Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Volponi, The Big Horse - Origins in Chicago

If you’ve never read a book before it is a new book to you.  “The Big Horse” by Joe McGinnis (“Fatal Vision” “Cruel Doubt” are among his best-selling non-fiction books) was published in 2004, but I had never even heard of it prior to a recent trip to my library.  Thank God for public libraries.  Every once in awhile you come across an amazing  find and this book proved to be that find.

“The Big Horse” isn’t so much about a horse (2002 Breeder’s Cup Classic winner, Volponi – the Breeder’s Cup is to horse racing what American Idol is to spring television) as it is about the man who trained that horse.  P.G. Johnson was born and raised in Chicago and worked some of the small tracks before eventually training up the ladder to the major racetracks in America.  In spite of his induction into the racing hall of fame, Johnson only had one big horse and that was Volponi.  To racing people, the big horse indicates accomplishment, not size.  If it were by size, there would be lots and lots of big horses.  

You’ve heard this story before, but in the hands of a skilled writer like McGinnis it is as fresh as a strawberry in a California May.  I love thoroughbred horse racing’s history and I enjoy watching the giants of the sport go the distance in today’s sport as well, but it is always the back stories of this sport that pull me in.  The drama, the poetry of a life lived.  Horse racing enthusiasts are a rare breed.  McGinnis details his initial love of the sport by starting off the book with the recollection of watching Dark Star beat Native Dancer in the 1953 Kentucky Derby.  That had to be a dark day.  No pun intended.  Native Dancer (a.k.a. the Grey Ghost) was one of the greatest race horses in the history of the sport and he was taken down that day (not literally, thankfully) by a dark horse, well, in this case, a dark star. 

Tracks started to shut down all across America in the 1960’s and 1970’s.  The sport was now a dying art and its stars were no longer going the distance. Bold Ruler, Sword Dancer, Tom Fool and Round Table were either still in the breeding shed or they were dead.  The sport needed stars to stay alive and few stars were out there.

P. G. Johnson’s story starts out in Chicago.  Back in 1941, several months before the attack on Pearl Harbor, Johnson got a job at the Midway Riding Academy. The Academy was located at 63rd Street and Cottage Grove Avenue.  The riding facility is long gone, but in those days, Johnson got to the location via the elevated train.  There were no thoroughbreds there and the only thoroughbred he could find was one that ended up in the Union Stockyards.  The horse’s name was Song Master and he wasn’t much of a racehorse, but he was a genuine Thoroughbred out of Canada.

McGinnis continues to pour little nuggets of life onto the pages of “The Big Horse” and even if this sport isn’t a passion of yours you will enjoy reading about Johnson’s life.   It’s a superb book with its roots deep in the heart of the city of Chicago – North and South Side.  

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