Friday, August 25, 2017

Summer Series: The Black Stallion and Satan

The Black Stallion and Satan, by Walter Farley

Okay. I have to admit up front that this will be tough. It's miles away my favorite entry in the series, and as I will argue below, it's almost like it was written by a different author - there's a noticeable jump in writing quality and overall maturity in this book. I was grateful for that.

Let's be honest, though: it's still kind of nuts. So I'm sure I'll find plenty to snark about. First, a summary.
Satan has won the Triple Crown, but he's not Alec's horse anymore. Just when Alec is feeling his most sulky, he learns that Abu Ja'Kub ben Ishak has died and left him the Black! The Black arrives and Alec finds himself wondering which black stallion is faster. He's slated to get his answer when he learns that ben Ishak entered the Black into the International Stakes, a race pitting the champions of many countries against each other. Before the race is run, however, a deadly disease sweeps through the racing barns.
Like The Black Stallion Returns, the majority of this book's plot is in its last 50 or so pages. It creeps along like molasses and then it is a lightning storm of plot devices swallowed by plot holes in some kind of endless ouroboros of bad writing. But we'll get to that.

The book starts with a bang: Alec is in the starting gate with Satan at the Belmont. The colt (who please note is still "burly" compared to the Black, like it's not enough he has daddy issues, he also gets fat-shamed constantly) has won the other two legs easily, and he crushes this one too. There's a weird moment in the post parade when some jackass in the crowd snarks Alec for...riding too well?
From the pushing, heaving wave of people at the rail, a man shouted, "Hey, Ramsay! You think it's a horse show?"
Alec heard the man's words, but his eyes never left the muddy track which he could see between Satan's pricked ears.

"A Good Hands class maybe?" the man called again.

Only then did Alec Ramsay become aware that he was sitting much straighter in the saddle than the other jockeys.
Two things. 1) Who fricking cares? and 2) What the hell kind of sadist dreams up a Good Hands class and what the hell kind of masochist enters it? (The internet tells me it's a saddle seat thing which means the catcaller may have actually displayed some deeper horse knowledge but I'm still staying on record as it being dumb.)

Satan wins, because literally no horse in any of these books has lost a horse race yet. I'll let you know when it happens.
He was all power, all beauty as he swept beneath the wire, winner by a dozen lengths and the first undefeated Triple Crown winner in turf history!
This book was written in 1951. Confirmed, Secretariat would have kicked Satan's burly ass. Also - Seattle Slew would've at the least tied them.

When Alec gets home from the Belmont, he mopes around pretty much constantly, because Satan isn't really his horse anymore. And you know what? I actually find this characterization pretty compelling. Alec isn't actually that that interested in being famous; he just wants to obsess over his horse(s). So it does make sense that he's feeling possessive and jealous.

I would like here to state my theory of this book, which is: Alec is realizing that Satan was his rebound horse, who he thought he fell in love with because he shared characteristics from his first, abusive, obsessive relationship, but has turned out to be actually a decent horse. Upon realizing this, and realizing that Satan will not be his exclusively, he's pining for that original relationship that was dysfunctional and unhealthy but at least all-consuming.
Alec closed his eyes, shutting out the Black's picture from his mind. But he opened them almost immediately, startled by the sound of his own voice as he said loudly, "Today I rode Satan to the Triple Crown championship. No one could ask for more than that. No one should. I'm the luckiest and happiest kid in the world." He repeated his words to himself, then rose to his feet, knowing well that he was only kidding himself. He wasn't happy at all.
See what I mean? He's even talking about it out loud with Henry. Seriously, he either got a personality transplant or some kind of massive maturity upgrade or...maybe he's finally going to therapy? That's my headcanon, anyway.
Alec turned to him. "Sometimes, Henry, I think of myself as a baby who's had his pet toy taken away from him," he said angrily. "I guess I'm unhappy because I can't have Satan to myself any longer. I tell myself to grow up, that I can't make a pet of a champion. I put all the cards on the table. I say this is exactly what I wanted. I'm glad Satan is everything we thought he'd be. I knew from the very beginning that, if he was to be a champion, I'd have to share him with others. I knew his training would have to go on, even though I couldn't always get to the track to ride him. I knew other fellows would be up on him when I wasn't. Everything made sense...everything was just the way I'd figured it was going to be." Alec paused, his gaze leaving Henry for Napoleon. "Yet I'm finding it hard to take...much harder than I ever thought it would be."
Henry is very pragmatic about all of this, and frankly, this way of horsekeeping makes a lot more sense to him as a trainer who's been around big horses most of his life. The "shared" model is his default, where for Alec his weird, obsessive relationship with the Black is normal. Hence, Henry has very much come around on Satan after thinking he was the devil. Henry and Satan are now besties, really.

