Eliza McGraw has won the 11th annual Dr. Tony Ryan Book Award for her masterful equine biography "Here Comes Exterminator! The Longshot Horse, the Great War, and the Making of an American Hero."
McGraw, who has written for the New York Times and Washington Post, and who previously authored two acclaimed academic books, received a $10,000 winner's check and Tipperary crystal trophy from Shane Ryan during an April 20 reception at Castleton Lyons farm near Lexington. Nearly a hundred aficionados of horse racing and good literature were on hand for the celebratory event, first hosted in 2006 by the late Dr. Tony Ryan.
In her award-winning work, McGraw chronicled the life of early 20th century champion Exterminator and the broader world in which he lived. It was the Cinderella story of an unlikely hero—an off-bred, unattractive gelding nicknamed "Old Bones" for his gaunt, leggy appearance, who burst from nowhere to win 50 races, including the 1918 Kentucky Derby. Much like Zenyatta and California Chrome a century later, Exterminator became a fan favorite, drawing enthusiastic crowds wherever he went, and even appearing in early film newsreels.
"McGraw is an elegant, accessible writer, and a thorough historian," said lead judge Kay Coyte, former Washington Post-Bloomberg News Service managing editor and Eclipse Award-winning photographer. "Exterminator reads as smoothly as fiction and is a book that both racing fans and neophytes to the sport would enjoy."
John Carter, last year's Dr. Ryan honoree for "Warriors on Horseback," noted that he was "hooked" from the start by the "highly skilled writing…that not only informed and educated, but warmed the heart."
Judge Caton Bredar, also an award-winning writer and a broadcaster with TVG, called the winner "enchanting" and "clearly a labor of love."
McGraw became the second female author to take top honors in this competition, following 2010 winner Jaimy Gordon, whose "Lord of Misrule" went on to win that year's prestigious National Book Award.
Finalists for 2016 were: Barbara D. Livingston's "Old and New Friends," a beautifully-illustrated and -written coffee table volume by racing's premier photographer; and Mark Shrager's well-researched history "The Great Sweepstakes of 1877, A True Story of Southern Grit, Gilded Age Tycoons, and a Race That Galvanized the Nation." Both authors received $1,000 checks along with crystal replicas of Castleton Lyons' stone tower.
A near-record number of entries were submitted for 2016, what lead judge Coyte referred to as a "bumper crop of great racing books." Despite some reports to the contrary, racing—at least on the literary front—appears to be very much alive in the 21st century.
Past winners of the Dr. Tony Ryan Book Award
2015 - John Carter, "Warriors on Horseback: The Inside Story of the Professional Jockey"
2014 - Andy Plattner, "Offerings from a Rust Belt Jockey"
2013 - David Owen, "Foinavon: The Story of the Grand National's Biggest Upset"
2012 - Patrick Smithwick, "Flying Change: A Year of Racing and Family and Steeplechasing"
2011 - Milton Toby, "Dancer's Image: The Forgotten Story"
2010 - Jaimy Gordon, "Lord of Misrule"
2009 - James E. "Ted" Bassett & Bill Mooney, "Keeneland's Ted Bassett: My Life"
2008 - Rudy Alvarado, "The Untold Story of Joe Hernandez: The Voice of Santa Anita"
2007 - T.D. Thornton, "Not By a Long Shot: A Season at a Hard Luck Horse Track"
2006 - Joe Drape, "Black Maestro"