Reviewed: Blood Horses - Notes of a Sportswriter’s Son by John Jeremiah Sullivan

Days at the races.

Blood Horses: Notes of a Sportswriter’s Son
John Jeremiah Sullivan
Yellow Jersey Press, 272pp, £12.99

Hippophagy has always had a bad rep but this hasn’t prevented the occasional modest proposal promoting the consumption of horseflesh. As John Jeremiah Sullivan writes in Blood Horses:

A movement to make it acceptable sprouted in England and France in the mid-18th century, led by social reformers who went so far as to stage elaborate “horse dinners” in Paris and London, serving “chevaline” to hundreds of unsuspecting guests, but in many places . . . the taboo held firm – not as a crime but as a social prejudice. 

The realisation that we may all have been unwittingly consuming horse meat in our Findus nag-lasagnes is disconcerting primarily because it exposes the terrible economy that underpins our relationship with horses. It has become uncomfortably clear that old thoroughbreds run to pieces on the track aren’t put out to pasture at the end of their careers but are sold to shady butchers for €5 apiece. “A third of all US horses sent to the ‘processing plants’ in a given year come from racetracks,” Sullivan writes. “It is said that the ‘bone men’ will, if summoned, come directly to the track.”

Part memoir, part essayistic trot through equine history, literature and mythology, Blood Horses is full of disconcerting nuggets of this sort. Published in the US in 2004, it is Sullivan’s first book but his second to come out in the UK. Its release follows the success of Pulphead, a collection of essays published last year to great acclaim. Pulphead was astonishing: a series of empathetic, delicate but unsparing portraits of modern America. Blood Horses is more personal in its concerns and local in its scope and reads as what it is: a great first book.

The focus of Blood Horses is Sullivan’s relationship with his father, a poetically inclined sports journalist who spent his days “pecking out strange, clever stories about inconsequential games” while he smoked and drank himself to an early death. His father’s deathbed description of his greatest sporting memory – watching the horse Secretariat win the 1973 Kentucky Derby before going on to complete the “Triple Crown” (a racing treble that hasn’t been achieved in nearly 35 years) – haunts Sullivan and his quest to witness a similar spectacle provides the loose structure for what follows.

Interspersed with this story are reflections on horse lore and readings from the equine canon. These prompt thoughts of horses as links to the past. “A person today who knows horses, really knows them,” Sullivan writes, “understands more about what it meant in the past to be human than the most knowledgeable historian.” Lineage, breeding and tradition, themes that were developed in Pulphead in a national context, are in Blood Horses linked to more familial concerns. From the beginning, horse breeders were attempting to create a science of bloodlines and genetic inheritance. James Weatherby’s General Stud Book “preceded the first edition of Burke’s Peerage by 35 years,” Sullivan writes. “There was, in other words, an official registry of equine aristocracy before there was one for human beings.”

Sullivan’s own bloodline is as true as any Kentucky Derby winner’s and his privileged background is the source of much gentle selfflagellation. His family are the descendants of slave-owners and have a long-standing connection with the Bluegrass. Horse racing is still predominantly a white sport and the trade in horses has uncomfortable echoes of the slave trade. The only black faces in the paddock today, Sullivan observes, belong almost exclusively to rappers.

Because of the publishing delay, some parts of Blood Horses feel rather dated. The events of 11 September 2001 are a pressing and recent concern. All modern thoroughbreds are descendants of three Arabian studs and Iraq, we are told, is “the ancestral home of the Arabian horse”. We learn that a horse auction was suspended in the days after the attacks on the World Trade Center but only after a Saudi prince had bought several expensive yearlings, to general Kentuckian muttering.

Sullivan’s pop-cultural references can also feel slightly stale and the book is populated by celebrities many of whom have returned to obscurity. Who but the most devoted fan now remembers ’N Sync’s Joey Fatone or the Backstreet Boys’ Kevin Richardson?

