The first racetrack I ever went to was River Downs. It’s not unlike the fictional Indian Mound Downs in Jaimy Gordon’s “Lord of Misrule,” an award winning book about a group of individuals whose lives center around the old and dying tradition of horseracing.

Despite the fact that many believe that River Downs and other racetracks are dying a slow death, there’s still something about the place that draws me in on a random Saturday or an midweek afternoon when I can’t stand being in the office anymore. There’s something fantastic about studying past performances in the program, making mindless conversation with someone in line to make a bet, and swigging down a watery beer as you wait for the horses to reach the post. Like a drug, I love the seven minutes of anticipation between the moment when the bugle blows the horses onto the track and when the announcer states “the horses have reached the post” just before the bell goes off and the gates open.

It’s a middle class place, River Downs. Even the horses there are middle class—maybe lower middle class. They are like the wait staff at Bob Evans. Sure, they are in the same industry as the waiters at Jeff Ruby’s, but who are we kidding, it’s a different world.  River Downs horses work their butts off, just like their brethren at nicer tracks like Churchill or Santa Anita, but they look a little older and they run a little slower. And like at Bob Evans, they get paid much less. I like River Downs much better. It’s where the real, hard working folks–and horses–go.

If you don’t like the track, you’ve probably never felt that rush when you think you might have hit the trifecta. And then the board posts the unofficial numbers, you wait through a photo finish, and you realize, damn right, you hit the tri.  If you don’t know that rush, then don’t roll your eyes at the track.

A Good Day at the Track

Ok, this is a book blog, so back to “Lord of Misrule.” As I said earlier, this won the National Book Award, so it’s critically acclaimed, but most likely by people who don’t regularly hang out at River Downs. Something about this book didn’t click with me. It might have been the stereotypical characters that weren’t fully developed. There was an older African American groomer, a large and gruff woman trainer with a heart, a couple of Italian bookie/mafia types, and a young woman in love with an older crazy guy with four horses and dream.

Maybe it didn’t click because it was fiction and many of the plot lines that take place before and after the races didn’t feel plausible.

And maybe it didn’t click because of the writing style. Gordon writes the characters’ conversation informally, without quotation marks, and in a style that is meant to evoke a dusty West Virginia racetrack. It’s good stuff, but I felt like the author was trying just a bit too hard. Despite the well-written accent, I never forgot that an English professor was the one writing it.  Sorry.

Maybe it didn’t click because of the random violence or the graphic and awkward domination style sex scenes.

But for me, I think the real reason it didn’t click was this: women. I’ve been going to River Downs for years, and it is unusual to see women there. Usually there are a few with their husbands or boyfriends, there are some slinging beers, and there are a few behind the teller windows. For the most part though, the track is still a man’s place. So for Jaimy Gordon to introduce a protagonist who exists behind the scenes at a racetrack, and who also happens to be a youngish, somewhat attractive woman, well, that just seems wrong.

Gordon worked at a track for years, so maybe she is writing what she saw. Yet it was foreign to me. Maybe while I’m deciding whether to bet the 4 or the 9, there’s some girl in the shedrows having sex with her horse’s owner. Maybe she’s also trying to figure out how to get her ancient but legendary and mystical horse to win a race after a long draught.  Maybe she has captured the hearts of the old railbirds that have been hanging around the track for years. And maybe she’s figured out a way to outwit the Mafioso types that supposedly wield the real power at the track. Maybe it’s all true. But I don’t think so.

For a better book about the track, I suggest “Not by a Long Shot” by T.D. Thornton, a former publicity director for Suffolk Downs. It’s a great memoir of one year at an old and dying racetrack. I think he better captures the track experience that I see when I roll over to River Downs and bet a few.

I’ll end with this. “Lord of Misrule” was a gift, and though the book wasn’t awesome, it kept my attention, got me thinking, and was generally a good read. You don’t always hit a bulls-eye when you give a book as a gift, so it is a risk. I believe it is always a risk worth taking. If you read a book jacket and you think for a even just a moment about whether a friend may like the book, then through that simple act you are demonstrating you are a good friend.

Thanks for reading.