Fables From The Stables

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Books about horses have a funny way of turning out to be about humans. Oh, the horses are in there, all right, but they are unknowable observers--they watch the action around them with their long, silent faces, seeming a little bemused by all the high jinks they inspire. Last year's best seller Seabiscuit (out in paperback this week) was an unforgettable read, but the horse was the least interesting thing about it. The fun is in the human menagerie that collects around a top racehorse.

Like its namesake, Seabiscuit has been a prolific sire: its success has bred a Seattle Slew of horse books. If you have read the story of Seabiscuit's unlikely rise, you will appreciate the utter foolhardiness of James Squires, who, when he lost his job as the editor of the Chicago Tribune, blew his golden parachute on a tiny horse farm in the green heart of Kentucky. In Horse of a Different Color (PublicAffairs; 320 pages; $26), Squires tells the story of how, as a relative amateur, he bred an undersize gray foal who made his way through the maze of big-money auctions, minor injuries, grueling workouts and stakes races to become Monarchos--the surprise winner of the 2001 Kentucky Derby.

Squires is better with horses than he is with words--he unwisely insists on telling his whole story in the third person, coyly referring to himself throughout as "the breeding genius" and to his wife as "the dominant female." But you can't help feeling for the guy as he sits glued to the TV the week before Derby Day, biting his nails and yelling at the talking heads who won't shut up about white-haired golden boy Bob Baffert and his giant stallion Point Given. By the time Jorge Chavez, the 4-ft. 10-in. jockey who clawed his way up from the slums of Lima, Peru, to a seat atop Monarchos, hits the homestretch, you are rooting for him to win it all.

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Kevin Conley's Stud: Adventures in Breeding (Bloomsbury; 224 pages; $24.95) isn't much concerned with races, but it's plenty racy. It probably contains more explicit depictions of the sex act than Fanny Hill. None of these acts involve humans, however, except in an officiating capacity. Conley's subject is Kentucky's exclusive breeding sheds. Because the Jockey Club--which regulates the $34 billion Thoroughbred industry--forbids artificial insemination, Thoroughbreds are made the old-fashioned way. It's a micromanaged, ritualized affair, from the guy (or gal) who lifts up the mare's tail to the fellow who guides the machinery into place. Millions of dollars often depend on the orderly exchange of a few cc of body fluid.

Conley has rich material--horse-mad plutocrats, grisly sexual mishaps--and his prose is never less than engaging. He endows pampered Storm Cat, who commands half a million dollars for a roll in the hay, with "the hauteur and the low body fat of an underwear model." But once you are past the bizarreness of high- end horse prostitution, the book leaves you feeling a little jaded. Like the participants in the loveless couplings he describes, Conley doesn't invest a lot of emotion in his subject. Line for line, Conley is twice the writer Squires is, but in the end Stud lacks that mystical, elusive variable that separates a merely good horse from a true champion: heart.