Maggie Estep

Maggie Estep

Maggie Estep

Inside Track: The Perfect Ending

-By Karen Johnson

Sherpa Guide found a friend in author Maggie Estep, who followed the New York-bred throughout his 39-race career and claimed him so he would be guaranteed a good retirement home.  

In 2005, Estep contacted Sherpa Guide’s breeder and former owner, Doug Koch, when she saw the 7-year-old running in an $8,000 claiming race at Finger Lakes. Estep and Koch, a veterinarian who owns Berkshire Stud in Pine Plains, N.Y., were partners in the claim. Estep and Koch retired Sherpa Guide, a winner of nearly $400,000, after they claimed him. According to Estep, Sherpa Guide is now “living the life of Riley” as a show horse in North Salem, N.Y.

Estep’s love affair with Sherpa Guide began during his first season of racing for Koch and trainer Tom Bush on the New York circuit in 2001. A frequent visitor to Aqueduct and Belmont, Estep was drawn to Sherpa Guide’s feisty personality.

“It was one of those things you can’t put your finger on,” Estep said. “It’s like when you meet a guy you really like. I visited him a few times when he was at Tom Bush’s barn and just adored him. When he started running in claiming races, and it looked like he wasn’t loving his job, I became worried.”

Estep, 44, is the author of three racing mysteries, featuring an amateur female sleuth whose passion for racehorses lands in her some hairy situations. The first of her Ruby Murphy mystery books, Hex, was published in 2003 and was selected as a notable book by The New York Times. Hex was followed by Gargantuan and Flamethrower. 

Estep inherited her interest in horses. Her mother, Nancy, trained Thoroughbreds at Arapahoe Park, and later at Delaware Park. Estep’s father, Gene, worked with show horses.

The Ruby Murphy trilogy was born when Estep found herself struggling to write a literary novel. She drew on her racetrack experiences, which included a stint living in a tack room at Arapahoe. She said she didn’t catch the racing bug until she spent time with her mother at Delaware Park when she was in her 20s.

“I was hanging out with my brothers at Delaware Park and said, ‘Hey, let’s watch a race’—like it never occurred to me before. I bet $2 on a horse with some groovy name and he won at 50-1.”

While living in Brooklyn and Manhattan, Estep became a denizen of the New York tracks.

“I lurked around trainer Rene Araya’s stable and kind of absorbed what was going on, but I had no plans to write about the track. In 2001, I started writing Hex as a first-person story, and it took on a life of its own.

“As a kid, mucking out stalls, I couldn’t wait to get away from the track,” she added. “But when I was in my 30s, I realized horse people were such a huge part of me and something that really interested me.”

Estep also co-edited Bloodlines: A Horse Racing Anthology, published in 2006. The book, a mix of fiction and non-fiction, features stories written by Pulitzer Prize winner Jane Smiley and Laura Hillenbrand, the author of Seabiscuit: An American Legend.

Estep just finished a novel, featuring a woman gambler, and is ready to tackle her next project, a book about women in racing for DRF Press.

An annual visitor to Saratoga, Estep said she is more intrigued by the less charming environs at Aqueduct.

“It’s very New York City,” Estep said. “It was one of the dying vestiges of New York. From a writer’s perspective, I love observing the people, and you can do that there. I can’t explain it, but Aqueduct really makes me happy.”