Friday, September 29, 2017

Summer Series: The Black Stallion's Blood Bay Colt

The Black Stallion's Blood Bay Colt
by Walter Farley

Okay. Two things you need to know about why this review has taken so long.

1) It nearly broke me. Reading this book was not fun. It was not cracktastic or even occasionally thrilling, it was just mean.
2) Summer's over, so the series is on hiatus until next summer. Sorry!

So with that, I'm reasonably sure I can mock it anyway. Let's do this.

You may remember at the end of The Black Stallion and Satan, when Alec & Henry were driving to their farm upstate, Henry asked Alec if the Black's first stud service could go to his old friend, Jimmy Creech, who was a harness racer. Alec, displaying the same obliviousness that led to his blind spot about racing the Black and Satan as Thoroughbreds, thought that was a capital idea.

Instead of recapping this book chronologically, as with the others, I'm going to do some character summaries and then hit a few of the major themes. The plot of this book is a big nothingburger. Even more than usual. Colt is born. Colt grows up. Colt is trained. Colt races. Zero conflict. All the conflict is on the human side.

I'll insert some photos of harness racing at the Tunbridge World's Fair in Vermont that I took a few years ago so you have a) something to break up the wall of text and b) some actual context for the way this book wants to tell its story.

Let's introduce our cast of characters. I made a few conscious decisions about how to read this book that helped me get through it, and I'll share them each with you.

Tom Messenger. Tom is our Alec stand-in: he's a high school kid who inexplicably walks five miles (YES. FIVE MILES.) to and from the local harness track every day so he can hang around with one trainer and his two horses. Tom is somewhat endearing, if bland. My decision for Tom is that his family is black. The story reads way better that way, trust me. Tom's parents are nonexistent and have no objections to him spending waaaaaaaaaay too much time at the track. It's a step up from the Ramsays, I suppose. Tom is obsessed first with the mare Volo Queen and then with Bonfire, the colt, and Tom's only exposure to horses comes through the track and through Jimmy's teachings.

Jimmy Creech. Jimmy is an asshole. Jimmy has basically no redeeming qualities at all. Jimmy's assholery drives our plot. He owns Volo Queen and one other horse, Symbol. 1/3 of the way through the book he gives Symbol away for no reason at all. Jimmy is the kind of Trump-voting troglodyte who thinks things should stay the same (ie, the way they were when he was winning all the time) no matter what and who yells at and abuses the people around him for no good reason. Constantly. He blames everyone else for his problems. He is a shit friend who burns up good will and yet, inexplicably, people keep giving him second, third, and fourth chances. Everything in this book happens IN SPITE OF Jimmy. Also, he's never or rarely just "Jimmy." He's always "Jimmy Creech." Fuck him forever.

George Snedecker. Jimmy and George are longtime lovers and life partners. Yep. That's how I'm reading this book, and trust me, it makes it a better book. Sadly, it also makes George an abused spouse, because George spends the whole book being kind of cool. He's old-school but he understands changes, and welcomes them if they bring more people to the sport. He's actually kind to Tom. He does ALL of the actual work without, as far as I can tell, getting paid. But Jimmy treats him like absolute shit. Here's a very typical interaction.
[George] said with attempted lightness, "No need to work over Symbol, heh, Jimmy? He'll stir up enough wind to wipe him clean."
Jimmy Creech looked sullenly into George's grinning, tobacco-stained mouth. "Sure," he said. "Let's get the stuff on him now."
Fuuuuuuck you, Jimmy.

Those are our three main characters; I'll introduce others later.

The primary conflict in this book is the evolution of the sport of harness racing. Jimmy wants to keep it a small-time sport, with daytime races at local county fairs. The sport at large is moving toward dedicated tracks with evening races under the lights. That's an interesting narrative, right? There's a lot to be mined there. The thing that kills me is that Walter Farley gets it. His descriptions of the world of harness racing are as good as - or even better than - anything in the flat racing books. But the entire narrative is presented as one of Good versus Evil, through the lens of Jimmy Creech's bitterness and anger.

