Upstairs, Backstairs

Anyone writing a novel about thoroughbred racing in Kentucky would think first of setting it at Churchill Downs—that brassy track in Louisville which holds its tinsel-television spectacle of the Kentucky Derby every May. Instead, Alyson Hagy chose Keeneland, Lexington's track set in the middle of the Bluegrass horse farms. Keeneland is smaller, greener, more pleasant in every way, and it's a quick trip from the stands back to the paddock to see the horses as they saddle up for the next race, something that for me is always the best part of the racing day. Only recently did Keeneland get an announcer (the equivalent, for you Cubs fans, of installing night lights at Wrigley Field); and races run in that now-lost relative silence had a greater charm, too. hi her choice of setting, Hagy avoided the obvious for the more interesting: an early sign to the reader that her novel will be a good one.

With its hats and clubhouse pins, its incomprehensible racing form, its exactas and boxed bets, the ritual (and to many it is precisely that) of going to the racetrack has never had much allure for me, though you're not supposed to admit it when you've grown up a few miles from the Downs. What I do understand is the appeal of the horses. Alyson Hagy feels it too, which is why she has set her novel not in the "upstairs" of thoroughbred racing, among the owners in the stands, but in the downstairs, the backside, where...

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