[George] said with attempted lightness, “No need to work over Symbol, heh, Jimmy? He’ll stir up enough wind to wipe him clean.”
Jimmy Creech looked sullenly into George’s grinning, tobacco-stained mouth. “Sure,” he said. “Let’s get the stuff on him now.”
Fuuuuuuck you, Jimmy.
Those are our three main characters; I’ll introduce others later.
The primary conflict in this book is the evolution of the sport of harness racing. Jimmy wants to keep it a small-time sport, with daytime races at local county fairs. The sport at large is moving toward dedicated tracks with evening races under the lights. That’s an interesting narrative, right? There’s a lot to be mined there. The thing that kills me is that Walter Farley gets it. His descriptions of the world of harness racing are as good as – or even better than – anything in the flat racing books. But the entire narrative is presented as one of Good versus Evil, through the lens of Jimmy Creech’s bitterness and anger.
George has some mild opinions on the changes, and Tom has no actual character (other than being a generally easygoing kid and having a natural feel for “the reins”) so the conflict is driven entirely by Jimmy. Jimmy is so upset about the way things are going that he works himself into a bleeding ulcer that has to have surgery. He eats like crap. He has temper tantrums. He screams at the people around him. He sees anyone who has anything to do with the night tracks as a “traitor” and not in the haha-teasing way, in the “you and your kin are dead to me unto the seventh generation” kind of way. He hates drivers at the big tracks so much that he crashes his cart into one of them and gets into a fistfight on the training track with another. Everyone is so afraid of his temper that they tiptoe around him, hide things from him, cater to his every whim, and yes-sir his every statement. Jimmy checks every single damn box on the abusive relationship list.
Jimmy was as highly strung as any colt and his emotions would vary from day to day and from hour to hour.
That’s just the kind of guy I want training horses and/or to be my friend, amirite?
The book has three main chunks: first, the colt’s birth and early life. Second, the colt’s training. Third, the colt’s racing. The colt, by the way, is a blood bay (hence the title) named Bonfire and despite being half-Arabian, half-Standardbred, he is the fastest harness racing horse EVAH. Because of the Black. Or something. Whatever, Bonfire has literally zero personality. After the Black and Satan, he is a big blob of nothing on four legs. He’s easy to train. He wins races. He’s awfully pretty. The end.
Among Jimmy’s more questionable decisions in the book is the decision to send Volo Queen, pregnant with the colt, with Tom for the summer to his aunt and uncle’s house. Tom displays creditable anxiety about this decision, tries to get a vet on-call, and in general takes this responsibility far more seriously than any adults in the book. What do you mean, sending a pregnant mare several hours away to live with a high schooler with zero horse experience is a great plan? On top of everything, Tom is charged with starting the colt – teaching him to be handled, led, etc. Somehow this turns out fine, though damned if I know how. (There are a few screw-ups along the way, but nothing Tom can’t overcome with the power of lurrrrrrve.)
And Tom, I’ve got full confidence in you. Use your own judgment if anything comes up. You’ve got a good head and, most important, the right feeling for horses, and that always pays off in the end.
NO. NO IT DOES NOT, JIMMY.
The training is ok? I don’t know. The horse gets trained. The whole middle bridge displays the fundamental flaw of this book. The training is actually suuuuuuper interesting. Jimmy clearly knows his stuff. I loved learning about harness racing from the ground up. (I have a soft spot a mile wide for harness racing, because all my earliest experiences with horse racing was at Scarborough Downs.)
But the whole middle bit is taken over by Jimmy’s illness (he spends the whole book in denial that he has an ulcer until it ruptures; I’m pretty sure it’s a long game for maximum attention) and by the burgeoning conflict with the night tracks. Two other horses that float in and out of the story are racing at fairs and night tracks, and they’re set up to be Bonfire’s big rivals, but they’re not, really. But the middle bridge means it’s time to talk about the best damn character in the whole book, and a top 5 for the entire Black Stallion series.
Miss Elsie. Miss Elsie is living the dream, you guys. She never married, and inherited her father’s fortune when he died. She spends that money to maintain the training track, breed her own horses, and train all her own horses. She gives exactly zero shits about what anyone thinks of her. She is friendly, but laser-focused on her horses. She is compassionate but doesn’t indulge anyone. She is in and out of the story and is absolutely perfect in every way. She has a filly named Princess Guy (which, ok, not the best name but whatever, she has a stallion named Mr. Guy that she loves and named her after) that is setting track records alongside Bonfire, and she has zero compunctions about going where the best races are – at fairs or at the night tracks.
So what does Jimmy think about Miss Elsie?
A month or so ago, Jimmy read on the back of [a newspaper clipping] you’d sent that Miss Elsie Topper had left the Ohio fairs and was racing her black filly, Princess Guy, a,t Maywood Park, the night raceway just outside of Chicago. I don’t have to tell you how Jimmy feels about the night raceways. He bellowed for days that Miss Elsie had betrayed him, and I had all I could do to quiet him down.
Once again, in chorus: fuck you, Jimmy.
“And although it isn’t for me or Jimmy or maybe for you,” George added sincerely, “it’s good for our sport in a lot of ways. Raceways like this all ’round the country mean a lot more people are takin’ to our sport, and in time they’ll learn to love it the same as we do.”
JIMMY DOESN’T DESERVE YOU, GEORGE.
Tom and George enter Bonfire in the Big Race (I don’t remember what it’s called, but it’s a Black Stallion book, of course it ends with a Big Race), pooling the last of their money to do so. It’s a tight race, but please use your best surprised face when I tell you that Bonfire wins. (I snark because I love; Bonfire’s races are arguably the most enjoyable scenes in the book, because they get back to what these books do best.)
They win a ton of money! They pay off all the medical bills, all the feed bills, all the travel bills, they buy ALL new equipment, and Bonfire sets a new record for the mile at 1:59. Happy ending, right?
lol. Remember how they have to go back to their abusive home?
Jimmy Creech stood at the other end of the shed, bellowing fiercely. He was holding the tall gold-plated trophy in his hands, reading the inscription on it. When he had finished he looke dup and saw them; then the trophy came hurling through the air as he hurled it at their feet. It rolled past them, striking with a sharp ring against the door. Bonfire shrilled at the sound of it, then moved uneasily back and forth in his stall. Quickly Tom went to him, going inside the stall to quiet the colt. He ran his hand up and down Bonfire’s head while Jimmy Creech continued raging without making his words understandable.
“You’re here…and that’s the way we wanted it to be. And I wanted you to see this colt race, Jimmy. You’ve never in your life seen a colt like this one…let alone owned one. He’s a world’s champion, Jimmy. He beat the best there is. He did one fifty-nine, Jimmy. Are you thinkin’ of that at all? Or are your mind and body filled with so much hatred for the raceways that you can’t even see a colt like this any more? He’s yours, Jimmy. You bred him. You own him. All your life you hoped this would happen to you…never dreamin’ it would come. But it has, Jimmy…and you’re not even looking at him.”
I wish I could say that either George breaks up with Jimmy and goes and lives his best life, or that Jimmy has some kind of amazing revelation and about-face, but the ending is much less satisfying than that. The only thing Jimmy says is to order Tom to take Bonfire’s blanket off so he can look at the horse, because somehow that’s supposed to be an apology AND a thanks for everything he put them through and they did for him?
I don’t know you guys. This was not a fun book to read. The good parts (training, racing, Tom being sweet if in over his head, Miss Elsie) were totally obscured by the rage that fueled the narrative conflict.
Have you read it recently, or not-so-recently? What did you think?