________________ CM . . . . Volume XIV Number 5 . . . . October 26, 2007


The Big Red Horse: The Story of Secretariat and the Loyal Groom Who Loved Him.

Lawrence Scanlan. Photos by Raymond Woolfe.
Toronto, ON: HarperCollins, 2007.
166 pp., pbk., $12.99.
ISBN 978-0-00-639352-8.

Subject Headings:
Secretariat (Race Horse)-Juvenile literature.
Sweat, Eddie-Juvenile literature.
Race Horses-United States-Biography-Juvenile literature.
Horse grooms-United States-Biography-Juvenile literature.

Grades 6 and up / Ages 11 and up.

Review by Todd Kyle.

** /4


A horse, in his way, is always talking. His eyes, his ears, how he carries his head (high or low), his tail (stiff, relaxed, swishing back and forth): all are used to send out messages to other horses and humans alike. I'm the boss, the horse might say. I'm worried. I'm sore. I'm sleepy. I'm sad. I'm happy as a clam. I'm cold. I want my stall. I'm feeling frisky. Play with me. My back is sore. I'm curious. Where are my pals? You wouldn't have a treat in your pocket, would you?

This nonfiction work follows the life of Secretariat, called the greatest race horse of all time, and his long-time groom, Edward "Shorty" Sweat, from the horse's birth to his training, his heyday of track wins in the early 1970s, his first loss, his retirement as a stud, and finally his death. It depicts in much detail the world of horse racing, the players involved, as well as the owners, grooms, trainers, and jockeys who played a role in Secretariat's life.

     At 166 pages, this is not an overly long book, but stretching the life of a horse who lived only 19 years and raced only 21 races into that many pages means that there is a considerable amount of detail that does not need to be there, and the book goes on four chapters after the horse's death, describing tributes, anecdotes, and the lives of the main human players. The question that it begs is, who is this book meant for? It certainly is accessible to young people - especially those crazy about horses - but there is a lot of detail about finances and betting that would be of little interest to anyone but adults.

     That aside, the book does an excellent job of evoking the depth of horse behaviour and psychology, the bond with humans, and the exciting world of the racetrack. The horse truly is the main character! Sweat's life is also evocatively depicted, especially his humble South Carolina origins. But there is something awkward - even patronizing - about the constant reminders of the tragedy of his descent from slaves and the role of African-Americans in horse racing. Not that the portrayal isn't sympathetic, but claiming that their deep ties to horses is a positive legacy of slavery is bound to hit some readers as a little odd. Then again, the discussion of the Afro-English dialect Gullah and its use in communication with horses is fascinating.

     The photos are small, few and far between, and the book would definitely have benefitted from a section of plates. So while this book will definitely please interested young people - and adults - it may do little to win over new fans to the sport.

Recommended with reservations.

Todd Kyle is a former President of the Canadian Association of Children's Librarians who is currently a library branch manager in Mississauga, ON.

To comment on this title or this review, send mail to cm@umanitoba.ca.

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