McGinniss Book on P.G. Johnson, Volponi a Winner
by Steve Haskin
Date Posted: 8/26/2004 10:46:39 AM
Last Updated: 8/26/2004 10:47:02 AM

Joe McGinniss, whose previous books include Fatal Vision and The Selling of the President, 1968, is the author of a wonderful new racing book published by Simon & Schuster titled The Big Horse, which tells the story of Hall of Fame trainer Phil "P.G." Johnson and the 2003 campaign of Volponi. It is a heartwarming, inspiring story that will have you laughing out loud.

McGinniss, a born again racing fan, takes the reader on a lively jaunt through the candid world of one of the sport's most colorful characters, concentrating on the post-Breeders' Cup Classic (gr. I) campaign of Volponi and Johnson's quest to make it back to America's richest horse race with "the big horse." The reader can feel Johnson's frustrations as he suffers through one defeat after another. All the while, we hark back to Johnson's past and meet some of the Runyonesque characters that crossed his path during his long and illustrious career.

McGinniss' recollections of his own early days as a racing fan are also enjoyable and written with great wit, as are many of his observations of the sport. The book is difficult to put down once you become introduced to the main characters and a supporting cast that includes Allen Jerkens, Barclay Tagg, and Bobby Frankel, and a host of jockeys, many of whom take some pretty direct hits from the outspoken Johnson.

There are also a number of autobiographical chapters, in which Johnson tells of his early days, while candidly speaking about the infamous jockeys, trainers, and owners, past and present. Johnson has never been one to hold back his opinions of people, and he certainly shoots from the hip throughout the book. There is no one who can fire off one-liners better and quicker than Johnson, and as a result, The Big Horse is hysterically funny at times. But all the while, there is "PeeGee's" wife, Mary Kay, to act as the voice of reason. Sadly, Mary Kay passed away after the book was published, adding an unwritten epilogue to the story.

But most of all, this is a book about racetrack life, and perseverence, and sacrifice, and the last remnants of a bygone era. The final few chapters will rip at your heart, as Johnson and Mary Kay talk about reaching the end of their racing journey together, while still trying to cling to the fragments of their past and the few friends in the sport who are still around. The book provides an uplifting ending that will make you walk away with a pretty good idea of what it must be like to consume the mystifying elixir that causes one to devote his or her entire life to training horses.

There are just a couple of minor factual errors, but certainly nothing that will lessen the appreciation of the book and its overall impact.

With all the racing books that have hit the market since the "Seabiscuit" craze, this is one that is truly special.

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