Thornton’s book is a racing certainty

Anton Rippon reviews Not By A Long Shot by TD Thornton

They call horse racing the sport of kings; in most cases, it is anything but. Strip away the royal patronage at the high end of the market, look beyond the multi-millionaire owners and the world-famous jockeys with their private aircraft, and you have the real face of the sport: struggling young jockeys without a hope in hell; diehard fans whose never-failing optimism far outweighs anything they ever won by squandering money they can ill-afford on long-shot “certainties”; tumble-down racecourses where hope springs eternal, but rarely delivers.

Such a track is Suffolk Downs in the United States, nestling in the shadow of Boston’s Logan airport, cheek-by-jowel with a huge industrial fuel dump, and found only after braving the thin streets of Orient Heights, with its triple-decker apartments which were taken over by Puerto Ricans, Dominicans and Cambodians once the original occupants, Italian and Irish immigrants, had moved on to better things.

Suffolk Downs was built on a rubbish dump. Today, it lurks behind rolls of barbed wire and attracting, if that is the right word, attendances of barely 4,000 to its meetings.

Yet when it was opened, in 1935, Suffolk Downs was built to accommodate 40,000 punters – and occasionally did (actually, 52,726 fans – the largest official crowd ever at Suffolk Downs – attended the race track on August 10, 1935). The track, known for its fast racing strip, had the only concrete grandstand in America at the time. Built on an oceanside landfill straddling the communities of East Boston and Revere, it soon became the showcase for horse racing in New England. Some of the greatest thoroughbreds graced its turf: the immortal Seabiscuit, Discovery, War Admiral and Whirlaway – they shared in, and added to, the glory that was this once-proud racecourse.

But times changed, and Suffolk Downs did not change with them. In the late 1950s, sports fans began to stay at home to watch televised sport, but racing in general decided that it wanted nothing to do with TV. It was the start of a long downhill road. The legalisation of public gambling didn’t help, and in 1989, Suffolk Downs, almost insolvent anyway, was forced to close amid allegations of corruption at the track.

Yet, three years later, it was reopened, with millions of dollars pumped in to improve the infrastructure, and with New England’s richest horse race, the Massachusetts Handicap, restored to America’s racing calendar there. Suffolk Downs looked as if it was on the up again.

It was a false dawn: local politicians all but put the track into a straitjacket with new regulations; where they had once ignored television, now racing paid little heed to telephone and internet betting; and when neighbouring states began to take a more progressive view towards gambling, busloads of Massachusetts punters were driven over the state line to the newly-opened Foxwood casino in Connecticut. Suffolk Downs was, once more, in deep trouble.

The quality of racing became poorer and poorer, so punters took their money elsewhere; owners, trainers and jockeys went with them. A few got out of racing altogether. A few, though, chose to remain at Suffolk Downs. And it is they who are the subject of Not By A Long Shot, the story of one season – the 2000 – at this hard-luck horse track, written by TD Thornton, a TV and radio commentator whose work has also appeared in the Boston Globe and the national Racing Times.

Thornton’s compelling account of life at Suffolk Downs at the dawn of the 21st century is an intricate mosaic of some of the most bizarre characters you are ever likely to meet in any sport: those hopeful young jockeys riding grizzled racehorses who are at the end of their careers; an eccentric Harvard doctor who prefers to toil away as the trainer of her own small stable; a remarkable partnership between an abrasive man of money and a horseman who also fought as a small-time professional boxer; and the never-say-die fans who curse, cheer and gamble on the whole unlikely scene.

And we mustn’t forget the real stars: a young prospect so timid that he runs away and hides at his first sight of a racetrack; an ancient grey, likeable enough but with an uncanny knack of always finishing second; and a gelding who boasts a regal bloodline but a dangerous personality.

These, then, are the unseen supporting cast for America’s $1 billion betting industry, and as a racing journalist, Thornton has enjoyed access to them all, getting into areas of racetrack life that are out of bounds to the rest of us.

Not By A Long Shot is an unvarnished portrait of life under the radar of horse racing. Beautifully written, full of anecdote, its characters fairly leaping off the page, and of interest even to those who have never placed a bet in their lives, it might just be one of the best books ever written on the so-called sport of kings.

Not By A Long Shot, by TD Thornton, is published by PublicAffairs, New York, $26.00, and can be ordered on Amazon