The race for 2001 Horse of the Year has just begun. Captain Steve, with a powerful performance in the Dubai World Cup (UAE-I), joins reigning Horse of the Year and 2001 Santa Anita Handicap (gr. I) winner Tiznow as a leading candidate. In Florida, Albert the Great threw his hat in the ring with a track-record victory in the Widener Handicap (gr. III) at Hialeah Park. The 3-year-olds are just ramping up for the Triple Crown, and that division can be counted on to compete for the Horse of the Year title as well.
But we do have what should be a runaway winner in one of the other divisions of the annual Eclipse Awards, which honor the equine and human champions of our sport. Whether it's an Award of Merit, which is given to a worthy individual nearly every year, or a Special Award, which recognizes outstanding achievement when warranted, Laura Hillenbrand is deserving.
Hillenbrand has brought Thoroughbred racing to the forefront with her masterful biography of Seabiscuit, the Depression-era champion who caught the public's imagination in a way few horses ever have. The book, Seabiscuit: An American Legend
, stormed onto the New York Times best-seller list in its first week, ranking eighth, then shot up to No. 2 this week.
Credit her publisher, Random House, for recognizing both the quality of Hillenbrand's work and the intrigue of Seabiscuit. Pre-publication buzz about the book, including talk of a movie deal, virtually guaranteed its success, and the momentum has carried over into unprecedented publicity for a champion Thoroughbred from a bygone era.
The book is more than a biography of a racehorse. It captures the essence of an era, when racing was the king of sports and when its stars were the nation's sports heroes. In print, Hillenbrand has done for horse racing and Seabiscuit what documentary filmmaker Ken Burns did for the Civil War, baseball, and jazz. Seabiscuit: An American Legend
comes out at a time when many of us -- sports fans and racing aficionados alike -- yearn for the days of yesteryear, when the players played for the enjoyment of the game and not for the love of money, and when the horses were made of iron. We can't bring back those days, but Hillenbrand comes close, taking the reader on a nostalgic ride with one of racing's most beloved champions. The Virginia native won an Eclipse Award for an article she wrote on Seabiscuit in American Heritage magazine in 1998. A second statue would give her a much-deserved, matching bookend.
DRAPE'S TRIPLE CROWN
Right on the heels of Seabiscuit comes another outstanding book, The Race for the Triple Crown
, written by New York Times sportswriter Joe Drape, best known for his college football and basketball coverage. Some may think of Drape as the "new guy" on the racing beat, but he's a veteran by virtue of being a lifelong fan.
In The Race for the Triple Crown
, Drape shadows several camps whose sights are set on racing's big prize, starting on the June weekend in 1999 when Charismatic's Triple Crown bid ended in near-tragedy.
Readers get an inside look behind the scenes, as trainer Todd Pletcher and the owner of More Than Ready plot their strategies for one of 1999's hottest 2-year-olds. He follows the pressure-packed campaign of Fusaichi Pegasus and his trainer, Neil Drysdale; the more laid-back team of owner Mike Pegram and trainer Bob Baffert; and the Triple Crown's all-time winningest trainer, D. Wayne Lukas, whose surprise win in the 2000 Belmont Stakes (gr. I) is the book's crescendo.
Like Hillenbrand, Drape secured a major publisher, Atlantic Monthly Press, which figures to roll out a strong publicity campaign, springing The Race for the Triple Crown out of the starting gate quickly.