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Blood Horses: Notes of a Sportswriter's Son

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One evening late in his life, veteran sportswriter Mike Sullivan was asked by his son what he remembered best from his three decades in the press box. The answer came as a surprise. "I was at Secretariat's Derby, in '73. That was . . . just beauty, you know?"

Sullivan didn't know, not the track had always been a place his father disappeared to once a year on business, a source of souvenir glasses and inscrutable passions in his Kentucky relatives. But in 2000, Sullivan, an editor and essayist for Harper's, decided to educate himself. He spent two years following the horse-both across the country, as he watched one season's juvenile crop prepare for the Triple Crown, and through time, as he tracked the animal's constant evolution in literature and art, from the ponies that appeared on the walls of European caves 30,000 years ago, to the mounts that carried the Indo-European language to the edges of the Old World, to the finely tuned but fragile yearlings that are auctioned off for millions of dollars apiece every spring and fall.

The result is a witty, encyclopedic, and in the end profound meditation on what Edwin Muir called our "long-lost archaic companionship" with the horse. Incorporating elements of memoir and reportage, the Wunderkammer and the picture gallery, Blood Horses lets us see--as we have never seen before--the animal that, more than any other, made us who we are.

272 pages, Hardcover

First published April 1, 2004

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About the author

John Jeremiah Sullivan

23 books245 followers
John Jeremiah Sullivan is an American writer and editor. He is a contributing writer to The New York Times Magazine, a contributing editor of Harper's Magazine, and southern editor of The Paris Review.

Sullivan's first book, Blood Horses: Notes of a Sportswriter's Son, was published in 2004. It is part personal reminiscence, part elegy for his father, and part investigation into the history and culture of the Thoroughbred racehorse. His second book, Pulphead: Essays (2011), is an anthology of fourteen updated magazine articles.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 56 reviews
177 reviews5 followers
February 25, 2018
This is a book haunted by two ghosts: the author's father, and the great Secretariat, winner of the 1973 Triple Crown. The author tells us that the book grew out of the answer he got when, during his father's last illness, he asked him what he remembered best from his thirty years of sportswriting. His father said Secretariat's Derby - "that was ... just beauty." The answer surprised the author because horseracing had not been his father's favorite sport, or even seemed to have been important to him. Thus, this book.

Although the term "blood horse" can mean any purebred horse, today it is almost always used to mean a thoroughbred, a breed created for racing, the breed of the "sport of kings." In exploring that history the author travels through landscapes and history and memories of his father. The tale is as much about loss, and his father as it is about horses and the relationship humans have with them.

Some of this works for me, some of it doesn't. I was not particularly interested in his father, and some of the historical anecdotes are just puzzling to me - I have no idea why they are included since some have little or nothing to do with horses. Also a puzzle is who thought it a good idea to illustrate the book with mostly small, dark, often murky photos.

The author dips in and out of history, geology, archeology, myth and literature in exploring the history of the thoroughbred. I have to wonder how much poetic license he takes, though, when he writes of the Arabian horse (a progenitor of the thoroughbred):
The Arab horse is something of a scientific mystery. It emerges in the fossil record ... looking exactly as it does today and zoologists have had trouble linking it up with the rest of the family."
Now, the Arabian is a creature of such unearthly beauty that it would be fitting if that were so. But I have read a great deal about horses over the years, including their very well-documented evolution, and never came across such a statement. Nor is the author he cites for this statement included in the "sources" at the end of the book.

The book includes instances of the appalling history of human cruelty to horses, from cart to war horses, that is important but very hard to read. The author also conveys some of Secretariat's magic, and why to this day this horse, long gone now, captures minds and hearts.

D.H. Lawrence* wrote of the horse, "Far back, far back in our dark soul the horse prances...The horse, the horse!" There are parts of the book that deserve four or even five stars, and justify the weight of myth, magic, and history from cave art to the present that the term "blood horses" evokes. But if I were to reread it I would skip large sections and just read the parts about horses.

