After Satan retires, Alec and Henry find themselves without a horse to race. Henry buys Black Minx, the Black’s first daughter, and together they help her overcome her fears and race in the Kentucky Derby.
On the surface, this is a really simple, straightforward book. Black Minx (and apparently she has no barn name. She’s always either “the filly” or “Black Minx”) was poorly brought up and poorly trained, and Alec and Henry rehabilitate her and aim her toward the Kentucky Derby.
Here’s a scientific equation about the makeup of this book:
40% Alec taking long, slow gallops around the track + 20% exposition through weird training stuff + 30% watching races on television or reading recaps of them in newspaper articles + 10% actual action. That’s 100% of a book, I guess. There must be literally a dozen long paragraphs or entire chapters in which Alec says “another long slow gallop, I guess, Henry must know what he’s doing!”
Fear not, though. Black Stallion books are all alike; every Black Stallion book is batshit crazy in its own way.
In this book, the batshittery is not in the small details (like, say, the Island Stallion books) but rather in the overall picture. Henry buys Minx (that’s right, I’m giving the poor mare a barn name) at an auction in late November with no manners, little to no training, little to no condition, and they race her in the Kentucky Derby. The small details of this book are all awfully good! It’s maybe a bit boring, but it’s still really charming, generally, and then you realize again that the timeline is completely fucking insane and you kind of get jarred right out of that charm.
Strap yourselves in and let’s go back to the beginning of the book.
Satan, the Black’s son, is retiring from racing after a fractured sesamoid. Which is a real thing that really happens, and the way it’s reported in Jim Neville (our old friend!)’s newspaper article sounds thoroughly plausible. It’s almost weird to start off so sensibly and understandably, and that kind of sets the tone for the rest of the book.
For you Satan fans, fear not, Alec still fat-shames and daddy-complexes the poor horse at every opportunity.
Satan’s neck is shorter and more muscular. And his body is so heavy that it gives you the feeling of grossness.
ffs, Alec. But, kind of, spoiler alert: he spends this whole book, too, comparing Minx to the Black, both favorably and unfavorably. In fact, he’s really down on the poor filly pretty much the whole time.
Satan arrives home at Hopeful Farm, and Henry a) goes waaaaaaaaaaay over the top in transport, driving 24 hours straight personally and harassing the guys who are supposed to be helping him constantly and b) mopes around and to Alec’s total non-surprise, announces he’s going to find a horse to race for the coming season.
(Total side note, but it baffled and irked me at this point: Mrs. Dailey got fridged! She is totally, 100% absent from this narrative, Henry lives some kind of weird bachelor life in an above-barn apartment, and though they talk about his retirement they never talk about her role in it! She was an actual walking-talking-speaking character in previous books and she’s just GONE!)
Henry jaunts off to …I think it’s supposed to be Keeneland, but all they keep saying is “Kentucky.” Anyway, he hangs out at the auction for a while, watching a gray colt go for the unheard-of sum of $62,000, and we meet Tom Flint for the first time.
Flint was wealthy, but unlike most owners he trained his own horses. He didn’t hire someone else to do all the work and then sit on the sidelines until it was time to collect the trophies.
Flint sounds like a micromanaging nightmare. Also: can we talk a little bit about how each Black Stallion book exists in its own microcosm of the racing world? In every single book, all of the owners, jockeys, trainers, and horses are 100% different. It’s like the whole rest of the world is episodic and only Alec et al get continuity. When you really stop and think about it, it’s totally wild. And it means we have to get re-introduced to a whole new cast of characters every single time. There’s never “so-and-so, you know, who owned Sun Raider” who has a fancy new horse.
Henry buys Black Minx, who everyone else thinks is kind of a shit (on account of how in her only race ever she bolted sideways, went through the rail, and dumped her jockey), and brings her home.
At home, Alec gives us our first glimpse into how weird farm operations at Hopeful Farm are.
He would turn the horses out later in the morning if it didn’t rain. Mud wouldn’t hurt them any. But a cold rain falling on their backs at the same time would invite any number of illnesses.
I have so many questions about Alec’s thinking here I almost don’t even know how to start, but I’m going to let it stand for itself, except to say: Alec really doesn’t know all that much about taking care of horses.
Henry announces his plan to race Minx in the Kentucky Derby, and Alec has the money line of the entire book and introduces the central tension of the whole narrative.
