The Thoroughbred Mystique: John Jeremiah Sullivan’s “Blood Horses”

I adore yearlings.

When I was younger and just getting started in horse breeding, I despised yearlings. What’s to like, after all? Yearlings are pushy, snotty, adolescent thugs who like to shove people around, who bite and kick without provocation, who are big enough to smash you like a bug but really “just want to play with you.”

Not going that way! Flickr: infidelic

Not going that way! Flickr: infidelic

But it was when we started going to the sales that we really fell for yearlings. All the promise and potential of a horse are standing there, glowing before you, when you see those well-bred youngsters at the yearling sales. Keeneland is going on this week, and we tuned in on the first night to see the royal little brats, anxiously spinning in dizzy little circles around their handlers, while the elite dropped fortunes on them. You can’t help but be awestruck.

I am reading Blood Horses by John Jeremiah Sullivan, a truly gifted writer whose father was a Louisville turf writer, and who used this book to explore the world of Thoroughbreds on his own terms. Today I reached the section on Keeneland’s yearling sales, and was hard-pressed to determine which passage I wanted to share most. I want to share the whole book. Here is what I decided upon:

The yearlings themselves pace back and forth, occasionally rearing, their hooves clacking on the hardwood of the stage, their dark eyes roving crazily in their sockets, swallowing the crowd like the eyes of the panther in the Rilke poem. Somehow it is much, much stranger and more unsettling to be in the presence of a Thoroughbred than in the presence of, say, a giraffe or some other novelty animal whose defining character is its weirdness. These horses are mystical in their beauty; I cannot help nothing how much, despite their tails, they resemble enormous deer. Every motion of their limbs is a kind of flickering, so that one blinks and expects them to vanish.

All the promise and power that is a Thoroughbred, you can see in the yearling. Their wildness is still present, although they are ready to be put to saddle and bridle. They are half-tamed, they are children, they are athletes, they want you to comfort them and they want to bite you. The more time that I spent with them, the more I came to love the yearlings best.

I rather think Sullivan understood that, and put it into words better than anyone else ever has.

Sullivan’s current release, Pulphead: Essays, is racking in the positive press, and is, among other things, a New York Times Notable Book of the Year for 2011. In an interviewer posted on, the interviewer is more interested in his work for magazines such as Harper’s (where I first read an essay from the then-forthcoming Blood Horses) and The Paris Review. If they’re overlooking the gem that is Blood Horses, that is their loss. It is a lyrical, slippery, dream of horses, a creeping inside the history books in the search for something real, the reasons why we love them, the reasons why they inspire us, the reasons why we cannot resist them. Blood Horses is not a work of sports journalism; it is not a work of turf-writing; it is an odyssey through the world of Thoroughbreds.



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3 responses to “The Thoroughbred Mystique: John Jeremiah Sullivan’s “Blood Horses”

  1. Jengersnap

    Its interesting what one can learn from a photo on the internet these days. In another photo it shows his hip, 436, hanging out of his handler’s pocket. With that information, this photo is a 2004 roan/grey colt by Maria’s Mon out of Charm, who sold at Keeneland’s September yearling sale in 2005 for $200,000. Named Maria’s Charm, he first started in September 2007. Starter in 14 races, 3-3-1, he never made back even his auction price with a lifetime earnings of $71,000, but did run in some decent company over the next four years with some suspicious time off. Claimed once in his second time in the claiming ranks for $10,000, he last ran at Gulfstream. He had a second right off the claim, a win the next start for $10,000CLM again on April 15, 2010, and then dissapeared.

  2. Robin Coblyn

    Natalie – love this entry, I work the sales for a local Maryland consignor and adore the yearlings. I find that it is amazing that in the 3-4 days that we have them even the most unruly ones come around to working their new job even if thats just getting bathed, groomed and walked back and forth for he pinhookers!

  3. Jim Culpepper

    For all its beauty, Sullivan’s “Bloodhorses” is leavened with horror; I never understood how many millions of horses were killed during the world wars, nor had I considered how, untill reading this book. It was worth reading for that insight alone. On pursuing the matter, I found that the Akhal Teke is apparently the only breed of turkish horse that was not made extinct by WWI. I became more fond of author Jesse Stuart when I read that he became scornful of the military because the war horses could “only just stand there,” and be slaughtered. (Beyond Dark Hills, by Jesse Stuart)