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Where was this book when I was a kid?
All I ever wanted was a good racing story, that might explain to me the very adult world of horse racing, always with its door closed to children. We were relegated to velvet hunt caps, tasteful make-up, and “natural” obstacles. I wanted rainbow silks, dirt in my face, and a clear path to the wire.
The books I had were the classics, and I memorized them even as I bemoaned either their age (Black Gold and Come on, Seabiscuit! were amazing history lessons, but I wanted to know what racing life was like now!) I was always a skeptical child, and knew the Jockey Club would never have permitted the Black to race, and certainly not to enter the Stud Book. (One might say the same thing of The Pie.) I wanted reality, I wanted some glimpse of the real thing, that storied world I wasn’t allowed to enter, not more history, not more fantasy, and certainly not more boys. Surely Velvet Brown wasn’t the only girl that dreamed of galloping a fast horse?
At last, The Sweet Running Filly is the book I was looking for.
First published in 1971, and set in southern Ohio, everything about this book rings true, right down to the very skillful country voice that the narration and dialogue is written in. Oh sure, there are stereotypical characters – the scar-faced trainer that specializes in cheap claimers, the African American groom that knows all the native flora and fauna and uses them in his secret remedies to keep the horses going, the wealthy farm owner, etc. But if Dick Francis wrote to a formula, I think we can excuse the authors theirs’. When the characters work, do you really care if you recognize them?
From the opener, at Fasig-Tipton Saratoga, where one very beautiful yearling spooks her way into the sales ring and rockets out again, a sales-topper of The Green Monkey proportions, to the Ohio antiques shop where Julie Jefferson holds up the counter for her father (a man of excellent wit, and their exchanges alone make the book worth your time) to the summer spent starting yearlings and learning to work horses, The Sweet Running Filly captivates – and manages to stay within the realm of reality, a gift for anyone tired of racing fantasy. Even the mystery, during which the main character reinvents herself as Julie Jefferson, Girl Detective, is fast-paced, entertaining, and not so convoluted that we couldn’t have expected her to have figured it out!
And despite the rollicking, quick story, despite the excellent voice and the witty dialogue, what really captures me are the truisms in this book that any horse-crazy girl will see herself in:
“The common belief was that you loved horses because you loved riding. But Julie’s emotions worked the other way. She loved riding because she loved horses. Sitting astride a horse was just one expression of the closeness of two spirits, no more and no less satisfying that playing together in a grassy pasture, nuzzling in a warm, dark stall, hand-walking after a bath to dry out, or grooming on a pair of crossties snapped across a stable aisle.”
The “Bonnie Books” continue with a half-dozen more titles, including the currently available A Horse Called Bonnie. A percentage of sales of these books will be going to Thoroughbred charities, working to improve the lives of retired racehorses