The Sport of Kings, C.E. Morgan ✎✎✎

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Horse Racing Neck and Neck, public domain

My mom asked me what book she should recommend for her book club to read. I suggested The Sport of Kings, by Kentucky author C.E. Morgan. I hadn’t read The Sport of Kings, but I like to support local authors, I liked Morgan’s first novel All the Living and I had heard good things about The Sport of Kings. Two weeks later, the founder of my mother’s book club called and asked me to present the book for them.

I soon found myself studying this 500+ novel for themes, plot, structure, style, literary allusions . . . in short, I felt like I was back in my undergrad literary seminar and my grade was just as important! I didn’t want to let down my mom or the women in her group with a presentation on The Sport of Kings.

In the end, the women were lovely, appreciative, and I ended up actually quite enjoying the application of my college student skills.

In this age of twitter, Facebook, goodreads, tumbler, ad nauseum, C.E. Morgan is a c-e-morganthrowback: she’s an author who allows her writing to speak for itself, preferring to keep an exceedingly low profile. If she has a website, I can’t find it. In one of her rare interviews, she does admit to graduating from Berea College in Kentucky and Harvard Divinity School. Her novels are filled with the tones, colors, sights, and sounds of rural Kentucky as well as theological meditations.

I’ve read many of the reviews of The Sport of Kings. The word “sweeping” is used quite a bit. “Generational.” “Epic.” It is all those things and more: long, complex, contrary, palaverous, disturbing, beautiful. My personal theory is that The Sport of Kings is Morgan’s attempt to define Kentucky first, its people second, and the thoroughbred industry third in all of their beautiful cruelty. To do this, she uses individual allegorical characters. Back-to-nature Pen. Salt-of-the-earth-farmer-Jamie. Narcissistic-land-owner-Henry.
equestrienneAt the heart of The Sport of Kings is horse farm owner Henry Forge and his daughter Henrietta. Henry is obsessed with breeding: the perfect horse and the perfect progeny and will go to any length to achieve his goals. Henry believes he’s achieved at least one of his goals with Hellsmouth, a fiery filly. But when a recently released ex-con, Allmon, arrives to work as a groom on Henry’s farm, complications (as they say) ensue.

Morgan’s style ranges from the scientific exploration of equine breeding, to bloated descriptions of natural phenomenon. At various points it takes her two pages to effectively cover one year in Henry Forge’s life and two pages to describe a sunset.

The corn spat him out. His face scraped by the gauntlet, he clutched handfuls of husk and stood hauling air with his hair startled away from his forehead. Here the old land is the old language: The remnants of the county fall away in declining slopes and swales from their property line. The neighbor’s tobacco plants extend as far as the boy can see, so that impossibly varying shades of green seem to comprise the known world, the undulating earth an expanse of green sea dotted only by black-ship tobacco barns, a green so penetrating, it promises a cool, fertile core a mile beneath his feet. In the distance, the fields incline again, slowly rippling upward, a grassed blanket shaken to an uncultivated sky. A line of trees traces the swells on that distant side, forming a dark fence between two farms. The farmhouse roofs are black as ink with their fronts obscured by evergreens, so the world is black and green and black and green without interruption, just filibustering earth. The boy knows the far side of that distant horizon is more of the bright billowing same, just as he knows they had once owned all of this land and more when they came through the Gap and staked a claim, and if they were not the first family, they were close. They were Kentuckians first and Virginians second and Christians third and the whole thing was sterling, his father said. The whole goddamn enterprise.

Truthfully, I found myself often bogged down in the vocabulary at times. But if you slog through these places, the plot holds.

Having now read the book, I do recommend The Sport of Kings but it is with reservation. Make sure your book club has set aside plenty of time to read. This is for book clubs that enjoy more challenging reads.

derbyMENU

There may be food described in the novel, but I wasn’t scouring the pages of The Sport of
Kings
for food references. This is a Kentucky novel, I am a Kentuckian, and I would fix traditional Kentucky food. So my menu would include:

Mint Juleps

Country Ham on Beaten Biscuits

Beer cheese with crackers and celery

Corn Pudding. This is my favorite recipe but there are many. It’s from ShakerTown at Pleasant Hill:

INGREDIENTS

    • 3 tablespoons butter, softened
    • 2 tablespoons granulated sugar
    • 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
    • 1 teaspoon salt
    • 3 whole eggs, slightly beaten
    • 2 cups frozen corn
    • 1 3/4 cups milk

