McGinniss' 'Big Horse': a summer in Saratoga

July 11, 2004|By Stephen R. Proctor | Stephen R. Proctor,Special to the Sun

The Big Horse, by Joe McGinniss. Simon and Schuster. 272 pages. $22.95.

Finish Joe McGinniss' The Big Horse and one question pops immediately to mind: Why was this book written? There is, of course, the crass and obvious reason -- that books about horses have been as much in demand as iced tea in August since Laura Hillenbrand's rousing success with Seabiscuit.

But within the text of McGinniss' account of a summer at Saratoga -- the grand dame of American race courses -- the answer is not easily found.

The big horse of the title is Volponi, who made a big chunk of money at the top tier of American racing. But most of it came from one victory, hardly a record to stir the soul.

During the span of this narrative, he wins not a single race -- his great moment comes before this story begins. Worse, in the race the narrative builds up to Volponi runs dead last. Surely, neither McGinniss nor Simon and Schuster could have believed this was worth recording for the ages.

The trainer's story seems an equally unlikely source for a book, given that P.G. Johnson, like his horse, is known only to die-hard fans. It is true that Johnson is in racing's Hall of Fame, but he earned that honor by grinding away for a lifetime and racking up wins. The one unique accomplishment McGinniss trumpets -- Johnson's having won races at Saratoga for more consecutive seasons than any trainer in history -- turns out to be wrong, the result of a statistical error.

It is also true that P.G. Johnson is a crusty old curmudgeon, typical of the Guys and Dolls characters that are the lifeblood of race tracks. But if the idea was to sing the charms of racing, McGinniss undercuts that by reminding readers at every turn that he is writing about a dying game played only by geezers. It doesn't help that as the book ends, Johnson is withering away, his dreams for Volponi largely unfulfilled.

In the end, one comes back to crass explanations for any logical answer to the question of why this book exists. Maybe McGinniss simply wanted to spend a summer at Saratoga -- racing's spa -- on Simon and Schuster's dime.

Readers learn in Chapter 2 that in 1961 McGinniss, who had been seduced by the thoroughbred sport as a young man, went to Saratoga with plans to write a book about a racing season.

Before he could get started, he was called away by the illness and eventual death of his father, and the book was never written. Four decades later, as old age approached, McGinniss heard the siren song of racing again.

Apparently, in a season when the most anticipated race fell apart -- the much-anticipated matchup of Triple Crown rivals Funny Cide and Empire Maker in Saratoga's premier event, the Travers Stakes -- P.G. Johnson and Volponi were the best story he could find.

Too bad no one at Simon and Schuster had the sense to tell McGinniss, a veteran writer who should know better, that the reason for a book's existence ought to be the reader, not the writer.

Otherwise, the result is likely to be as forgettable -- and regrettable -- as this book.

Stephen Proctor is the deputy managing editor for news at the San Francisco Chronicle, former deputy managing editor for features and sports at The Sun and a habitue of race tracks on both coasts.

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