Henry convinces Alec to take down the photograph of the Black that hangs in the barn, because he thinks Alec needs to move on, and it's not an entirely unreasonable message but he delivers it kind of shittily. He's honestly kind of a jerk through this whole book which I think might be guilty over-compensation from enabling Alec through the last through books.

Literally seconds after Alec puts the picture of the Black away (LITERALLY. SECONDS.) his father comes to the barn to tell him he has a letter from "Arabia." Turns out Abu Ja'Kub ben Ishak is dead - he was killed while riding the Black. The letter is from his kickass daughter, who is still going by her maiden name or maybe her marriage didn't go through after all? Ancillary questions, I have them.

Ben Ishak left a sealed letter saying that in the event of his death the Black would go to Alec, and Tabari notes that but for that they would have put him down which...I feel like everyone maybe should've dwelled on that point a little longer? Henry actually points out (more overcompensating!) that maybe the Black has had a few more screws loosened because straight-up killing a man who has been handling him for years is not a great sign, but our Alec is totally undeterred.

The Black arrives in style, on a cargo plane, and is unloaded at midnight by a handler who I think is supposed to be portrayed as abusive but really is just trying to install some manners (albeit roughly) in a very tenuous situation but of course that goes badly. Thankfully the Black recognizes Alec or he would've bolted, and as Henry points out.
"If he'd gotten away, everyone on the field would've know it, an' it'd be in the papers tomorrow. As it is, these Trans-World guys are just glad to get rid of him."
Yes, Henry, if a wild horse had gotten loose on a busy airfield the papers would've been the worst part of it.

They bring him home and there's this great bit:

Running to the van, Henry pushed the ramp inside. He was closing the door when Alec called, "I'll ride back here with him."
"As if I didn't know," Henry said.
Henry Dailey, bringing the snark!

Everything is immediately back to "normal" for Alec and the Black, and they team up to continue to subtweet Satan.
The stallion moved forward, without bolting, and his gait was effortless and easy to ride. How different he was from Satan, Alec thought. For only when the Black's burly son was in full gallop was he easy to ride; only then did Satan lose the ponderousness that was so much in evidence at any other gate.
Okay. Guys. Satan is VERY well bred. There is literally no reason for him to be bashed so constantly. His dam is supposedly the specialest and most purest Arabian left (Tabari's mare Johar) and his sire is the Black. If he still has "ponderous" gaits, Alec, it's your own shitty riding at fault.

Everyone agrees that it's very important that no one find out the Black is back, because as soon as it occurs to him that Satan might be faster than the Black, he'll go nuts and demand to prove it isn't so. And...yeah, that's exactly what happens. Satan wins some imaginary race at a mile and a quarter and sets a new world record of 1:58 and Alec just loses any semblance of sanity. He obsesses over it constantly and finally makes up a really dumb plan to to race the Black at the local golf course (living the dream!) where by coincidence he and Henry have measured out a mile and a quarter.

Not only does the Black run the mile and a quarter a full second slower than Satan, Alec gets ticketed by a cop for galloping in a public park. Somehow that never came up in all the times he and Henry exercised Satan along that same trail? The cop is also really dumb and is generally jerky and threatening, so of course the Black takes exception and tries to kick him, which just exacerbates the whole situation.

A few days later, Alec shows up to pay his fine - he has to appear in court for it, for some reason? He gets questioned by a reporter, who guesses who Alec is and then this whole plot cascade that makes NO SENSE starts in which Alec becomes convinced that everyone is on to him and will know it was the Black.
As he pulled [the gate] open, he knew what hew as going to do, and he didn't have any time to lose. The reporters would be here within an hour, maybe less.
Okay. Realistically, though? The Black won one race (albeit spectacularly) four years ago. I know that horse racing has fallen out of the American public eye, but not even Tom Brady would get this much media attention if, say, he dropped out of the public eye for four years and then showed up throwing around a football in a public park.