George has some mild opinions on the changes, and Tom has no actual character (other than being a generally easygoing kid and having a natural feel for "the reins") so the conflict is driven entirely by Jimmy. Jimmy is so upset about the way things are going that he works himself into a bleeding ulcer that has to have surgery. He eats like crap. He has temper tantrums. He screams at the people around him. He sees anyone who has anything to do with the night tracks as a "traitor" and not in the haha-teasing way, in the "you and your kin are dead to me unto the seventh generation" kind of way. He hates drivers at the big tracks so much that he crashes his cart into one of them and gets into a fistfight on the training track with another. Everyone is so afraid of his temper that they tiptoe around him, hide things from him, cater to his every whim, and yes-sir his every statement. Jimmy checks every single damn box on the abusive relationship list.
Jimmy was as highly strung as any colt and his emotions would vary from day to day and from hour to hour.
That's just the kind of guy I want training horses and/or to be my friend, amirite?

The book has three main chunks: first, the colt's birth and early life. Second, the colt's training. Third, the colt's racing. The colt, by the way, is a blood bay (hence the title) named Bonfire and despite being half-Arabian, half-Standardbred, he is the fastest harness racing horse EVAH. Because of the Black. Or something. Whatever, Bonfire has literally zero personality. After the Black and Satan, he is a big blob of nothing on four legs. He's easy to train. He wins races. He's awfully pretty. The end.

Among Jimmy's more questionable decisions in the book is the decision to send Volo Queen, pregnant with the colt, with Tom for the summer to his aunt and uncle's house. Tom displays creditable anxiety about this decision, tries to get a vet on-call, and in general takes this responsibility far more seriously than any adults in the book. What do you mean, sending a pregnant mare several hours away to live with a high schooler with zero horse experience is a great plan? On top of everything, Tom is charged with starting the colt - teaching him to be handled, led, etc. Somehow this turns out fine, though damned if I know how. (There are a few screw-ups along the way, but nothing Tom can't overcome with the power of lurrrrrrve.)
And Tom, I've got full confidence in you. Use your own judgment if anything comes up. You've got a good head and, most important, the right feeling for horses, and that always pays off in the end.

The training is ok? I don't know. The horse gets trained. The whole middle bridge displays the fundamental flaw of this book. The training is actually suuuuuuper interesting. Jimmy clearly knows his stuff. I loved learning about harness racing from the ground up. (I have a soft spot a mile wide for harness racing, because all my earliest experiences with horse racing was at Scarborough Downs.)

But the whole middle bit is taken over by Jimmy's illness (he spends the whole book in denial that he has an ulcer until it ruptures; I'm pretty sure it's a long game for maximum attention) and by the burgeoning conflict with the night tracks. Two other horses that float in and out of the story are racing at fairs and night tracks, and they're set up to be Bonfire's big rivals, but they're not, really. But the middle bridge means it's time to talk about the best damn character in the whole book, and a top 5 for the entire Black Stallion series.

Miss Elsie. Miss Elsie is living the dream, you guys. She never married, and inherited her father's fortune when he died. She spends that money to maintain the training track, breed her own horses, and train all her own horses. She gives exactly zero shits about what anyone thinks of her. She is friendly, but laser-focused on her horses. She is compassionate but doesn't indulge anyone. She is in and out of the story and is absolutely perfect in every way. She has a filly named Princess Guy (which, ok, not the best name but whatever, she has a stallion named Mr. Guy that she loves and named her after) that is setting track records alongside Bonfire, and she has zero compunctions about going where the best races are - at fairs or at the night tracks.

So what does Jimmy think about Miss Elsie?
A month or so ago, Jimmy read on the back of [a newspaper clipping] you'd sent that Miss Elsie Topper had left the Ohio fairs and was racing her black filly, Princess Guy, a,t Maywood Park, the night raceway just outside of Chicago. I don't have to tell you how Jimmy feels about the night raceways. He bellowed for days that Miss Elsie had betrayed him, and I had all I could do to quiet him down.
Once again, in chorus: fuck you, Jimmy.

Jimmy gets himself so upset that his ulcer basically explodes (they're never more medically specific than that). He has to go on bed rest at home, and somehow a retired nurse comes to live with him but...doesn't charge any money? They explain that she just likes taking care of things, and now she has a nice place to live and people, I have been reading a lot about emotional labor lately and I am so filled with rage about this particular plot development I can't even see straight.

Whatever: Jimmy basically sits at home watching Fox News and getting taken care of (FOR FREE), and George and Tom take over Bonfire's training and then racing.

