12/12/2007 1:00AM

Insider's view of a family farm

EmailIn a recent issue of The New Yorker, author and literary critic Louis Menand presented three possible justifications for the lonely act of keeping a diary.

The first "obliges you to believe that the stuff that happened to you is worth writing down because it happened to you." The second supposes that "people use diaries to record wishes and desires that they need to keep secret, and to list failures and disappointments that they cannot admit publicly have given them pain." And finally, diaries are "exercises in self-justification."

"When we describe the day's events and our management of them," Menand wrote, "we have in mind a wise and benevolent reader who will someday see that we played, on the whole, and despite the best efforts of selfish and unworthy colleagues and relations, a creditable game with the hand we were dealt."

"Merryland - Two Years in the Life of a Racing Stable" (Eclipse Press, December 2007), is described in the title page as "a diary by Eclipse Award-winning author Josh Pons." That Pons, a third-generation Maryland horseman, has won Eclipse Awards is indisputable. He has got bookends, no less, one of them acquired as far back as 1981 when he must have been writing in crayons. The other, in 1992, recognized installments of his "Country Life Diary," published in The Blood-Horse magazine.

For a part-time writer with herds of horses to feed, Pons is prolific. Calling his work a diary, however, is stretching the definition, or at least the definition suggested by Menand.

"Diaries are composed under the fiction that the day is in control," Menand observed, "that you are simply a passive recorder of circumstance, and so everything has to go in whether it mattered or not. . . . If it doesn't contain a lot of dross, it's not a diary. It's something else - a journal, or a writer's notebook, or a blog."

More to the point, the idea for a diary must come from the diarist, which is why, as noted by Menand, "so many diaries are abandoned circa January 10."

"People find that they just can't take themselves seriously enough to continue," he concludes.

The Pons diaries are magazine assignments that turned into books, which makes them more like commercial journals, written to entertain and to edify. Not so coincidentally, each of his diaries is closely connected to the storied Maryland properties of the same name - Country Life Farm was founded by Pons's grandfather, Adolphe Pons, in 1933. Merryland, a dozen miles down the road from Country Life, was a famed training and layup facility gone to seed and purchased by the Pons family in 2002.

If anything, Pons tries too hard to please. Rarely does a day go by, during the 2005 and 2006 calendar years covered in "Merryland," that something interesting does not happen. Or if not, that some small occurrence - a smell, a sound, a scrap of paper - does not trigger something ripe for telling in the author's memory. Like Proust tasting that cookie, off Pons trots on his own remembrances of things past, composing in his own brand of haiku:

"Saturday, May 13 . . . A fruit drink. I'm 12 again. Brothers dragging bales of straw across yellow ground for trailing wagons. Tractors driven by Dad, Uncle John. On farm across the county. We ride home atop the tottering load."

Pons offers short tales of bad dreams, dead horses, barren mares, plumbing gone horribly wrong. He quotes lines from "Spaceballs," lyrical riffs from "Jesus Christ, Superstar," and Willie Nelson tunes, namedrops Google, "SportsCenter," the Marx Brothers. Pons is a fluid and talented writer who makes it look easy - which means he works desperately hard at the craft, getting it done after 16-hour days and making the rest of us look like slackers in the bargain. And while he is not above the facile metaphor ("The elevator stops at many floors in this business."), or the snarky wisecrack (noting that the title of the classic handicapping book "Beyer on Speed" suggests all-night exam cramming), he is utterly devoted to the idea that what Merryland stands for is something worth sharing.

As a textbook of farm life and the running of a 2-year-old training center, "Merryland" will have few peers (although, in fairness, the field is not crowded). The hard economics of the modern Thoroughbred business imbue the pages, cropping up in e-mails from confused, frustrated clients, vet bills, reserves not attained. Nothing, though, was harder to overcome than the death of the author's father, Joe Pons, on Oct. 12, 2005.

Oct. 26, 2005: "He visits my dreams. Last night I was back in the seventh grade, spinning Dad's poker-chip holder from his card-playing days with The Jolly Boys, seven openings for chips; in each opening, the face of a friend. Duffy Rathburn in one, reassuring me, pointing to a piece of paper in his hand, the certificate for his first stallion share in Seven Corners. It's gonna be okay."

In the end, Pons has bared a healthy portion of his heart and head, body and soul, all in celebration of his family, their land, and the peculiar animal that has tied them together through the generations. Pons is blessed with the ability to apply those ingredients to paper, and to leave a piece of himself lying open on the page. Yes, okay, it's a diary. A book like this, he can call it anything he wants.