*NOT one of my favorite authors but I always thought that quote captured something of the horse's power in symbol and myth.
Profile Image for April WW.
68 reviews
January 20, 2010
I learned that I think John Jeremiah Sullivan is a great writer! He apparently writes or wrote for GQ, which I don't have much occasion to read, so I've never read anything else but if this book is any indication of his work, I'm a fan.

Stylistically, I did find the organization of it a bit odd at first until I realized it read like a giant magazine article. The book jumps around a bit abruptly and each little section starts under its own headline, which I found a bit jarring until I caught the rhythm and started to see the big picture. It all comes together beautifully.

I bought this book because the review/recommendation I read (in Powell's Daily Dose) made me think that my brother -- a horse race loving sportswriter's son -- would enjoy reading it. The book is about horses, thoroughbred horses specifically, and covers the history of man's fascination with and strange domination over horses in quite an encyclopedic fashion, with just enough historical details to keep it interesting. It's also a book about a man coming to terms with the loss of his father, and doing so by learning about something his father loved...a thing he discovered too late to share with him while he was alive. Between the horseracing, the sportscasting, and the father/son focus, I felt like this would be a great book for my brother. I found it unexpectedly at Half Price Books and bought it for him for Christmas, then realized that I was breaking my rule (again!) about never giving a book as a gift that I haven't read yet myself. So, I kept it to read first. I was not prepared to love it this much and will be buying a new one for JW. Birthday month is March so I've got a little time to order another copy. I guess I should be less literal sometimes because a sportswriter's daughter also certainly found much to love about this book. Guess that means I need a copy for the other AW too. :)

Even for people who have never thought twice about horses or horseracing, I would say this is a thought-provoking and possibly cathartic book. If you're an adult child who has lost a parent too soon (isn't it always too soon?), much of this book will resonate. That isn't what the book is about, but is certainly what inspired it. I found comfort in it. And also tears, I must admit.

Quotes that I loved (there were many, but these two stood out):

"We are no longer frightened of nature; what frightens us is the idea that we have triumphed over nature, and what that triumph will mean in the long run, when we understand, too late, that we were nature, that our triumph has been a suicide."

"I timed this emptiness -- the space between Secretariat exiting and Twice a Prince entering the image -- with my watch. It lasts seven seconds. And somehow each of these seconds says more about what made Secretariat great than any shot of him in motion could. In the history of profound absences -- the gaps in Sappho's fragments, Christ's tomb, the black panels of Rothko's chapel -- this is among the most beautiful."

(That last quote stood out the most because two very close friends of mine are getting married in the Rothko chapel this weekend! Yet another case of a book unexpectedly falling into my hands at the unexpectedly perfect time. Weird!)

Profile Image for Mark Taylor.
63 reviews1 follower
February 24, 2021
I know all this stuff about Secretariat and horses now, but no way to get them into a conversation naturally. Did you know the chronicling of the genealogy of horses predated the chronicling of human genealogy and was potentially the spur for what would become fascist eugenics ideas? Did you know Secretariat was such a powerful runner that his jockey never had to do anything? Did you know at the time of the 9/11 attacks the winner of the Kentucky Derby was owned by a Saudi prince who died under mysterious circumstances eight months later?

