02/16/2011 4:20PM

Book of poetry captures essence of 19th century hero Isaac Murphy


There is a golden cluster of racing books that has continued to inspire and entertain aficionados down through the years. To read them is to ingest the most satisfying, nutritional meal.

Most serious libraries are topped by either “This Was Racing,” Joe Palmer’s collection of columns, with comments by Red Smith, or “The Fireside Book of Horse Racing,” the anthology edited by David F. Woods. To own them is to never need suffer an evening of boredom.

For embracing the panoramic scope of the game, there is nothing like “The History of Thoroughbred Racing in America” by William H.P. Robertson. Ignore the fact that it was published in 1964. Believe me, the last 47 years of the American version of the game are nothing compared to the intrigue and romance of the first 200.

Preston M. Burch wrote “Training Thoroughbred Horses” in 1953. Any trainer who has not read the book in 2011 has a gaping hole in his education. Same goes for any horseplayer, casual or otherwise, who has failed to absorb the lessons imparted by Richard Carter, doing business as Tom Ainslie, in his seminal “Ainslie’s Complete Guide to Thoroughbred Racing,” and by Andrew Beyer in “Picking Winners: A Horseplayer’s Guide.”

Now comes another volume to add to that list, and it is – please fasten your seatbelts – a book of poems.

Such an announcement usually clears the room, but this one is worth sticking around to savor. At its best, poetry is the distillation of language and experience into their rhythmic and thematic elements (as opposed to Twitter, which is 140 characters of hiccups and nose-blowing). “Isaac Murphy: I Dedicate This Ride,” is the poetic art at its economic, transformative best.

The collection, as told through the voices of the great 19th century jockey and the people closest to him, was written by Frank X Walker, a Kentucky academic and prolific author. Walker was first inspired by the story of America’s most famous black jockey when he was commissioned to write a play about Murphy as part of the celebration of the International Equestrian Games, held in Lexington, Ky., in 2009. Once exposed to Murphy’s story – with its slave roots, his three Kentucky Derby wins in an eight-year span, and his image as a pillar of the local African-American community – Walker seized upon the details of a life that, in its time, was every bit as tragic and heroic as that of a 20th century sports icon like Babe Ruth.

“I knew it had to come across authentically,” Walker said last week, from his office at the University of Kentucky. “I read everything I could. I would go to the track and try and soak up every word, every silent gesture. A lot of time I think of a poem as a photograph, and a really good poem as a short film. I needed to be cinemagraphic to register those images, and to feel authentic. That’s why I’m most interested in how horse people respond to the individual poems.”

Walker gets under the skin of the business from several angles, including this, from “Uncle Eli’s Rules,” part of the law laid down by Murphy’s mentor, the trainer Eli Jordan:

Don’t ride a horse you don’t yet know.

Don’t ride a horse that don’t know you neither.

Don’t race a horse you ain’t rode.

Don’t forget it’s a race and not no parade.

Only ask the horse for what you need to win.

Or this, from “Horseshoes,” Murphy’s musings about the nature of his profession:

I never consider how east it is to fall out of the saddle,

how trying to dodge the thunder ‘n’ lightning

of a Thoroughbred’s hoofs

would be like tip-toeing through a cotton gin.

When a thousand pounds of horse is on the other end

your rib cage is just a bird’s nest

your head no safter than a watermelon kissing a knife.

And this, from “Science Class for Jockeys,” courtesy of Uncle Eli, who compared the breath of a horse to rainwater, the heart of a horse to a water-soaked sponge, and the power in the legs of a horse to a short rope wrapped tight around the fist.

He says my job is to manage the heart and legs

and lungs, to get to the end with just enough

rope and water to make it across the finish line.

“That’s my favorite,” Walker said. “That struck to me the kind of tone for the level of communication that was full of wisdom and effective, not penalized by not having been formally educated. and that it was enough information to be imparted from the learned to the unlearned so that they were able to do what they needed to do.”

Walker’s intent was to combine his extensive research with his poetic imagination, in his words “to strike a balance so that it lives as poems, as well as a piece of historical information.”

“I had a reading the other night, and afterwards somebody asked me if Eli’s Rules was an excerpt from an actual interview with Eli,” Walker said. “They weren’t. They were just intuitive/learned things that seemed to make sense as I tried to navigate that strait between these uneducated people and how they shared their information.”

“I Dedicate This Ride” was published late last year by Kentucky’s Old Cove Press. The challenge of getting such a work in the hands of a widespread readership is daunting, but there is no reason that horse racing fans should not fall deeply in thrall of Walker’s work. Sooner than later, Walker’s take on one of racing’s most intriguing individuals should be a part of the default literature of the game.

“A lot of people are trying to convince me that horse racing is not a big deal anymore,” Walker said. “I guess that depends on who you are.”