DIRECTIONS

  1. In a large bowl, blend the butter, sugar, flour and salt.
  2. Add the eggs, and beat well with a rotary beater or mixer on low –.
  3. Stir in the corn and milk (if using frozen corn, chop it up a little first to release the milky juices).
  4. Pour the ingredients into a buttered flat 10×6″ casserole and bake at 325* for 45 minutes, stirring once halfway through the baking period.
  5. When done, the pudding will be golden brown on top and a knife inserted in the middle will come out clean.
  6. THIS MIXTURE CAN BE PREPARED AHEAD OF TIME AND KEPT IN THE REFRIGERATOR. STIR WELL, THEN POUR INTO A BAKING DISH AND BAKE AS INSTRUCTED.

Steamed asparagus

“Kentucky pie” aka the pie named after the Run for the Roses which name has now been copyrighted.

Recipes for Mint Juleps and Kentucky pie here: https://daeandwrite.wordpress.com/2015/05/01/the-first-saturday-in-may/

MUSIC

Town & Country offered a Kentucky Derby playlist in 2014 that would work quite well for The Sport of Kings. You can find it here: http://www.townandcountrymag.com/the-scene/parties/a1923/kentucky-derby-party-music/

To their suggestions, I would add:

Run for the Roses, Dan Fogelberg

Blue Moon of Kentucky, Bill Monroe

Kentucky Rain, Elvis Presley

Kentucky Woman, Neil Diamond (I hate it but . . .)

Paradise, John Prine

MOVIE CASTING

Henrietta — Kentucky Girl Jennifer Lawrence, as if the book was written with her in mind

Henry Forge — Matthew McConaughey

Allmon — Jessie Williams

John Henry Forge – Sam Shepard

Happy Reading!

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The First Saturday in May

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Vintage Caulfiled and Shook postcard

Vintage Caulfiled and Shook postcard

The most exciting two minutes in sports.  The run for the roses.  The first leg of the triple crown.  The Kentucky Derby.  The pride of American horse racing has been run consecutively every year on the first Saturday in May since 1875 in Louisville, Kentucky, at a track called Churchill Downs, famously known by its twin spires.  The Kentucky Derby may be the most famous thoroughbred race in the world (OK: it IS but I don’t want some English “Darby” fan to give me a hard time) but some of history’s most famous thoroughbreds never raced in the Derby.  Would it surprise you to know that renowned twentieth century champions Man O’War and Seabiscuit neither raced in the Run for the Roses?

Gibson Girl by Harrison Fisher

Gibson Girl by Harrison Fisher

I wanted to share with you today a couple of great written descriptions of great Kentucky derby races and then some recipes and suggestions for your own derby day festivities.  A bit of a departure from my usual format but I’m wearing my derby hat, and to paraphrase Scarlett O’Hara:  “When I’m wearing a new hat, it seems like everything I know just leaves my head.”

From Secretariat, by William Nack.  The end of the race was primarily between horses Shecky Greene (jockey Larry Adams), Sham (ridden by hall of fame jockey Laffit Pincay Jr) and Secretariat.

Turcotte took Secretariat back toward the gate.

He reached to his helmet and pulled a pair of plastic goggles over his eyes.

A starter came to him again, reaching out.

Secretariat stepped into the starting gate.  The doors slammed shut behind him.  Locked inside, he pushed forward and threw his head in the air.  Adroitly, like a mountain goat, an assistant started slid in over the bars beside him.  He reached for the bridle to hold him.  Turcotte yelled, “Take it easy with him.  He’s anxious.  Handle him easy now.”

The starter’s hand gently touched the extension of the bit.  Feeling the hand, the colt settled down at once.

The last horse – Gold Bag – settled into the gate on the far outside.

It was 5:37.

[Secretariat’s jockey Ron] Turcotte reached down and grabbed a full handful of Secretariat’s mane, holding it to keep his balance at the break, and he bent forward in the fallen stillness.

. . . Secretariat now lay fifth.  So far his move had carried him from last to fifth, and it left him only six lengths behind Shecky [Greene] as they went to the half-mile pole at the far turn.  Shecky had a length and a half lead on Sham, racing the six furlongs in 1:11 4/5, almost six twelves in a row.  He had not let up a moment since the break. . . . Secretariat raced the first three-quarters in 1:03, which put him four lengths behind Sham.  He had dead aim now, Turcotte felt, and he was still running powerfully beneath him, breathing well at the turn, inhaling and exhaling rhythmically.