I wasn't sold on the format of the book to begin with; it is pulled together more like a collection of notes on horse racing, the history of horses relationship to humans and the author's relationship with his own father, rather than as a unifying narrative, but by the end I was totally in the zone for it. It never all quite fits together, but it is still a fun, engaging and in the end pretty emotional read.
Profile Image for Carissa.
28 reviews
August 16, 2009
Seven years ago, John Jeremiah Sullivan published an essay in Harper's magazine called "Horseman, Pass By: Glory, Grief, and the Race for the Triple Crown." I like horses, and I like essays, so I read it. It turned out to be one of the loveliest essays I'd ever read. I photocopied it and forced friends to read it. A tiny footnote published with the essay said that John Jeremiah Sullivan was "writing a book about fathers and horses." A book-long version of the 18-page article I had adored! Although I never forgot about the essay over the seven years that have passed since, I forgot quickly about the future book about fathers and horses, until recently. I finally remembered the book, and bought it. Blood Horses is that book. It arrived in the mail today. Big surprise: I'm already loving it.
Profile Image for Ellinor.
41 reviews
August 19, 2021
Yesss i just adore Sullivans laconic tone and thorough research. And he`s unafraid of romantic, slightly esoteric stuff aswell.
Profile Image for John Asher.
4 reviews7 followers
August 25, 2015
While I have read a good bit on Mr. Sullivan's work, I stumbled upon "Blood Horses" last week in a visit to Frankfort, Ky.'s Poor Richard's Book Store, one my favorite stops. It was a chore to find it - I spotted a book that been shoved behind a shelf of books on various horse racing subjects. That seem an omen that I should purchase the paperback, and was instantly absorbed by a work that is the best book on horses and humans that I have read. It's also a wonderful tale of fathers and sons, and the fact that I knew and admired Mr. Sullivan's father, the late Courier-Journal sportswriter Mike Sullivan, during my early years in Louisville clearly added to my fascination.

I have long held a firm belief of an intrinsic connection between humans and horses, and Mr. Sullivan explores that relationship to the earliest meeting between man and horse, and carries to the Kentucky Derby. "Blood Horses" is beautiful and inspires on many levels.

If you've read Mr. Sullivan's work, you know that the sportswriter's son can really ride. If you don't read "Blood Horses," get something written by John Jeremiah Sullivan in your hands. Your life will be better for it.
Profile Image for Justin.
146 reviews1 follower
August 15, 2014
A manic journey through horse history, with a special emphasis on thoroughbred culture, including some close ups of the 2002 and 2003 Triple Crown races. The author protagonist is funny, likable and has a passion for obscure literary works that shed light on his subjects (horses and Kentucky) in peculiar ways. The remembrance of his father was touching and felt real, without being schlocky. The main drawbacks were a tendency to dabble around the events of 9/11 and Iraq without really forming a strong point of view on them, and some of the bleakness surrounding the historical vignettes of horses at war seemed a bit over the top. The style, moving around from war history, to personal memoir to contemporary sports analysis was both a stylistic triumph and also at times could feel ad hoc. In the end, though, I was left feeling that this is the work of an extremely talented writer and one whose career will be a pleasure to watch unfold as he tackles other subjects.
40 reviews17 followers
December 20, 2011
As a 30-something expatriated Kentuckian, my shared background with the author strongly biased my reading of BLOOD HORSES. Nonetheless, I will recommend this book to anyone, especially people who like PULPHEAD. Despite being a memoir seemingly devoted to Sullivan's late father, the book lacks the solipsistic sentimentality that plagues most memoirs. Who would normally be interested in a son's memories of his Louisville-Redbirds-beat-reporter father? Yet, this book is fascinating. It takes a lot of inexplicable turns into such topics as Kaspar Hauser and the life and times of an old timey well digger that make it a pleasure to read.
6 reviews
March 17, 2009
If you are interested in horse racing (as I am) you will enjoy this book. It gives a great background on the horse throughout history, which is based on what seems to be exhaustive research. At times I found myself confused as to where the book was headed; sometimes it was about the history of the horse, other times about horse racing, and still at other times a chronicle of a man and his somewhat absent sportswriting father. It did however all come together in the end in a very satisfying book. I would recommend it even if you are not a racing enthusiast.
Profile Image for Natalie.
Author 47 books257 followers
September 16, 2011
Words fail me. This book explores many themes - death, remembrance, and grief central among them, as Sullivan recalls his father - but it does so as it faithfully follows the horse through history, its stints as food, idol, instrument of war, and finally the precious blood horses, bred first by Bedouins and later by Englishman to be fast and beautiful and very little else. I have never read a book which describes Thoroughbreds with such a lyrical touch. I loved every page.
Profile Image for Denise Spicer.
Author 14 books61 followers
October 20, 2018
This is a very well written book by the son of sportswriter Mike Sullivan The author gives us part memoir, part history of horses. Interspersed amongst his recollections of his father, he comments, sometimes quite eloquently, on horses, horse racing, and history He includes sections on individual horses and races, (especially the Derby and Secretariat) but also an inside look at the horse breeding business. Lots of miscellaneous, interesting or even weird, facts about horses, (including a very sad section on horses in war). The book includes an Index and a list of Illustration Credits. These are oddly placed at the back of the book but this list would have been more useful as captions for each individual illustration (some are famous, Da Vinci, etc.) as they are situated randomly throughout the text. This writing does wax philosophical at some points as when on page 221 he interjects some comments about their childhood pets, mother and son “Lab-like” dogs. “Dogs were meant to be like Remnant and Ruggles, large idiotic creatures who ran around and did as they pleased until you screamed at them, who terrified strangers but would never hurt one, who gave and craved unconditional affection in out-sized doses, and who agreed to live with you until one of you died.”
Profile Image for Alex.
209 reviews12 followers
February 15, 2018
My first job after college was to take bets at the Saratoga Race Track. It was...memorable. I didn't know much about horses, but seeing the hoi polloi gather each day to drink, gamble, and drink some more was quite an introduction to the real world.