Nevertheless, Alec tries to hide the Black in the tack room and to convince the six (SIX!!!) reporters who have shown up that he was actually galloping Napoleon. The journalists are all super weird and invasive and for some reason Alec just caves in and shows and tells them absolutely everything they want to know? Alec doth protest too much, I think, because not once does he say something like "private property" or "nope, not today" or literally anything like that.

It's our old friend Jim Neville who finally moves our plot forward: he says that before he died, ben Ishak entered the Black in the upcoming International Cup, a race between champions of every country. Satan's already entered, of course. He pressures Alec to race with a really weird argument that he repeats multiple times, even though Alec keeps saying that their plan is to take the Black to a farm upstate and put him out to stud.
"Why don't you race him then, Alec?" Jim's words came fast; he was taking advantage of Alec's pride in the speed of the Black. "I'd like to see it....So would everyone else." He paused. "Don't you think you owe it to racing?"
A) no, Alec doesn't "owe" anyone a goddamn thing
B) if literally anyone in these books valued good ground manners 5% as much as they valued speed, I would have a billion times more respect for them

Alec is suckered into saying he'll go ahead with racing the Black in the International Cup, which makes the front page of all the newspapers the next day. Cue a whole chapter in which Alec basically goes back and forth showing the Black to the public. Seriously, people just show up at the front gate of the farm and Alec spends every waking second walking them down to the barn, two at a time, letting them see the black, and then walking them back. Alec clearly hates every second of this but he keeps doing it. For reasons.

Henry gets back while Alec is in the middle of trudging back and forth and true to his more sane, curmudgeonly personality in this book, he immediately thinks running the Black in the International is a terrible idea.
"He could raise havoc on the track, and that wouldn't do the sport any good either. There are some mighty valuable horses in the International, Alec, an' I wouldn't want to be responsible for any damage done."
Who is this person and what has he done with Henry Dailey?

Alec ropes Henry into his obsession and there is a totally fascinating exchange.

"What do you think, Henry? Could Satan beat him?" The Black pushed his muzzle toward Alec's pocket, seeking a carrot.
"It's not fair to ask me that, Alec," Henry said, after a long silence. "You know how I feel about Satan."
"You mean you're closer to him than to the Black."
"Guess you can call it that. I've done something with Satan. He has the Black's speed and he'll turn it off an' on for anyone on his back. It's a combination hard to beat...for any horse," he added, turning to the stallion.
18 months ago, Henry thought Satan was the devil himself and that he might have to be destroyed, but I guess a Triple Crown changes everything? So on the one hand, this change makes absolutely no sense. On the other, I do think there's something to Satan having changed into a horse that Henry understands much better and Alec understands much less, and in that way, I do buy this.

Here's how I can make an argument for Farley having finally upped his writing game in this, his fifth book: there are legitimately thoughtful themes that carry through this entire book. The pacing still blows chunks, but you can truly trace a dichotomy of points of view through the book. Henry represents the status quo, straightforward success, reasonable goalposts, good training, and civilization. Alec is much more interested in a primal way of understanding horses: it's pure emotion and longing, wildness as a virtue, and rampant ambition to be the very best. You can really understand why they don't see eye to eye about the two horses in their lives, and why I really think it's a great idea that Alec announces his intentions in this book to retire to their new breeding farm and manage that.

(Okay, it's also a really terrible idea, because Alec - who still hasn't finished college! - knows jack shit about breeding, business, barn management, or really anything about horses beyond galloping them around recklessly. But on an emotional level I can see why it works for him.)

Henry gets Alec to agree to pull the Black from the race if he acts up, and they set off.
[The Black] was halter-tied to the small open window of the driver's cab, and Alec was able to reach through it and touch his horse.
What the hell kind of van is this? Who ties their horse TO A WINDOW?

Along the way, we learn about the geniuses behind the International Cup. The track, by the way, is somewhere north of Saratoga. Saratoga is pretty damn far north, you guys. A brand-new track even further north? I call shenanigans.
"How come they're holding the Cup race there, Henry? Why not at Belmont or one of the other tracks closer to a big city?" 
"Because the International was their idea.  And what better send-off could you give a new track than to sponsor such a race? I guess the track's board of directors figured it that way. And the International Cup race is just before their first regular meeting, so the people coming to the International will most likely stay on for the meeting."
This makes so little business sense that critiquing it is almost like shooting a fish in a barrel, but *cocks shotgun.*

Okay: the plan is to sponsor a massive international race at a track in the middle of nowhere as the very first thing ever done at a new track. It's the only race not only on its day but in that entire week. And their hope is that people will come out to the boonies, watch this one race, stay for a full other week, and then hang around for the next week's race? I just. To be a fly on the wall at that bankruptcy hearing...!

