Smile Politely

Not just the horse’s mouth—the horse’s mind

Before anyone asked me to review this book, I loved thoroughbred horse racing, despite its downsides, and I loved Rachel Alexandra. I wanted to be in love with this story and Ms. Aronson made that totally possible. This is a wonderful book about one of the great stories in American sports. It is one for readers from pre-teens who will love it because it is exciting and easy to read, to adults who will love it because it is exciting and takes them deeply into the realistic world of high-level racing via this rags-to-riches drama.

The author didn’t have much knowledge of the racing world before she started, only a passion for this remarkable filly. Perhaps only Secretariat and Zenyatta stand beside Rachel Alexandra, who got her lovely name, like a Czarina name, from her owner’s granddaughter. Ms. Aronson contacted the principals in this story and interviewed them to paint her realistic portrait.

It is a dramatic presentation, taking us from the beginning of Rachel Alexandra ( I cannot call her just Rachel, the name is too regal to be shortened) and the many ways this fairy tale almost did not happen right to the ultimate triumph when her fame rivaled the screaming crowds adulating the Beatles. The author slowly and patiently traverses every stride of this amazing journey and makes every stage seem as if that particular part of this diva’s life was the most incredible until the next happening seems just as miraculous.

Don’t know much or care much about racing? Doesn’t matter. You will as you read through this book, which you will probably not want to put down or put down only because you might want to savor it. Ms. Aronson has learned about the exigencies of the racing world so that one who is well-versed in it or one who is more a novitiate will feel like they know what is going on from the way the barns look, the way the stalls are cleaned, the intricacies of the workouts, right down to realistic portraits of the racetracks, owners, trainers, even the hot walkers, and the races themselves.

And the history. Our nation did not have kings or queens we are proud to say, but we all know there is something magical about that world. Through this Sport of Kings and Queens we get to immerse ourselves in that version of Camelot. So much of the glorious history of the sport is woven into the tapestry of this book. One fact:  Seabiscuit ran seventeen times before he won his maiden race, a term you will learn in this book, which  means the first race any horse ever won. That is just one of the facts of racing history that this fine author inserts into the story, including the description of the bones of racing and the many human and animal backstories.

And the history again. The author, realizing that even in the horse world there is discrimination between men and women insighfully uses Rachel Alexandra’s struggle toward fame to point out the parallels to the Women’s Movement that this noble horse came to represent so well.   

You might guess I highly recommend this book if you want a readable, action-packed and moving story. Rachel Alexandra’s tale will bring well-earned tears as Ms. Aronson brings the character of Rachel Alexandra to life by switching to personifying her at times and gives us her voice and insight into what this heroine might be feeling and thinking.

This book did what all good books do; it takes you there and, in this case, rubs your nose in the mud of an off-track or helps you fly down the stretch of a fast surface as if you were the jockey piloting this champion and not just the reader. When I finished this fine book, I indeed felt like I was racing more than reading. Hop on board.

Alexandra the Great is published by Chicago Review Press, who provided the cover image. Deb Aronson is a local author living in Urbana. She frequently contributes to Muse, a science magazine for middle-schoolers, and previously published the biography, E. B. White.

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