From the Racing Library: The Great American Racetracks

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Back in the days of Sunday Silence and Easy Goer, I was eager to learn about horse racing and started frequenting the Strand Bookstore in Greenwich Village. The silvery-blue glass of broken car windows was general along the city streets, and handmade signs taped inside parked cars advertised that the radio had already been stolen¹. Once inside, I would exchange my satchel for a numbered tag, weave my way through the crowded main floor, and take the stairs to the basement level to see what they had on the “Equine” shelves in the “Sports” section.

In those days, the Strand was your best bet for acquiring hard-to-find sporting titles such as Andy Beyer’s Picking Winners (Houghton Mifflin, 1975) or Tom Ainslie’s The Compleat Horseplayer (Trident, 1966). These books were key texts in the core curriculum of this handicapper’s elementary education.

The Strand’s decades-old slogan – “18 Miles of Books” – apparently understates its current inventory by about five miles, which means the store has enough books to cover nearly 16 circuits of the main track at Belmont Park. And even though the “Equine” shelves account for only maybe three-quarters of a length these days, just try finding that many horsey books at your local Barnes and Noble.

Today’s pickings are slimmer than in those days of larcenous crackheads, when I would often stuff that satchel with enough dead weight to have slowed even Ta Wee or Forego to a gallop. And while I have subsequently deigned to surf the net to obtain a rara avis such as Across the Board (Citadel Press, 1956) by Toney Betts (the wonderful “complete sentence as nom de plume” of one Anthony Zito), I still prefer this serendipitous, terrestrial method of book-buying. The anticipatory feeling generated by descending those basement stairs is not unlike walking into a racetrack … what glorious uncertainties await us today?

Sadly, we frontside folk won’t be able to walk into a racetrack (or even the Strand) for the “foreseeable future” (that oxymoronic concept has never seemed more bleakly laughable than it does today, when all our uncertainties seem far from glorious).

These are days for taking your comforts where you find them, and I’ve lately taken some solace in my racing library. Some of the books are favorites that have been read and re-read (and are odds-on to eventually be re-re-read). Others were purchased and placed on the shelves and have only gathered dust (but what’s the point of having a library if you’ve already read all the books?). Rather than indulging in pointless speculation, maybe these days of staying the eff home are better suited for pointless retrospection.

Towards that end, the “From the Racing Library” series kicks off today with one of the few so-called “coffee table” books in my collection, Nancy Stout’s Great American Thoroughbred Racetracks (Rizzoli, 1991).

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It’s a hefty, handsome book of black and white photography with quite a bit of text and history (relative to what might be generally expected in the “coffee table” genre). After I purchased it sometime in the early 1990s, it served less as a record of the great tracks I’d already had the good fortune of visiting (Arlington, Belmont, Del Mar, Monmouth, Santa Anita, and Saratoga), and more of an inspiration to eventually make my way to the remaining half-dozen of Stout’s “Greats”.

 

Churchill got crossed off the list when I attended the 1998 Breeders’ Cup. It would take 18 years to make any further progress, but in 2016 I was able to visit two more (however, by then the old Gulfstream grandstand had been trampled by a giant Pegasus and the lovely Hialeah clubhouse had been effectively reduced to the most architecturally significant off-track-betting parlor in the Western World).

The Fair Grounds, Keeneland, and Oaklawn Park complete the field, and remain prominent on my “would like to get there someday” list.

Looking at Great American Thoroughbred Racetracks today, it’s haunting to see so many photos of empty racetracks (even if that’s the whole point of architectural photography). Arlington remains a gorgeous dream of a racetrack, and – even before the pandemic struck – it was heartbreaking to think about its cloudy future.

Other photos (apologies for not being able to include them here or offer links) – in the context of these troubled times – have an eerie quality. Santa Anita’s Americana Room (page 199) and the Keeneland Room (also known as the “Clubhouse Entrance”, page 137) have the elegant but vacant look of black-and-white film stills from “The Shining”.

OK, perhaps Great American Thoroughbred Racetracks wasn’t the most uplifting starting point for some escapist, pointless retrospection. But it’s a wonderful book, and I’ve got dozens more where this one came from. And if old books can’t do anything to improve our current situation, maybe they can remind us of happier times, and help to convince us that, surely, there must be better days ahead.

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¹A popular urban myth of the time had the owners of these cars returning to find that their window had been smashed anyway, with the non-trusting thief having left a note that read “Just checking”. It was around this time I sold my car and started riding a bike.

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