Turcotte’s only hope now was that the colt would have something left for the final quarter mile down the lane.  If he keeps running like this, Turcotte thought, I won’t have to ask him until the quarter pole. . . .

Secretariat moved to Sham at the top of the lane.

This was what the thousands had been waiting for.  They were all on their feet-deafening and growing louder as Secretariat and Sham raced through the top of the straight, Turcotte pumped and pumped again.  He was riding hard.  He threw all his weight and strength into building the colt’s momentum, driving his arms and torso forward at the forward thrust of Secretariat’s reaching stride.  Sham was in front by a length beyond the quarter pole.  Pincay had still to draw his stick.  He had been hand-riding Sham, and he was confident passing the quarter pole and ito the upper stretch, which is where he thought he felt something on his right.  He did not hear or see it; rather he felt it there, and so he looked under his right arm and all he recalls seeing were the blue and white checked blinkers and the massed brown of Secretariat’s neck.  He was about a half length away.

Pincay drew his stick.Secretariat-Wins-Kentucky-Derby

Secretariat then changed leads for the fourth time in the race, from left back to right at the top of the lane, and now he moved to to Sham, picking up momentum again.  He cut the martin to a half length and then a neck as they drove to the three-sixteenths pole.  Turcotte and Pincay rode furiously, alternately pumping and going to the whip.  They switched their sticks from the right to the left hand.  They muscled Sham and Secretarial down the stretch, tow of America’s strongest riders leaning and lifting together, while the dome of the grandstand rocked with noise at the sight of it.  Slowly, digging in relentlessly, Secretariat gained ground on Sham through the upper stretch, and by the three-sixteenths pole he had come to Sham to swallow him and then they were nose and nose.  Together they drew away from the field.  Churchill Downs vibrated to the spectacle of it.

In the end, Secretariat won setting a record for the race that has never been broken.  It is a monumental example of the beauty of the sport.  Here’s a youtube video of the 1973 Kentucky Derby race in full:  https://youtu.be/74Usj3K4oZ0.

Calumet Farm

Calumet Farm

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Wild Ride by Ann Hagedorn Auerbach is one of my favorite equine books.  It is the true and tragic

Alydar

Alydar

story of Lexington’s fabled Calumet Farm.  If you’ve ever flown into Lexington and looked out the airplane window the white painted fences, well-manicured green lawns and luxurious thoroughbred horses below belonged to Calumet Farm, as once did the valiant Alydar.  In 1978, Alydar finished second to Affirmed in all three legs of the Triple Crown, an “achievement” not seen before or repeated since. With each successive race, Alydar narrowed the margin of victory; Affirmed won by a length in the Kentucky Derby, by a head in the Preakness, and by a nose in the Belmont Stakes.  Alydar subsequently became one of the most successful sires in American racing, far eclipsing Affirmed’s record in the breeding shed.below belonged to Calumet Farm, as once did the valiant Alydar.  Alydar finished second to Affirmed in all three legs of the Triple Crown, an “achievement” not seen before or repeated since. With each successive race, Alydar narrowed the margin of victory; Affirmed won by a length in the Kentucky Derby, by a head in the Preakness, and by a nose in the Belmont Stakes.  Alydar subsequently became one of the most successful sires in American racing, far eclipsing Affirmed’s record in the breeding shed.  In 1990, Alydar died under mysterious circumstances coinciding with the diminishing fortunes of Calumet’s then owners.  It is this which Ann Hagedorn Auerbach’s book explores to a great extent.  Although there’s no real description of the Kentucky Derby, she does have this to say about Alydar’s win in the Blue Grass Stakes:

For much of the race Alydar trailed.  But as he turned for the homestretch and began to pass, one by one each of the other horses, Lucille and Gene [Markey, Alydar’s owners] were helped out of the car and taken to the rail, where they watched Alydar win the race by thirteen lengths.  As his victory was confirmed and announced, Lucille moved slowly toward her husband and pressed her cheek against his.

Here’s the Kentucky Derby video of Affirmed and Alydar:  https://youtu.be/55_vvvCLjQU.  I must admit, every time I watch, I want Alydar to win.

ENTERTAINING!

If you aren’t attending the Derby, your day is all about entertaining at home and I’ve got all the recipes you need.

