11/18/2010 12:19PM

Racing novel wins National Book Award

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A novel depicting characters from West Virginia’s claiming ranks has won the National Book Award for fiction.

Jaimy Gordon’s “Lord of Misrule” follows five characters through a year at fictional Indian Mound Downs, a half-mile track of last resort in the 1970s. The story revolves around a trainer’s attempt to run four of his horses in claiming races, scoop the purses and cash bets at long odds, and then leave town. Not surprisingly, things do not go according to plan. Publishers Weekly said the novel “reaches for Great American Novel status,” and other reviewers have compared Gordon’s style to that of Damon Runyon.

Gordon worked as a groom at lower-level tracks from 1967 to 1970 and also did some research for the book at Pimlico. Among the people she interviewed was Bubbles Riley, now 96, a former groom that trainer Dick Small recommended to Gordon. He is among the people to whom Gordon dedicated the book.

Asked in a recent interview what attracted her to racing, Gordon told Bret Anthony Johnston: “I come from a family of horseplayers on my mother’s side, and both of my sisters have my weakness. One of them actually breeds racehorses – harness horses – and is very good at what she does. I know all that’s wrong with horse racing and I still have this weakness, even for a cheap claiming race if some old miler is running his race.”

Read Andrew Beyer's review of the prize-winning novel.