When Alec spoke again he had regained full control of his voice. “It’s almost December,” he said calmly, “and in five months, you’re going to have rid this filly of her bad manners and have her trained and ready to go a mile and a quarter?”
ALEC SPEAKS FOR ALL OF US.
He gets on the horse anyway, and he kind of likes her! Except because he’s Alec, he can’t stop comparing her to the Black. Oh, and poor Satan, too.
She had gone smoothly into her gallop, so much like the Black and so unlike Satan, whose first movements were heavy and ponderous…
Well, why shouldn’t she be able to go the distance? Alec asked himself. Wasn’t her sire the greatest distance runner of them all?
Poor Minx doesn’t seem to have any fire or will to compete, though. She never digs in and tries to run away with him, which Alec interprets as total failure. I say she wants to be an eventer. But this is a Black Stallion book, so a) Alec has long angsty monologues (for like the next 75 pages) about how poorly she reflects on the Black and b) damn it, she’s going to race anyway.
Minx’s ground manners still aren’t entirely improved, and after she’s been working on the track for a while Henry turns to address her biting in particular in what might be one of the greatest sequences in this entire series. He keeps an eye on her while he’s grooming her to get her pattern down, and then he boils a potato. While it’s still hot he has a loooooooooooong conversation with Alec about how to un-spoil her. Somehow, miraculously, the potato is still hot when he puts it up his sleeve and goes back down to Minx’s stall.
Black Minx reached for Henry and there was no stopping this time. She bit his bulging arm!
Her head came back fast, her eyes showing how startled she was. Henry never stopped his grooming to look at her. But Alec was watching. She had bitten squarely into the boiled potato. Her lips were drawn back and her mouth was working frantically. She kept it open and her incessant blowing filled the stall. Alec couldn’t help smiling at her surprise and bewilderment.
All the while Henry continued working.
HOW GREAT IS THAT? I love it so much. That scene right there is what has stuck with me since the first time I read this book. It’s smart, charming, full of personality, it’s a good bit of characterization for all three of them, and gah. It’s just the best.
It also gives us this amazing Milton Menasco illustration of the scene.
So, so, so great.
Okay. Gushing over. Minx’s mouthiness is cured by the hot potato, but her speed is still distinctly lacking. Pretend we’ve all just read like 50 pages of Alec being snarky and whiny and just not convinced that any of this is a good idea. I’ll wait.
Okay! Now that we’ve done that: Henry has a plan. And it’s a plan I am genuinely interested in your opinions on. See, Henry thinks that because Minx is just so darn ornery, she wants to do the opposite of whatever you want her to do. So he tells Alec to fake that she’s running away with him. He does that.
No longer did he cluck in her ear, urging her to gallop faster. Instead his words were a constant stream of whoa’s which served only to drive her on to greater speed. The wind cut his face. He wanted to smile but couldn’t. He worked his hands against her mouth, but this, too, only made her go faster.
I mean. It works for them. But apparently this horse will never do anything ever but race? Maybe it’s a 1960s attitude toward racehorses, but can you imagine trying to restart this mare off-track when she’s been trained to go faster when she thinks you’ve lost control?!?!? Is there some clever nuance I’m missing here or is this a monumentally bad idea?
(Let’s all be honest though, in Black Stallion terms it’s still like a 2 out of 10 on the Bad Idea Scale. It’s no Henry roping Satan to the ground, is all I’m saying.)
It works, though. Minx starts breezing, presumably faster, but they only do it like three times and Alec never asks for her times. So. Let’s just all trust in Henry and assume she’s going fast enough to make sense as a Derby contender.
The next 50 or so pages are given over to long, obsessive, agonizing speculation over exactly who else is going to race in the Derby. There are a bunch of other horses. We’re treated to Walter Farley’s descriptions of Alec and Henry watching races on television. Yeah, it’s exactly as boring as it sounds.
In between, though, we learn some more about the operations of Hopeful Farm. Let me sketch it out for you. Hopeful Farm is a breeding and training farm in upstate New York. It stands one, now two, stallions and has an unspecified number of mares. (Let’s say 20+ based on context clues.) Total employees? Alec and three part-time guys. And Henry when he’s around but he doesn’t seem to do anything with any other horse except Black Minx. Alec is business manager, exercise rider, barn manager, stallion & breeding shed manager, he’s the first call for foal watch, he’s making daily decisions about turnout and doing stalls, and oh also he’s their main jockey.
