12/09/2015 12:52PM

Hovdey: Nourishment to go with your egg nog


Dropped by my local book giant the other day, looking for something by Joan Didion. There were toys and games, puzzles and posters, a full service café, and two shelves stuffed with something called “manga” just around the corner from an entire killing field of Bill O’Reilly doorstops.

But no Joan Didion. I was told the something could be ordered, which is the way it works these days, effectively dampening the blithe spontaneity of the act. There is nothing better than thinking about a book, a writer, a topic, then pedaling on down to the local shop and finding it there, as if it knew you were coming. No, I said, I did not want to place an order. By the time it gets here the moment will have passed, and I might be on to the next whim.

Faced with this reality of modern commerce, I hope it is not too late to recommend a few titles for holiday gifts to be ordered up in time for the ceremonies. Of the three mentioned here, one is fact, one is fiction, and one is of such sweeping historical drama that if it wasn’t so remarkably true it would have been great make-believe.

“Ride to Win: An Inside Look at the Jockey’s Craft” is possibly the most entertaining textbook since “How to Play in Traffic” by Penn & Teller. I hesitate to use the term, since no one wants to go back to school, but the interviews assembled by authors Bob Fortus and Gary West are of such depth and unusual insight that “Ride to Win” should be required reading – and testing – before any young jockey is issued a license.

There is plenty in “Ride to Win” for the rest of us up here in the stands, betting our hard-earned dollars and wondering what on earth that jock is doing down there on the rail. From warmups to photo-finish, there is chapter after chapter of guided tours by the greats of the game: Pat Day, Chris McCarron, Jerry Bailey, Mike Smith. Julie Krone, the lady of this house, came away from her interview with Fortus thrilled that for a change the conversation was not about a woman doing a man’s job, but an athlete doing a fascinating, challenging job.

To describe “Ride to Win” as a labor of love is an understatement. Fortus, best known for his racing coverage with the New Orleans Times-Picayune, has a droll sense of humor that could sell well in any form, while West, the foremost racing writer in Texas, can turn a shopping list into a literary experience. Their collaboration on the book was backed by JockeyTalk360.com, the brainchild of Kentucky Downs president Corey Johnsen, and a healthy 25 percent of each “Ride to Win” goes directly to the Permanently Disabled Jockey Fund.

Fortus will be at Fair Grounds in his New Orleans backyard on Saturday to sign copies of “Ride to Win” along with Hall of Famers Eddie Delahoussaye and Randy Romero, both featured in the book. Otherwise, the JockeyTalk360.com website is the easiest way to get one.

“If Wishes Were Horses” has emerged from the head of John Perrotta, whose own journey in the world of Thoroughbred racing was charted in his autobiographical “Racetracker,” published in 2014. (Full disclosure – Perrotta and I wrote for the HBO series “Luck,” and when it was canceled we bought each other drinks.)

Perrotta’s new book is a classic roman à clef, with the fictional Hamilton Greer, often down but never really out, wending his way like a backstretch Candide through the very real world of American racing in the 1970s and early 1980s.

Here’s the runaway Ham learning the tricky ropes of a Thoroughbred stable. Here’s Ham falling for the first, second, and third girl that crosses his path. Here’s Ham finding out the hard way that horses don’t always bring out the best in the people around them. Here’s Ham, given one last shot at a redemption he never thought would come.

“If Wishes Were Horses” is a languid read, episodic and rambling, reaching the ear as a story told over good wine and a fire. Amazon and Barnes & Noble offer the book, as well as a selection from Joan Didion.

Finally, for those who read “Warrior: The Real War Horse” a few years ago, as well as its companion video entitled “War Horse: The Real Story,” narrated by British broadcaster and racing journalist Brough Scott, there is a fresh version worth a place in any DVD library.

The original documentary was stirring enough, tracing the life and times of Scott’s grandfather, British Gen. Jack Seely, and Warrior, the fabled “horse the Germans couldn’t kill,” although they tried hard in numerous cavalry charges through four years of World War I.

Now, 15 introductory minutes have been added to the video, offering an intimate telling of the War Horse tale by Scott, complete with a tour of his grandfather’s home and stables on the Isle of Wight. In both prose and commentary, Scott is a master of the dramatic. But the story of the general and his horse requires no embellishment, and Scott is very much the proud grandson, keeper of this family treasure.

Warrior lived to be 33 and is buried not far from Gen. Seely on the Isle of Wight. The video is available through the usual online sources, and very much worth the trip.