collections of 10-year-old game photographs.
?The photographs should be better than the text, no matter how good the text. Why pay through the nose for folio-sized pages and coated paper if the best images are mental?
?The identical material should not be available for $10 as a calendar.
These are the basics. A really good coffee-table book delivers somewhat more, taking us behind the scenes, beneath the surface, above the fray and, in rare instances, beyond the imagination.
Among the season's best is A Year at the Races (Viking, $35). This insider's look at thoroughbred racing comes with a twist: The authors, Robert B. and Joan H. Parker, aren't insiders at all, but na�fs. (He is the author of the Spenser detective novels; she's a screenwriter and producer.) The Parkers accepted the invitation of horse owner Cot Campbell and followed the horses of his Dogwood Stables through a typical racing year. When the Parkers weren't bellying up to the groaning board at upscale dinner parties, they were visiting auction paddocks, betting windows and tack rooms from Saratoga to Hialeah.
"I know nothing of racing," Robert Parker confesses at the outset of A Year at the Races. "I know nothing of horses." This seeming handicap proves to be the book's strength. Even when Parker lapses into Spenserese ("Our driver was a New Yorker, a man who knows the city the way your tongue knows the contours of your teeth"), the text sparkles with fresh imagery. Whether he's describing Miami's Collins Avenue ("rows of hotels that looked vaguely like Iraqi bus stations") or horses standing at stable doors ("looking like those old pictures of French prostitutes in Montmartre, gazing out of the windows of their rooms, luring the farm boys under the gaslights"), Parker reports with an unjaded eye.
If photographer William Strode's color photographs do not actually surpass Parker's words, they at least equal them and amplify the text in unexpected ways. A lazier photographer might have shipped a trayload of his stock slides to the publisher, but Strode traveled with the Parkers and Campbells and documented their doings. He gives us Camp-bell peering apprehensively through his fingers during a yearling auction; a teenage rider reading a letter with a dozing cat on her lap; horses breaking from the gate and clearing steeplechase hurdles. Like a good musical accompanist, Strode knows when to provide unobtrusive support and when to show his virtuosity. His two-page spread of grooms hosing down their horses under the trees at Hialeah is worth 10 clich�d photos of the famous infield flamingos.
There's even a plot payoff to A Year at the Races. Dogwood's Summer Squall, whom we meet as a "splay-footed, wild-eyed yearling" at the Aiken ( S.C.) trials, goes on to win the Hopeful Stakes at Saratoga and, ultimately, the 1990 Preakness.