In one of the remarkable horse-racing passages in Jane Smiley's new novel, a first-time jockey named Roberto aboard a workaday thoroughbred named Justa Bob lets the gentle beast do the thinking. The horse, running in perfect tempo like a metronome, avoids the rail and picks his way through various openings to move up the field. For the jockey, "the noise was incredible--hooves pounding, horses breathing like the roar of a high wind, jocks talking and calling."
As Justa Bob passes the fifth horse, he pins his ears back for a moment, "making a comment, perhaps, that only the fifth horse could understand." Into the stretch, "there was only one horse in front of him now, but there was daylight between them. Roberto thought of going to his whip, but Justa Bob informed him in no uncertain terms that that would be unacceptable...So Roberto just continued to hold the animal's mouth in his great hands, letting his body stretch and fold with the rhythm of the horse."
After Justa Bob wins in the photo finish, Roberto remarks to one of the grooms, "That was so much fun! Does he always make the decisions?" "Always does," the groom replies, "He does it his way or he doesn't do it at all."
The scene also shows why Horse Heaven is so much fun. In this sprawling, character-rich work by the Pulitzer Prize-winning Smiley, the horses are characters too. They don't exactly talk, but they communicate in ways that are so real, you aren't surprised to learn the author stables more than a dozen thoroughbreds and riding horses at her California ranch.
The book's four major four-legged players are yearlings on their way up. Justa Bob, an endearing 5-year-old who insists on winning by nothing more than a nose, is heading the opposite way, making the journey from Santa Anita and the stakes racing down the chain and finally into the lowly, manhandling barn of Texan R.T. Favor.
There are enough humans filling up the rest of this rich novel--millionaire owners, trainers, jockeys horse masseurs--that Smiley feels compelled to provide a cast list. "A day at the races is thousands of stories," one die-hard bettor tells his son. "Men and horses go out and line up and start running, and the next thing you know you are in mystery-land."
Smiley will reveal some of her equine secrets and sign books at Dallas' horse heaven, Lone Star Park at Grand Prairie. She is scheduled to make a short presentation on her love of horses and racing. Books will be on sale, with a percentage of the proceeds benefiting Dallas' Equest, an equine-assisted therapy and rehabilitation program for people with disabilities.
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