A Year at the Races, the title of this extraordinary book by Jane Smiley, is the peg on which to hang the author’s remarkable insights into the horse and all his workings. It is indeed about racing and her experiences with her various horses at the Californian tracks, but that is almost a sideline. This is about Jane Smiley and horses.
Smiley is already a hugely successful writer, and so her horses’ life must come as her, at best, third preoccupation, after her children and her writing; this she denies, emphasising her obsession with the horse, but surely she cannot be serious?
She has clearly thought about horses not only a great deal and for all of her life but with originality. She mistrusts every hand-me-down factoid about training horses and she never stops asking questions. She has read and thought about the views of many experienced trainers from all over the world. She concludes that the horse is the human’s near equal, and she is convincing. To traditional riders and trainers, and most especially to racehorse owners, who are mostly distant from the training and management of their expensive hobby horses, many of her views will come as a surprise: but they should not be easily dismissed.
It is impossible even for the sceptic not to be carried away by her enthusiasm, her very real love of horses and her deep interest in them, and just when she comes dangerously close to west-coast whimsy, such as describing her filly with large, swaying haunches as being sexier to the stallion than any of his other mates, she comes back to reality with a thump. She is realistic about horses and their injuries, and she knows the statistics. She is afraid for her horses but she accepts the consequences of ownership. She mocks her infatuation, but this only strengthens her argument. She sets out to show that ‘horses are more like people than they are like machines’ and she succeeds.
The fact that she takes careful note of the star signs of her horses (‘my Aries horse was active, bossy, dominating’) and that she talks to them through Hali, an animal communicator who relays their opinions, fears and aspirations with apparently uncanny accuracy, might surprise some of the denizens of Newmarket or the Lam- bourn valley; but despite these apparent absurdities she is convincing. It is occasionally near to seeming a hoax, a west-coast joke, or a joke at the expense of west-coast mores, but it isn’t, it is a serious book, written with love and passion, and anybody who cares for horses should read it. It will make them think and, even if they don’t agree with everything, I am sure that they will be fascinated, amused and ultimately impressed.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated November 13, 2004