Then Jimmy has to have experimental surgery done by a doctor flow in from out of town to fix his ulcer, and suddenly they owe thousands upon thousands of dollars in medical bills. Jimmy is not in the picture at all to help fix this, when arguably he ignored every single shred of doctor's advice up to this point. (Free advice! Did I mention that? The doctor was also treating him for free because he liked Jimmy so much!) and is largely responsible for the dire straits he's in. (No, I'm not saying his entire illness is his fault, but nor do I have much sympathy either for the endgame exacerbation he brought on himself.)

Bonfire is good - he wins everything, except when Tom, who I feel I should remind you is still walking five miles to and from the track every day with zero parental input and is like 17, screws up the driving. Which is 10000% understandable! He's learning! But he has Jimmy breathing down his neck via letter and also thousands of dollars in medical bills to pay off. Because it's somehow HIS responsibility. Fuck you, Jimmy Creech.

Obviously, the conflict in this book was all headed in one direction. In order to win the kind of money they need, Tom and Bonfire are going to have to race at a night track. To scope it out ahead of time, Tom and George go visit.
"And although it isn't for me or Jimmy or maybe for you," George added sincerely, "it's good for our sport in a lot of ways. Raceways like this all 'round the country mean a lot more people are takin' to our sport, and in time they'll learn to love it the same as we do."

Tom and George enter Bonfire in the Big Race (I don't remember what it's called, but it's a Black Stallion book, of course it ends with a Big Race), pooling the last of their money to do so. It's a tight race, but please use your best surprised face when I tell you that Bonfire wins. (I snark because I love; Bonfire's races are arguably the most enjoyable scenes in the book, because they get back to what these books do best.)

They win a ton of money! They pay off all the medical bills, all the feed bills, all the travel bills, they buy ALL new equipment, and Bonfire sets a new record for the mile at 1:59. Happy ending, right?

lol. Remember how they have to go back to their abusive home?
Jimmy Creech stood at the other end of the shed, bellowing fiercely. He was holding the tall gold-plated trophy in his hands, reading the inscription on it. When he had finished he looke dup and saw them; then the trophy came hurling through the air as he hurled it at their feet. It rolled past them, striking with a sharp ring against the door. Bonfire shrilled at the sound of it, then moved uneasily back and forth in his stall. Quickly Tom went to him, going inside the stall to quiet the colt. He ran his hand up and down Bonfire's head while Jimmy Creech continued raging without making his words understandable.

George finally stands up for himself, though.
"You're here...and that's the way we wanted it to be. And I wanted you to see this colt race, Jimmy. You've never in your life seen a colt like this one...let alone owned one. He's a world's champion, Jimmy. He beat the best there is. He did one fifty-nine, Jimmy. Are you thinkin' of that at all? Or are your mind and body filled with so much hatred for the raceways that you can't even see a colt like this any more? He's yours, Jimmy. You bred him. You own him. All your life you hoped this would happen to you...never dreamin' it would come. But it has, Jimmy...and you're not even looking at him."
I wish I could say that either George breaks up with Jimmy and goes and lives his best life, or that Jimmy has some kind of amazing revelation and about-face, but the ending is much less satisfying than that. The only thing Jimmy says is to order Tom to take Bonfire's blanket off so he can look at the horse, because somehow that's supposed to be an apology AND a thanks for everything he put them through and they did for him?

I don't know you guys. This was not a fun book to read. The good parts (training, racing, Tom being sweet if in over his head, Miss Elsie) were totally obscured by the rage that fueled the narrative conflict.

Have you read it recently, or not-so-recently? What did you think?


  1. I have not read this one at all let alone recently and I feel okay with that.

  2. Even at age 9 I knew the difference between Arabians, Thoroughbreds, and Standardbreds. I thought why not a whole parallel series; the Black Stallion's Reining Horse. Or the BS Park Horse (take on saddleseat!?) The Black Stallion's Tevis Horse would be more likely. Why did the Black have to sire Bonfire? meh.
    I do remember liking the harness racing insight. Compared to Born to Trot by M. Henry, though- Rosalind takes Bonfire by daylight.

    Now I don't need to re-read this one again. I did pick up an upgraded copy of The BS's Filly recently so that one got read. Oh, Alec, Alec, Alec...

  3. Awwww, I'm super sad. This was my favorite book in the series. Probably because I was an unsupervised teenager who was secretly walking (only 2.5 miles) to the harness racing track every day to hang out with a trainer.

  4. These reviews are DELICIOUS!!!

    but please don't ever review Marguerite Henry. I love her too much.

  5. I loved the sequel to this one more. But it's typical for the series. Alec comes to save the day.


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