Since then I've always been intrigued by the horse racing world. I loved Pulphead, JJS's book of essays, and thought this book about his father, and horse racing, would be a wonderful deep dive. Indeed, the parts about his father, who was a sportswriter that often covered horse races, were tremendous; full of humor and emotion. But the structure of the tale was strange. The deep dives into horse history were somewhat random and esoteric. There wasn't a lot of context and it was hard to tell what Sullivan was trying to convey.

Blood Horses came out in 2004, when Sullivan was, by writing standards, a youthful 30 years old. I think if he wrote this book now, as a more seasoned writer, it would be a different story. Of course, the middle of a race is far different from the start...
Profile Image for Meteorite_cufflink.
87 reviews2 followers
January 13, 2021
A re-read for comfort. And to check if my yearning for the long-announced-often-delayed "The prime minister of paradise" is justified. Short answer: yes, it is. John Jeremiah Sullivan's essay collection "Pulphead" is one of my favourite books, and since I've read all stories multiple times it was time to read his debut for the second time.

I remember feeling "Blood Horses" was pretty good, but packed less punch than his essays, which often walk a high wire between nerdy research, creative and meandering writing and emotional heft. Turns out all these things are already firmly in place in this book, albeit with some slight peaks and valleys in the way it kept my attention. So, yes, recommended!
15 reviews
June 29, 2018
Very entertaining !

