Gentlemen, start your coffins.
That perfect line came originally from the late, great Los Angeles Times sports columnist Jim Murray, but was so appropriate that Charlie Leerhsen, the latter-day Murray and former executive editor of Sports Illustrated, borrowed it with attribution to start his exceptional new book, “Blood and Smoke.”
The book is the story of the Indianapolis 500 auto race, which celebrates its 100th anniversary this month.
Leerhsen left Sports Illustrated a few years ago to stretch his impressive literary wings and first turned out last year, for Simon & Schuster, “Crazy Good: The True Story of Dan Patch, the Most Famous Horse in America.”
There are few horses in his new book – one mention is a quote from the American Horse Breeder of June 1902, where it cautioned, “Now that automobiles are becoming so plentiful and are speeded so recklessly, breeders should use greater care than ever to mate their mares with good, sensible, brainy stallions such as to get level-headed, fearless animals.”
Leerhsen concentrates not on improvement of the horse breed, but on the birth and factual history of the early men who drove horses off the road: the sturdy, steely daredevils who challenged death – often unsuccessfully – chasing speed in the early Chevrolets and Buicks and Benzes and Duesenbergs that evolved into the coveted cars of today.
The book is a gruesome history that its title describes accurately, with seven dead in the wake of that first 500 a century ago.
Leerhsen writes with gliding grace of the dashing womanizers who drove those early racers, but he also tells in brutal candor the fascinating story of Carl Fisher, who was mainly responsible for the great race, just as Matt Winn was for the Kentucky Derby.
Fisher started as a bicycle racer and mechanic, then a dealer, switched to cars in 1898, and left a trail of crashed ventures and crushed women along the way. He charmed the ladies and cheated on them all his life and paid for his sins with repeated failures that left him an impoverished and pitiful figure at the end in 1928.
One episode told of a New York Ziegfeld Follies girl who answered a note left for her to visit Fisher in the old Edison hotel, apparently fell in love with him, and was jolted and jilted when, as she prepared to marry him, he married a 15-year-old local beauty in Indianapolis and took off with her on a West Coast honeymoon and business trip. His tenderness, Leerhsen writes, was demonstrated by his vows, “Honey, I love you more than two skunks.”
Like most of Fisher’s ventures – the Indianapolis 500 being a notable exception – other tries at balloon and motorcycle racing and a shot at developing Miami Beach and the Lincoln Highway joined that fling at marriage among the dismal failures and turned out with woeful results. But along the way, Leerhsen tells Fisher’s story with incredible truth and incisive humor and detailed structure from more than two years of dusty research in libraries across the land.
In case his book does not convey all there is to tell about the Indy 500, he offers an exhaustive bibliography that lists what certainly must contain every book, pamphlet, and magazine and newspaper story every written on the great race.
Another author who has written much about horse racing – Albany, N.Y., scribe Bill Heller – has turned out “Above It All,” his 26tth book, this one about jockey Jose Santos.
Written with research by his 22-year-old son, Benjamin, who was a frightening bright racing encyclopedia as early as 8 or 9, Heller does not spare his Hall of Fame subject.
He tells – or retells Santos’s own recollections – of Santos’s early youth cavorting with prostitutes in his uncle’s bordellos in Colombia, of his battles with cocaine and crack, and of his successful transformation as a top jockey when he came to the United States, lured by Maria Casteneda, a friend from Colombia and a sister of jockeys who had moved to south Florida and worked for the racing commission. They were married, and ultimately separated, but it was her guidance and counsel that brought him here and enabled him to demonstrate his greatness as a rider. Her help and that of trainers Angel Salina, a fellow Chilean, and Phil “P.G.” Simms, helped get him started.
From there, Heller and son take you on a journey that seemingly tells of every horse and ride Santos ever made and does list in chart all of his stakes victories.
It’s a success story, from sordid beginning to satisfying end, and paints a picture of a colorful warrior of the turf, from the lows of Colombia to the heights of a controversial Kentucky Derby victory and the Hall of Fame.