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

Days at the races.

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

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.