Fast reading, bought book because I love reading about horses, especially Secretariat, &horse racing, and enjoyed everything else the author wrote about. His childhood, his father, sportswriter Mike Sullivan, growing up in Kentucky & then also bringing in the history of the horse from prehistoric times, brilliant! Also good recount of Secretariat's Triple Crown performance. Found myself laughing out loud and also crying at times! Read it in one day. Good job, Mr Sullivan!
14 reviews
March 6, 2018
A complex, penetrating, creative, and personal meditation on his relationship with his father, Kentucky and the role of horses in history, culture, and our imaginations. The book has enormous centripetal force -- it is hard to imagine how it holds together, yet it somehow does, perhaps because it is so poetically written.
Profile Image for Cristina - Athenae Noctua.
384 reviews46 followers
October 9, 2018
«Nessuno aveva mai visto un cavallo correre in quel modo»: bastano queste parole del padre morente a spingere John Jeremiah Sullivan ad avventurarsi nella maggiore competizione ippica americana e negli anfratti della storia dei cavalli. Aneddoti e curiosità si alternano a lunghe digressioni, in un racconto che ha il valore di un documentario e, insieme, di un servizio giornalistico.
Profile Image for Abby.
1,424 reviews178 followers
September 30, 2019
Beautifully written, especially the horse bits. I wish this had been either a book exclusively about horses or exclusively about his father, instead of both. Sullivan is a delightful stylist, with a particular brand of confidential levity that I enjoy, but the merging of the two very different subjects dimmed my enthusiasm for an otherwise perfect little book of nonfiction.
Profile Image for Abhee Subramani.
65 reviews3 followers
December 29, 2022
A very strange and meandering book about horse racing and it's place in Kentucky. Touches many topics on the way such as eugenics, father-son relationships, horse symbolism in our culture, 9/11 and the history of cavalry. It absolutely gripped me for the duration of a flight, check it out!
Profile Image for Kyle Jennings.
13 reviews
April 1, 2023
Really enjoyed this. Love Sullivan’s writing style, and I was pleasantly surprised by how interesting the content was. I really enjoy the way he switches between different stories & historical context, it all comes together so nicely.
Profile Image for In.
176 reviews4 followers
June 5, 2022
A little bit of everything about horses. The information on the Triple Crown horses, winners and not, is fascinating. I will read more of Sullivan.
Profile Image for Ms.pegasus.
702 reviews137 followers
August 25, 2012
The author is the son of the late sportswriter, Mike Sullivan, of the Kentucky Courier Journal. BLOOD HORSES, is a uniquely conceived memoir. It is an intense, free-form chronicle of his search for connection to his father. What does this have to do with horses? In that uncertain but hopeful period after a serious operation, Mike shares a memory with his son. His career had spanned the brash conquests of Muhammed Ali, and the stellar ascent of Michael Jordan. The sport he loved was baseball. But the intimacy he shares is Secretariat's Kentucky Derby victory. This is the last conversation the two of them have.

Sullivan begins his search by exploring his own genealogy, and the parallel history of Kentucky's horse culture. He segues between the two themes: horse and mankind, only to find that neither can be easily summarized. He recalls his father's sense of humor, his childhood memories at the ballpark, Mike's fruitless attempts to stop smoking, his over-fondness for drink, and finally his divorce from John's mother, and the rift of silent accusation that separated him from his father in later years. Realizing in panic that he knows little of his father's life before his own birth, Sullivan seeks out old friends of his father for their stories.

The contradictions of his father's nature are reflected in the contradictions of the history of the horse. Once hunted for meat, it was revered as a god, envied, tamed, and re-created to serve in war, embellish in peace, and enrich at the track. He recalls that his father reinvented himself from idealistic poet to gainfully employed writer and family man. The poetry that Sullivan summons to recount these transformations includes part of an assignment his youthful father once had to assemble a collage of “beautiful language.” He quotes a passage from his father's paper, written at age 21. It is from Dylan Thomas's “Fern Hill”:

“So it must have been after the birth of the simple light
In the first, spinning place, the spellbound horses walking warm
Out of the whinnying green stable
On to the fields of praise”

Beauty, ambiguity and the suspension of time are all captured in these brief lines. They echo when he tries to imagine what his father felt that day when he saw Secretariat.

Small ironies are revealed in casual fashion. Mike died when a blood clot formed in his leg and lodged in his lung. The owner of 2002 Derby winner, War Emblem was Prince Ahmed bin Salman bin Abdul Aziz, who died when a blot clot in his leg traveled to his heart. Mike Sullivan spent a career as a sportswriter of a different age. John documents the “counterfeit reality” that writers attempt to conjure in the post 9/11 era. First, the insinuations about the Arab inroads into thoroughbred racing. Second, in the “scrappy underdog” narrative they try to portray in the 2003 rivalry between Funny Cide and Empire Maker.

