Disclosure: I have admitted previously that I am a sucker for schoolboy novels and foodie novels, but I have not confessed my ultimate fiction love — racetrack novels. Mrs. KfC and I owned cheap racehorses (well, not more than one at a time) for a couple of decades and were regular patrons at the local, not very good, racetrack (actually, it was a lot like Indian Mound Downs, the racetrack featured in this volume). We loved the experience and remember it with great fondness — Lord of Misrule brought back many fond memories of both racing and the incredible characters that we met at the race track and I will confess that I know people who would compare to every character in the book. There are not a lot of novels in the genre (Jane Smiley’s Horse Heaven stands out) so I don’t often get to indulge in raving about this kind of work. Stand by, because that is exactly what I am about to do.
Horse-racing is no longer a mass-market sport and for most readers the Kentucky Derby is about all the horse-racing that they know. It is the absolute top of the sport — 20 horses from a crop in the hundreds of thousands race for an impressive prize. Wealthy owners, society connections, lots of TV exposure. Those of us who love horse-racing also love it, but we know there is a vast undercard (that’s horse-racing talk) that is essential for the Derby to exist. Racing may be the Sport of Kings, but most of those who partake in it are anything but royalty. See Damon Runyan for a more realistic assessment.
Even at the very best racetracks, like Churchill Downs where the Derby is run, but also Belmont, Santa Anita and Gulfstream, the “big” races are supported by an undercard and most of those races involve claimers. “Claimers” are cheap horses racing for cheap purses to pay expenses as Gordon helpfully indicates in a pre-script quoting Ainslie’s Complete Guide to Thoroughbred Racing:
Without claiming races there would be no racing at all. Owners would avoid the hazards of fair competition … The game would perish.
The claiming race changes all that. When he enters his animal in a race for $5,000 claiming horses, the owner literally puts it up for sale at that price. Any other owner can file a claim before the race and lead the beast away after the running. The original owner collects the horse’s share of the purse, if it earned any, but he loses the horse at a fair price.
That is, he loses the horse at a fair price if it is a $5,000 horse. If it were a $10,000 horse, in a race for cheaper ones, the owner would get the purse and collect a large bet at odds of 1 to 10, but the horse would be bought by another barn at less than its true value.
That premise is at the centre of Lord of Misrule and Gordon executes it with exceptional skill. You don’t have to be a serious gambler to see the potential — if you can sneak a $10,000 claiming horse into a $5,000 race and “dirty” the form so it doesn’t look like a $10,000 horse, you have the chance to cash a major gamble at a price much better than 1 to 10 and keep the horse in the bargain. At cheap racetracks around North America, this scam is being played out every day — and this never-ending effort to beat the odds is at the centre of Gordon’s tale.
To keep this “sport” in business, there are plenty of racetracks that are not at all like fancy Churchill Downs or Santa Anita. Indian Mound Downs in the West Virginia panhandle where the author sets this novel is one of them. The horses here are slow, or hurt, or once worth something but not now. Their next stop is the rendering plant and a future in glue, not some pleasant retirement pasture. It is a venue ripe for gambling exploitation. And Tommy Hansel and his rookie groom and go-fer girlfriend, Maggie Koderer, have arrived with four horses to do just that:
And now that he had cash to play and Maggie’s free labor and four ready horses who looked pitiful on paper, the trick was to get in and get out fast. It was Tommy who said so, Maggie had only soaked this stuff up faithfully for months — sitting on the curb of the shedrow writing headlines for Menus by Margaret: ORANGE RUM FILLING RAIDS MARGARET’S TEA RING, MANY LIVES OF THE WORLD’S OLDEST BEAN (no one watched what she wrote at that rag), and gazing up at Tommy more hypnotized than credulous, like a chawbacon at a snake-oil show. Get in and get out fast, he chanted. They had to arrive at a small track unnoticed (small but not too small — it had to have a respectable handle), drop each horse in the cheapest possible claiming race before anybody knew what they had, cash their bets, and ship out again, maybe without losing a single horse.
If you know horse racing (I suspect you don’t), this happens all the time — some shipper has always just arrived and hopes to cash a gamble. Having set that stage, however, Gordon then moves on to create a truly great book. Unlike any other enterprise that I know, the racetrack truly is a self-enclosed world. Once you walk through the gates — either at the front entrance or the backstretch — you have entered a place that has its own sets of rules and hierarchies, with its own characters, and, however powerful and knowledgable you might be outside those fences, you are just another greenhorn when you come in here. And the racetrack also has it own vocabulary and grammar, a dialect that Gordon is very good at. At the track, you would never say “Your horse ran very well in winning”, you would say “He win good”. Gordon knows that dialect.
Consider, for example, Medicine Ed who will become a major character as the novel unfolds:
How long would Medicine Ed last? He had been on the racetrack since he was eight years old. After sixty-four years of this racetrack life he, too, was sore and tired, and like the boll weevil in the song, he was looking for a home. He knew he would always have work, long as he could work. But where was it wrote that he had to rub horses till the day he died? And as for the medicine he could do and which long ago gave him his name, best folks forgot about that, and in these parts so far they had.
Tommy, Maggie and Medicine Ed are only an introduction to the cast of characters in this book — they will be joined by Two-Tie (a bookie), Joe Dale Biggs (the corrupt leading trainer at Indian Mound Downs), Deucy (an aging female trainer who has only one horse) and a host of others. Not to mention the race horses who are every bit as important as the human characters in this book — Mr. Boll Weevil, Little Spinoza, Pelter and, of course, Lord of Misrule. They will all figure in the outcome.
Every one of them (well, not the horses but they have their own motivation to win) is trying to cash a gamble and looking for whatever edge they can find to help produce that result. That’s the entire premise of cheap claiming racing and this novel and there is no way I am going to spoil the story by revealing key details.
If you like horse-racing at all, this is a truly exceptional book. Even if you don’t, I recommend it — Jaimy Gordon has captured a world that really does exist within, but also apart from, the world that we all know and done it in exceptional prose. You are unlikely to describe Lord of Misrule as a study in realism if you don’t know the race track, but let me assure you that is exactly what it is. I opened this book at about 4 p.m. one day, thinking I would read a few pages and set it aside; at midnight the same day, I closed the last page. I can’t wait to open it again — it is a marvelous achievement.