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'Champions' is racing's ultimate history book

One of the books I was given as a gift during the Christmas season just concluded was a novel about somebody working in the fashion industry.

Another of the books I got was a pop-up book about a foreign place.

Another of the books I received was a weighty political work that was only light on the punctuation.

Another of the books I was given featured show business gossip.

Another of the books I was given, I already had, a novel called "Calypso" that was written by the recently deceased Evan Hunter, as great a writer as ever lived. "Calypso" was dedicated to me and my ex-wife. I was Evan Hunter's friend. He died of throat cancer. He also smoked for what that's worth. When a man writes a hundred or so novels, as Evan did, it's good to have enough friends for all the dedications. "Calypso" is brilliantly written. It is also numbingly violent. It is about a woman who skins men like catfish. It's an honor to have somebody as good as Evan dedicate a book your way. It's also a little eerie. I recall wondering if the skinning could have been oddly prophetic of a prospective divorce.

Another book I got this holiday season was full of big pictures of dogs and cats.

I get a lot of books.

After getting all the books that the generous givers have read or think you should read, and after placing all these books on the coffee table, and on the mantle facing out, the first thing you do after that is hurry to buy something you want to read.

And here that is, "Champions," price fifty bucks, from the Daily Racing Form Press.

Don't let the expense cause you to flip away. Art is on the cover, a golden painting of Man o' War. This is a self-dusting combination coffee table-work bench volume sure to impress company and get reread. It is the rarest of books, something that seems new every time you open it. That's because of all the stats -- statistics -- past performances of the greatest horses ever to race the earth.

"Champions" is just updated from its original publication in 2000 to include new news.

Many horsy books are much easier to predict than the races. Most fiction is about a horse that comes from the sticks to be a champ, a waif cheering in the background. The non-fiction, barely, is one of those how-to handicapping books that explains systems and ploys way too late, which is after the races have been run. One thing most horse players already know is why races that were already run were run the way they were run, thanks anyhow.

"Champions" is presented along time lines, usually a decade. Narrative opens each chapter, explaining what was up in, say, the forties; then the complete past performances of the greatest runners are displayed.

Baseball fans have long reveled in the calm logic of their statistics, and easily so, as batting averages and ERA's have around since the first inning, accessible as bubble gum.

Now we have the equivalent, the running histories of the greatest through the ages, each horse having a story to tell, sometimes each past performance line.

Look what I just found in "Champions" -- it's almost like exploring:

In 1930, Gallant Fox paid four cents on the dollar in a race at Belmont.

Seabiscuit paid $26 and change in an allowance win at Aqueduct.

Man o' War, who won 20 of 21, never paid more than 90 cents on a buck.

The best horses used to run a lot more. In the sixties, Amber Diver, 103 races, Kelso, 63, Lark, 72. Ahead to the eighties: Alysheba, 26 starts, Easy Goer, 20,
Bates Motel, 19, Swale, 14. Nineties: Azari, 14 races, AP Indy, 11. This decade: Ghostzapper, 11 starts, Smarty Jones, 9.

In the 40's, a horse called Stymie had 131 starts. His first race in 1943 was over five furlongs at Jamaica. His last race in 1949 was over two and a quarter miles at Belmont Park. One summer in New York, Stymie ran six furlong races at Belmont on August 18, 20, 26 and 28, four races in ten days, a win, a second, a show and a seventh.

If this lovely thought-provoking book can't convince somebody you're a handicapper and not a gambler, nothing will.

Write to Jay at jaycronley@yahoo.com