John Sullivan's search takes him to the stables of trainer John T. Ward (he trained 2001 Derby winner Monarchos). There is a poignancy as he follows the 2002 racing season, hoping to re-experience the thrill of watching a triple crown winner. He reaches emotional closure of sorts in the chapter, “Remnant.” I quote only a portion of an extended passage that makes up the heart of the book: “We draw our existence from a kind a web that is constantly eaten at from the outside, yet never disappears, though we do...life is this slow amassing of a company of shades who build up around us until we are suffered to join them...” At the same time, writer that he is, Sullivan gives us an aesthetically satisfying literary closure in the succeeding chapter, “One Year Later.” This is a beautifully written book with wonderful passages from the historical archives as well as vivid reporting of the 2002 racing season.

Note: I read this book on the Kindle, but recommend the paper edition. The book includes photos of a wide variety of artworks.
Profile Image for Natasha Pea.
57 reviews
May 10, 2023
A broad history of horses through the eyes of humans, coupled with a melancholic memorial to the author’s father: two disparate threads that would presumably be dissonant, but somehow they work. The personal account paired nicely with the well-researched history of thoroughbred horses, from cave paintings to the billion-dollar racing industry.
Profile Image for Chad Supp.
30 reviews
March 21, 2016
A moving tribute to a father, a family memoir, a condensed history of the Bluegrass state, and a well-researched tracking of the Horse and its relationship with Man, going back to prehistoric times. It's a soup with a lot of ingredients, but with a solid base that holds it all together.

Secretariat's triple crown achievement is the widely-accepted gold standard for "Perfection." Setting all of the elements of his book against that standard, JJS researches an industry/state/culture and their pursuit of the breeding recipe to achieve that standard. He also reflects on a life and a relationship that falls short of that standard, but holds no less value.

Readers of Sullivan are familiar with the "beauty of language" in his essay work. "Blood Horses" identifies and describes the source. Mike Sullivan is someone I would have liked to have known.

Easily at the top of my favorite books I've read so far this year.

Profile Image for Danimal.
269 reviews3 followers
September 18, 2015
It took me almost two years to read this, because my dad gave me this along with Sullivan's collection of essays, and the essays were so good that I didn't think this could compete. Also: a book about thoroughbred horse racing? Meh.

I WAS SO WRONG. Not only because this book is about more -- way more -- than horse racing. (It's about the weird history of horse racing and the weird history of Kentucky and the weird people who orbit those worlds, plus the author's complicated relationship with his sportswriter father, and much more.) But also because Sullivan is pretty much the best essayist I've read. Even better than Mary Roach! (Hell, I don't read a lot of essaysists, there's probably lots more that I would like but these are the top two, easily.) He's just so smart and funny and likable and not afraid to go off on tangents or shoot for the heart.

Highly recommended.
Profile Image for Belea Keeney.
Author 12 books5 followers
December 25, 2015
I found this to be a quirky mash-up of a memoir, horse book, and odd tangents. Based on the title, one would assume that it's just about Thoroughbreds or Arabians, but it ranges around quite a bit, at one point focusing on the dreadful fate of many horses used in war campaigns. If you're a horse person looking for a horse-y read, I don't think this will cut it for you. If you're a sports person who follows sports writers, this may feel too narrow. If you're looking for memoirs about parent/child relationships, then the horse bits will probably bore you.

Bottom line, this reads like two different books smooshed (professional publishing term TM) together--a memoir about the author's father and some info about horses in general, and racing horses in particular.
Profile Image for David.
474 reviews4 followers
December 27, 2010
Excellent non-fiction book that is about many things at once - the writer's tribute to his sportswriter father and his father's own remembrances of the great Secretariat, a history of the Kentucky horse racing industry, an account of War Emblem's attempt to win the 2002 Triple Crown, a survey of the horse in literature, and finally (and mostly) an examination of man's relationship with the horse throughout history.

Beautifully written and as an Amazon reviewer noted, reminiscent of the style of W. G. Sebald.
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