Old Friends

Book Space – Noor, the other Charles Howard horse

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First, I am a writer, and as Stephen King says it therefore goes that I am a reader. But not the disciplined, passionate reader-of-anything bookworms that soak up literature in impossible servings (bravo to them, I say). I’m much more fussy. I read nonfiction almost all the time, and of this, most is racing related. So I thought I would hijack the blog every so often and turn it over to some of the more interesting racing books I own.

Top of the list is a little-known work from the US, and not because it was a stellar read or even remotely as brilliant as others in my library, but because its story is unusual. By author Milton C. Toby, the book is ‘Noor: A Champion Thoroughbred’s Unlikely Journey from California to Kentucky’. Published by The History Press in 2012, it is Toby’s seventh book, which is an impressive effort in tough publishing times.

Anyone that knows anything about Seabiscuit knows that Noor raced in the same Charles Howard colours, albeit over a decade later. A wiry, well-bred Irish yearling, Noor came from the hallowed halls of the Aga Khan empire, and after two useful seasons racing in England (he was third in the 1948 English Derby), he was sold to Howard in California, one half of a two-horse package. What followed in 1950 surprised everyone – Noor defeated Citation four times, set track records all over the joint, clinched one of the most competitive Hollywood Gold Cups in living memory (Hill Prince, Ponder, Assault, On Trust), and became the first horse ever to defeat two Triple Crown winners. The horse earned Hall Of Fame honours in 2002.

Toby’s reconstruction of Noor’s racing career is a little disjointed in his book, lacking good narrative and, disastrously, a complete racing record at the back. In my opinion, any biography devoted to a racehorse should provide a full table of career starts, but I won’t write off his effort based on this. ‘Noor’ is a small book (158 pages), and the best of it occurs in the second part. Here, Toby follows what really was the second coming of this horse, when Californian Charlotte Farmer saved Noor’s grave from redevelopment, relocating it 2200 miles from California to Old Friends, Kentucky.

This part of the book is delightful, told largely in Farmer’s own words. But again it’s not the narrative that is strong. It’s the realisation that this scenario – that Noor’s final resting place was teetering under tonnes of proposed concrete – is as real in California as it is in Sydney and Melbourne. How tiring that racing history seems to be in constant threat of demolition, and how refreshing that here is a tale of a few determined people who loved one horse enough to preserve what was left of him.

Toby is an experienced racing writer, and I really enjoyed his book, but not because its writing is exquisite or its research even remotely deep enough, but because the author constructed each chapter with a seeded affection for Noor. I appreciated this. In a US market where there are a lot of thoroughbred biographies, Noor deserved his own book, for his is a very, very interesting story. In fact, he is one horse that probably deserves a bigger book.

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Worth a look:
http://www.kentucky.com/2011/09/01/1864058/champion-racehorse-noor-given.html
http://www.kentucky.com/2011/08/31/1864105/grave-of-hall-of-fame-horse-noor.html