Alec is right there in dreamland with them.
"I wonder if they'll know each other?"
"The Black and Satan." 
Henry smiled. "No. They've forgotten all about each other. Satan was only a few months old when they were separated. 
Alec turned to the Black. "Anyway, it's going to be interesting to watch them together." 
"Yeah," Henry muttered. "Mighty interesting." 

Things start to happen very quickly after this; remember what I said about plot devices chasing plot holes? Well, in defiance of international quarantine, common sense, veterinary best practice, and any kind of sanity, it turns out that El Dorado, the horse from South America, has been running a high fever and isn't feeling well. He's better now, though, so it's totally cool.

"I wonder if you could loan us one of your pails?" the man asked. "El Dorado banged up ours yesterday."
"Sure," Alec said, leaving the stall. 
The man followed him. "We're getting a couple more, so I'll return this to you by afternoon," he said when Alec gave him the pail.
Oh. My. God. This makes so little sense that my only plausible explanation is some kind of sinister industrial espionage. Maybe there's a conspiracy among the owners to chase insurance money? A racing stable that houses the South American champion (yes, in this world, like Arabia, South America is one country) does not have extra buckets? So they go begging from down the aisle? And then say they'll return it? AFTER THEIR HORSE HAS BEEN SICK? Sweet zombie Jesus on a pogo stick.

Soon after that, Satan (I'm sorry; "the burly colt") arrives and loses his brain because he sees the Black. Of course they want to kill each other. Literally no one but Alec thought they would have a touching slo-mo soaring music reunion.
And as Alec remained with his horse he thought of how much he had looked forward to the day when the Black would meet his colt. He'd even thought they would recognize each other for what they were, father and son. But it hadn't worked out that way at all. There was no love between them. They were two giant stallions, both eager and willing to fight. No, it wasn't the same as he'd thought it would be at all.
You know, I'm almost a little sorry for Alec; the narrative requires him so be so unfathomably stupid.

Henry has a theory that the Black "brings out the instinctive savageness and hatred in every stallion to fight his kind." Which is obviously bullshit, but he's not wrong that the Black can't be trusted around other horses, and he loses his marbles when Alec tries to work him on the track. Thankfully, Alec sees sense and agrees to withdraw the Black from the race, and holds firm when Jim Neville tries to bully him into going through with it. They're going to leave in the morning.

Except they're not! The plot continues to move at the speed of light in the background.
"It's serious, Alec," Henry said solemnly, turning to the boy for the first time. "El Dorado has swamp fever, the most dreaded horse disease known. They're putting him down tonight," he added quietly. "There's no's the only thing they can do."
Now, fully expecting Walter Farley to have made up some bizarro disease, I faithfully Googled "swamp fever" and to my amazement: it's an old name for EIA, equine infectious anemia. That's the disease that the Coggins test looks for. There's still no cure, and infected horses are still destroyed. I found this long PDF from the USDA to be a great read about a disease I really hadn't thought a lot about. It's largely gone from the US horse population today thanks to aggressive testing and isolation, but it was absolutely a very realistic fear in 1948. Kudos to you, Walter Farley! Too bad you didn't put that kind of thought into international quarantine procedures, or you would never have had a book.

Alec finally realizes that lending a bucket to El Dorado was a terrible idea, and loses his shit. Henry is cool as a cucumber and points out that the odds are in their favor.

The vets, meanwhile, have been paid off by plot device and have decided on the most cumbersome, most suspenseful way possible to proceed.
"The only definite way we have of finding out is to take blood samples from your horses and, pooling this blood, innoculate it into the bloodstream of a horse who has not been exposed to the disease. If no evidence of the disease appears in the innoculated test horse, your horses will be given a clean bill of health and released. However, if swamp fever develops in the test horse, each of your horses must be tested individually to find out which one or more has the disease.