I know, I know:  You want Mint Juleps.  I located a 1982 sports article quoting the late wife of former Kentucky Governor A.B. “Happy” Chandler as saying mint juleps were “horrible stuff.”  The article called her Millie.  Her granddaughter, Erin, happens to be an acquaintance of mine and fortunately, provided me the following update!

I don’t know who Millie is but I scanned the article and apparently they were MIS quoting my grandmother, Mammy (Mildred Watkins Chandler… NEVER referred to as millie!!) my grandfather never had a drink in his life and I doubt Mammy advertised a special recipe for Mint Juleps… she did love a Whiskey Sour though!!

For what it’s worth, here’s the “Chandler” recipe:

“For a genuine  julep, you take two sprigs of mint, peel the leaves off into a glass, and ground them thoroughly until they are bruised.  Then you add two tablespoonfuls of syrup (sugar with water), throw in crushed ice, add two jiggers of bourbon, and put a few sprigs of mint on top.  Put the glass into the refrigerator until it is iced.  Bring it out and you have a real mint julep.”

Garden & Gun magazine provides the following on its website:

MINT JULEP RECIPE

½ oz. superfine sugar
1 oz. hot water
8 mint leaves, plus one mint sprig
2 oz. bourbon

Dissolve the sugar in the water in an old-fashioned glass (or julep cup, of course). Add the mint leaves and press them lightly with a spoon — you want to seduce the oil from the mint leaves, not beat it out of them. Add the bourbon, fill the glass with cracked ice, and stir. Plant the mint sprig in the ice alongside a short straw, and serve.

And here’s a recipe from Lexington’s classic cookbook, Creating a Stir:

4 cups shaved or crushed ice

Sugar Syrup

1 pink quality bourbon

6 fresh mint sprigs

Powdered sugar

Pack ice into six julep cups to within 1/2 inch from top.  Add 1 jigger sugar syrup and 1-2 bourbon to each cup, stirring until each cup frosts.

Dip mint sprigs into powdered sugar and place 1 in each serving.  Serve with a cocktail napkin.

Sugar syrup:  1 cup sugar, 1 cup water, 1 bunch fresh mint.  Bring sugar and water to boil in small saucepan, stirring until sugar dissolves.  Remove from heat and add mint.  Cover and let steep for 15 minutes, stirring occasionally.  Drain, discarding solids.

PIE

The other absolute essential is a chocolate/bourbon/pecan pie creation that used to be called “Derby Pie,” but now cannot be called “Derby Pie,” anymore because some huge corporation bought the rights to the name “Derby Pie” and now the only pie than can be called “Derby Pie” is said corporation’s “Derby Pie” thus ensuring that a) I will never tell you what corporation that is; and b) I will never buy one.

But here is a great recipe for a chocolate-bourbon-pecan pie from an absolutely gorgeous cookbook published by the Central Baptist Hospital Foundation Cancer Program in Lexington, Kentucky.  If can be ordered by calling 859 260-6105, faxing 859-260-6117, email: cbhbeyondthefencecookbook@bhsi.com, and more information is available at www.beyondthefencecookbook.com.  This cookbook provides funding for the Central Baptist Cancer Foundation and is beautifully photographed with images of Lexington’s historic horse farms, landscapes and locations and the recipes are well-researched, well-tested and delicious.  If you want a wonderful gift, this is it.  Commercial over, here’s the recipe:

1 cup sugar

1 cup light corn syrup

1/2 cup butter (DO NOT USE MARGARINE – COME ON – daeandwrite note)

4 large eggs, beaten

1/4 cup bourbon

1 teaspoon vanilla

1/4 teaspoon salt

6 oz semisweet chocolate chips (USE GOOD ONES)

1 cup chopped pecans

1 (9 inch) pie shell

Preheat oven to 325.  In a small saucepan, combine sugar, corn syrup and butter. Cook over medium heat, stirring constantly, until butter melts and sugar dissolves.  Cool slightly.  In a large bowl, combine eggs, bourbon, vanilla and salt.  Mix well. Slowly pour sugar mixture into egg mixture, whisking constantly.  Stir in chocolate chips and pecans.  Pour mixture into unbaked pie shell.  Bake 50 to 55 minutes or until set and golden.

I serve with home made whipped cream topped with mint.  Or vanilla ice cream.

The only other thing you really need for a Derby party is a hat.  But feel free to add some County Ham and biscuits, Bourbon balls, fresh asparagus with hollandaise, strawberries with whipped cream, corn pudding . . ..  OK:  I’m hungry.

Happy Reading & Eating & Betting!

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