Fortunately the author explained how he came to make the choices for this book in his column here (29 September), because otherwise your reviewer might have wasted words in debating the criteria for inclusion. These are the 100 of the top racehorses that Robin Oakley admires the most and which he thinks are particularly popular.
I will not argue the merits of what he has included, nor suggest horses which he should have made room for, but I must comment on the way the little histories are presented, and the disappointing errors. Clearly this book is written for aficionados, employing racing jargon without much explanation — ‘jamstick’, ‘a nursery stakes’, ‘only the size of a pony’. When referring to small thoroughbreds, Oakley hardly ever says how small they actually are, and the difference between a Group 1 race and a Grade 1 race is not explained.
This is fine for those in the know, but for a non-racing person it’s all pretty unintelligible. Even worse, the ‘highlight’ races won by each horse do not have their distances added, a huge disadvantage when assessing the versatility of the individual.
This compilation is a list of high-achieving horses, but it is a great pity that the author, who knows so much about racing and often has an interesting view of the sport, does not investigate some issues a little further. For instance, he tells us how pleased Sheikh Mohammad was with his experiment in taking Balanchine to Dubai for the 1993-4 winter before her successful English Classic campaign, and he reminds us that Vincent O’Brien had sent Sir Ivor to Pisa for the winter of 1967-8 for the same reason. But we hear no more about this wintering in the sun: if it worked for these two champions, why don’t all Classic prospects leave these shores for the sun every year?
In the essay on Roberto we read how Lester Piggott’s remorseless use of the whip gave him a Derby winner; but there is no follow-up to consider how public opinion has forced the racing authorities to change the whip rules over the years. In the otherwise excellent account of Ouija Board’s career, there is no explanation of why her owner and trainer used eight different jockeys, except that Kieron Fallon, in their view, rode a poor race on the mare in a big race in Dubai. Surely there must be more to it than he gives us here?
Inevitably Oakley writes with more passion about some horses than others, and the trainers and jockeys he knows well come most to life. He has some good stories to tell and is not afraid to criticise those responsible for the worst errors of judgment that litter many routes to glory — a refreshing change from other racing journalists.
Sadly, though, there are mistakes and anachronisms: Sir Cecil Boyd-Rochfort was never a member of the Jockey Club whilst he was a licensed trainer. Was the March meeting at Cheltenham really known as the Cheltenham Festival in 1928, or in 1938? The jockey Mickaël Barzalona is not called Barcelona; on page 254 there is confusion between the dam of Nashwan, who was called Height of Fashion and a mare foaled in 1957 called Height O’ Fashion, who ran against Flyinbolt and Arkle. On page 295 we hear of a horse called Nijinsky II, otherwise throughout the book and all through the chapter devoted to this horse, he is referred to as plain ‘Nijinsky’. They are the same horse, the former being his registered name.
Unfortunately your columnist has failed to maintain his normal brilliant standard. This is a lazy little book which, if it were a racehorse, would not be included in any top 100 list, whatever the criteria.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated 27 October 2012