But wait! Remember plot device? Our good friend, racist caricature Tony has arrived with Napoleon in tow. He wants poor Napoleon to be the one that get the Black and Satan's blood.
"My Nappy...I'm sure he wants it this way," Tony said more soberly. "He's-a like brother to the Black and Satan. And now he will have their blood in him. It's the only way, Meester Veterinary."
No. No. No. No. No. Christ, poor Napoleon suffers more than any other character in this series with the possible exception of Mrs. Ramsay (whose only appearance in this whole book is to look "plump" at the Belmont back at the beginning).

All the horses are moved to a state quarantine farm even further upstate, and they wait for forty days. Cue montage of Alec spending a lot of time moping around, taking care of the Black and Satan, basically all alone because everyone else has peaced out. (After the vets said for them to leave their forwarding addresses, because 1948!)

It's fine, though: everyone is healthy! They all make plans to leave the following morning to this long-awaited breeding farm, but plot device strikes again: Alec wakes up in the middle of the night at the hotel to smell smoke and see a forest fire in the distance. He and Henry drive to the farm to see the flames almost there. The vets have let all the horses out, but they're all just hanging out in a field, except the Black. Alec lets the Black out, but Satan won't come with them, on account of his daddy issues.

They start to leave but Alec turns back around, and Jim Neville (who just...randomly showed up?) has to restrain Henry from following him, and they both drive away, leaving Alec to his equine-assisted suicide.

Alec uses the Black to chase the other horses to a gate he saw earlier, that leads to a lane that...well, he has no idea where it leads, but at least he admits that in the text.

What follows is a genuinely suspenseful and exciting race through a forest fire. Yes, it's beyond dumb that all the horses are a-ok with galloping pell-mell through flames, but I would argue that actually this scene works overall. Especially since the point is less to get away from the fire than it is to provide a contrived set of circumstances in which the Black and Satan finally get to have their match race.

Rather than recap the race, I would like to type out the best passage in the book, and perhaps the best scene in the entire series. (If you really need to know, the Black wins by pulling ahead at the last moment.)
"Satan was behind the others when I saw you. Did he catch any of them, Alec?"
"He did, Henry."
"Then you think he could've beaten the in a race. Is that right, Alec?"
"He did beat them, Henry," Alec returned quietly.
"Y'mean he made up the whole distance?"
Alec nodded.
"I knew he could do it," the trainer said proudly. "I just knew he could!" It was a long while before Henry asked hesitantly. "Was the Black able to catch 'em, too?" His face was tight-lipped, intense.
"Yes, he did," Alec returned slowly.
After a long pause, Henry said, "It was a lot to ask of him, carrying your weight." The trainer turned again to the rear-view mirror and his husky jowls worked convulsively as he added huskily, "Too much of a handicap to expect him to catch Satan as well." He turned to the boy. "Not a colt like Satan."
Alec raised his eyes quickly to meet Henry's gaze. Without hesitation he said, "No, couldn't expect that of him."
Henry's heavy jowls relaxed; his tight lips parted in a smile. "We've got the finest horses in the world, Alec," he said almost in awe. "They don't come any greater than those two. We know that now."
No objectivity from me, I straight up have tears in my eyes every time I read that scene. Everyone thinks their horse is the best horse in the world, and no one is wrong. Alec, building on the emotional maturity he's slowly started to achieve through this whole book, reads Henry like an open book. He doesn't say that Satan lost; he just lets Henry think what he wants, and he just shuts the hell up. He knows the Black is faster, and he's the only one who needs to know.

They pull in to Hopeful Farm, and just as they're arriving in the driveway, Henry asks if Alec would do him a favor, and breed the Black to his friend Jimmy Creech's harness mare. Alec agrees...and we will cover the stupidity of that decision in the next book, The Black Stallion's Blood Bay Colt.


  1. That exchange with Henry -- I'm not crying, you're crying!

    Although some of the tears might be from laughing at sweet zombie Jesus on a pogo stick 😂 I had forgotten about "swamp fever", but hey, good for Walter Farley to get at least one tiny detail right?

    Oooh I'd forgotten about the trotter son, and the Hambletonian (or whatever the race is called, I'm operating off a 15+ year memory haha). I failed at finding these in a Kindle bundle (although someone really should do that), but I did locate a book by Walter's son called the Black Stallion and the Shape Shifter that I'm now dying to read lol.

  2. First, is the a Triple Crown for Arabians? Next, do people really call water buckets pails? Finally, do you think there was a ghostwriter? Like how there were multiple authors for the Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys series?

  3. Man, I loved these books as a kid and I have the whole collection. This recap is hilarious.


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