The next few nights, like the days, were busy ones for Alec. Three mares foaled on successive nights. Two of the mares were owned by outside patrons, and the sires of the foals resided in Kentucky.
ALEC IS TWENTY FOUR YEARS OLD. HE KNOWS NEXT TO NOTHING ABOUT HORSES. WHO THE FUCK SHIPS THEIR BRED MARE FROM KENTUCKY TO FOAL OUT AT THIS HALF-ASSED OPERATION. JESUS CHRIST.
Presumably managing stud duties for Satan ALONE is a full-time job, right? He won the Triple Crown and the Breeder’s Cup Classic and literally everything else ever. Plus the Black. Does Alec even sleep?????
Onward and upward to yet another race on tv, during which we learn that horses used to be waaaaaaay smaller.
Looking at him now you might think he is a small horse, but he isn’t. He stands a little over fifteen hands.
Oh and also we learn about this totally insane contraption.
This [run-out] bit, ladies and gentleman, is so designed that when the colt is running straight he has only a smooth plate against the right side of his mouth, but if he pushes out there are sharp prongs that are brought into play which stick him. It sounds cumbersome but it isn’t.
WHAT THE ACTUAL EVERLOVING FUCK
THIS IS A REAL THING, PEOPLE
Someone, anyone, please enlighten me. Are these really still used? Are there any possible imaginable circumstances under which this is not just horrific cruelty? Am I just totally being a delicate flower here? Anyone???
Moving on to other crazy training decisions:
“I’ll break her from it next week. One or two breaks should be enough. Too much gate work does more harm than good.”
They’re proceeding on the basic assumption that Minx’s basic training was sound. You know, the previous basic training that led her to be a total shit on the ground and also to run through the rail in her first race.
When they do get around to sending her out of the gate, surprise, she is not good with it at all. She hates the door closing behind her.
Small piece of backstory that I have not yet mentioned: Minx has a docked tail. When she was a yearling, a kid slammed a door shut on her tail and broke it, and part of the dock had to be removed.
Alec and Henry come up with an unorthodox solution.
“You mean if we gave her a false tail she’d – ”
“- have something to fling around,” Alec finished for him. “She might even forget all about not having had one for so long. And even if it didn’t help quiet her down in the gate, she’d have a switch to keep the flies away from her this summer.”
“But it might work in the gate, too, Alec,” Henry said quickly. “She might forget fast that she ever had an accident.”
Surprise, surprise, the tail thing works, and gets us to this immortal description of Minx.
She’s a high-headed gal with a complex.
That is like my new personal motto, right there.
Off they go to the Derby, and we get a reminder that Alec basically spends this entire series of books suffering from PTSD.
Pressure and tension were mounting within him. And he knew there wouldn’t be any let-up during the days to come. Instead it would get worse. He tried to think of the calmness and tranquility of Hopeful Farm. But it didn’t help. It seemed that Hopeful Farm had never existed. He was being swept into the all-engulfing whirlpool of the Kentucky Derby, and there was nothing he could do about it.
Henry decides to enter Minx into one race on the Thursday before the Derby, something we would consider insane today, but all the other horses lined up for the Derby have been racing practically weekly.
The race…does not go well. She gets bumped pretty good, goes down, and Alec goes flying. Then she takes off galloping away and they have trouble catching her, which aside from being super-embarrassing seems like a really bad thing to happen three days before the Derby? What do I know, though, Henry thinks it means she’s in fine fettle and she can go the mile and a quarter.
Then we come to the race itself, which, you know what, for all that the television races earlier in the book are boring, the race itself is actually exciting. All that endless exposition at least got us familiar with the jockeys and horses that Alec now comes face to face with in the Derby, and allows him to make this scintillating analysis.
Boys became men riding a Derby, or they remained forever boys.
…okay? that makes…not a whole lot of sense, but…sure, Alec…
It’s an exciting race with a foregone conclusion, though: Black Minx wins the Kentucky Derby! She gets over her need to fight in order to tap into her speed, but she also gets kicked at the starting gate and by all accounts has an foreleg gushing blood through the whole race. It’s cool, though, they take the win photo before treating the leg. Real nice win photo, guys.
She’s fine, though, thankfully, and after all that work, finally gets some well-deserved treats. Aaaand…curtain.
What did you think? Do you have any memories of this one? Is the hot potato scene one of your favorites too?