It is a shame, therefore, that British readers have been slightly spoiled by encountering Pulphead first, because although Blood Horses is a meaty book, it does contain the odd unclassifiable lump. Parts of it feel past their sell-by date and the threads of Sullivan’s larger story don’t always come together. Not quite a thoroughbred, then, but Blood Horses does contain much of what makes his later essays so compelling.

The "Triple Crown" winner Secretariat, June 1973. Photograph: Bettmann/Corbis

This article first appeared in the 11 March 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The audacity of popes

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The Bloody Mary is dead: all hail the Bloody Caesar

This Canadian version of an old standard is a good substitute for dinner.

It is not anti-Catholic bias that makes me dislike the Bloody Mary, that lumpish combination of tomato juice and vodka named after a 16th-century English queen who, despite the immense reach of her royal powers, found burning Protestants alive the most effective display of majesty.

My prejudice is against its contents: the pulverised tomatoes that look like run-off from a Tudor torture chamber. A whole tomato is a source of joy and, occasionally, wonder (I remember learning that the Farsi for tomato is gojeh farangi, which translates literally as “foreign plum”) – and I am as fond of pizza as anyone. Most accessories to the Bloody Mary are fine with me: Worcestershire sauce, Tabasco, celery, black pepper, even sherry or oysters. But generally I share the curmudgeon Bernard DeVoto’s mistrust of fruit juice in my spirits: “all pestilential, all gangrenous, all vile” was the great man’s verdict. His main objection was sweetness but I will include the admittedly savoury tomato in my ban. At the cocktail hour, I have been known to crave all kinds of odd concoctions but none has included pulp.

To many, the whole point of a Bloody Mary is that you don’t wait until the cocktail hour. This seems to entail a certain shying away from unpleasant realities. I know perfectly well the reaction I would get if I were to ask for a grilled tomato and a chilled Martini at brunch: my friends would start likening me to F Scott Fitzgerald and they wouldn’t be referring to my writing talent. Despite its remarkably similar contents, a Bloody Mary is a perfectly acceptable midday, middle-class beverage. If the original Mary were here to witness such hypocrisy, she would surely tut and reach for her firelighters.

Yet, like the good Catholic I certainly am not, I must confess, for I have seen the error of my ways. In July, on Vancouver Island, I tried a Bloody Caesar – Canada’s spirited response to England’s favourite breakfast tipple (“I’ll see your Tudor queen, you bunch of retrograde royalists, and raise you a Roman emperor”). The main difference is a weird yet oddly palatable concoction called Clamato: tomato juice thinned and refined by clam juice. Replace your standard slop with this stuff, which has all the tang of tomato yet flows like a veritable Niagara, and you will have a drink far stranger yet more delicious than the traditional version.

Apparently, the Caesar was invented by an Italian restaurateur in Calgary, Alberta, who wanted a liquid version of his favourite dish from the old country: spaghetti alle vongole in rosso (clam and tomato spaghetti). He got it – and, more importantly, the rest of us got something we can drink not at breakfast but instead of dinner. Find a really interesting garnish – pickled bull kelp or spicy pickled celery, say – and you can even claim to have eaten your greens.

I’m sure that dedicated fans of the Bloody Mary will consider this entire column heretical, which seems appropriate: that’s the side I was born on, being Jewish, and I like to hope I wouldn’t switch even under extreme forms of persuasion. But this cocktail is in any case a broad church: few cocktails come in so many different incarnations.

The original was invented, according to him, by Fernand Petiot, who was a French barman in New York during Prohibition (and so must have known a thing or two about hypocrisy). It includes lemon juice and a “layer” of Worcestershire sauce and the tomato juice is strained; it may also actually have been named after a barmaid.

All of which proves only that dogma has no place at the bar. Variety is the spice of life, which makes it ironic that the world’s spiciest cocktail bestows a frivolous immortality on a woman who believed all choice to be the work of the devil.

Next week John Burnside on nature

Nina Caplan is the 2014 Fortnum & Mason Drink Writer of the Year and 2014 Louis Roederer International Wine Columnist of the Year for her columns on drink in the New Statesman. She tweets as @NinaCaplan.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis