A Year at the Races

by Jane Smiley

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1741

This collection of quirky but informative essays is something of a companion piece to Jane Smiley's novel Horse Heaven, published in 2000. In each book, horses are depicted not as insentient beasts but as characters with human, and sometimes superhuman, attributes. Both the novel and the essays affirm a deep current of affection between human and horse and build to a philosophy of life in which chance seems to shape itself into destiny—or what Smiley suggests is the always mysteriously appropriate denouement of any project or plan.

Only incidentally about horse racing, A Year at the Races is an informal series of essays which discuss the psychology of horses as well as the psychology of the humans who love them. As in Horse Heaven, Smiley does not concentrate on one unified narrative thread but moves along in an open and unpredictable way, using the various ups and downs of life with her horses to draw larger philosophical lessons. Peppered with fifteen photographs of Smiley's horses, her trainer, or herself, the narrative is personal as well, its first-person voice establishing a conversational relationship with the reader.

For Smiley, every horse story is a love story, and each chapter concerns not simply the ins and outs of raising thoroughbreds but also the more intimate story of the mysterious and often intense bonds between herself and her horses. While Smiley quotes liberally from various expert texts on horses, and includes a scholarly bibliography at the end of her book,A Year at the Races is nevertheless an informal, anecdotal narrative which develops portraits of her own horses as individuals. Of equal importance is Smiley's own psychological journey, which began when, after winning the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1992, she treated herself to the purchase of her first horse, a thoroughbred gelding named Mr. T. Although appearing to be a scruffy and unprepossessing creature, Mr. T surprises Smiley with his uncanny intelligence, very similar to that of a horse of the same name who appears in Smiley's novel Horse Heaven. It is the redoubtable Mr. T who launches a career for Smiley as an owner and trainer of horses.

Although this new occupation threatens to displace her identity as a novelist, Smiley celebrates the new endeavor as a life-changing one that has allowed her to realize her true destiny. In one of the book's most significant passages, Smiley confesses that it was Mr. T who forced her to address her fears, as if together they were conducting a secret course of therapy for her. She goes on to suggest that all the anxieties and problems she has experienced in the course of raising her thoroughbreds has, ironically, resulted in making her more serene, accepting, and philosophically optimistic than she was before she entered the world of horses.

In addition to exploring the healing nature of her relationships with the horses in her stable, Smiley uses her novelist's feeling for character to develop a series of convincing portraits of horses that have fairly complicated personalities, with specific emotional issues, opinions, and life stories. Mr. T's unusual intelligence and love of ritual is one example of Smiley's central thesis: that horses, like people, have unique personalities and histories. Her horse Persey, for instance, is a skittish filly whose fragile personality seems to have been a result of mother-daughter problems often disclosed on the human psychotherapist's couch. As Smiley diagnoses Persey's feelings of maternal abandonment, the reader witnesses modern psychology being brought to bear on equine inner lives. Alternating theoretical passages with case histories of her horses, Smiley uses chapters with titles such as “Neurosis,” “Ambition,” and “IQ” to persuade the reader that horses are animals with aspirations, intellectual and social skills, and even psychic abilities, that can love and be loved just as human beings can.

Smiley allows herself to digress while describing the world of turf and paddock, touching at times on arcane lore and other times on widely held theories of horse behavior, occasionally citing her life as a mother and a writer, at other times allowing the reader into her moments of introspection and self-analysis. There is, nevertheless, a basic narrative arc to this book, namely the careers of her two most promising thoroughbreds, Wowie and Waterwheel, through a season at the track—the year at the races of the title. As Smiley grooms Wowie as a potential winner, she speculates on the mystery of why one horse wins and another fails, suggesting that what the horse is thinking and how it is feeling may play an important role in its ability to perform at the track. Smiley's fascination with the inner lives of her horses leads her to consult Hali, a beautiful, blond “horse communicator” to help her with her difficulties in training her potential winner, whom she had named Hornblower. Hali suggests the horse would prefer the name Wowie and goes on to make many other suggestions and predictions, not only about Wowie but about other horses in Smiley's stable as well. Not unlike the character of Elizabeth Zada, the animal psychic in Horse Heaven, Hali is an important figure in this work because she helps develop Smiley's central point, which is that, if one has ears to hear, horses will tell all about themselves, and what they have to say will be quite illuminating.

Like human beings, the horses in these essays have inner lives and feelings and also seem preternaturally attuned to the human beings around them—in fact, the horses suggest a supernatural dimension to the lives of people. That mystical dimension, also present in Horse Heaven, can be seen in Smiley's readiness to interpret her entire involvement in the world of thoroughbreds as less about winning and losing than about life lessons. As a result, this book can be seen as not simply a how-to book on raising horses but as a contribution to the category of writing known as wisdom literature. Although Smiley does prepare Wowie for racing, the fact that he never comes close to winning is not a source of major disappointment for her. When, at the end of the year, Hali informs Smiley that Wowie feels that the dilemma of his life has been solved, this reward is enough for the romantic, empathic, and newly philosophical Smiley, whose own dilemma seems to have been solved as well.

Another major theme in this book is that of women and horses. Using herself as a prime example, Smiley suggests that women have always had a special feel for horses and a special talent for relating to them. She points out that the racing community has failed to capitalize on a natural audience—namely, girls and women—instead creating a male-oriented workplace and sporting arena. The two other major figures in this book, Alexis and Hali, are also women who have a remarkable way with horses. It is the portrait Smiley presents of herself, however—sometimes comical but always intellectually curious and highly empathic and maternal—who dominates this book. This is not so much a departure from her previous identities as a novelist and mother as an extension and development of them—she employs both her novelist's interest in character and motive and a mother's capacity for care in this latest and most highly evolved version of herself.

Perhaps the most important aspect of this book is its argument for compassionate and ethical treatment of animal companions. Smiley here is treating the ownership of animals not simply in terms of utility but with the assumption that developing an understanding of the character of horses and other animals is important, as is the meaning of their roles in one's life. Although Smiley makes a case for the superior physical powers of the horse, it is the animals’ inner lives, their intuitive capabilities, and their ideas and affections that she feels requires emphasis. Horses, Smiley suggests, can make intelligent decisions and know far more than one thinks they can. They will thrive and develop under the guidance of humans who realize this. In this regard, this book is of a piece with the larger movement for the ethical treatment of animals, so that while Smiley's ideas are not really new and radical, her essays are part of a growing literature questioning modern mechanistic interpretations of the animal mind and moving into an acceptance of alternative spiritual interpretations of both the self and its animal companions. In this group of essays, she is calling attention to the animal world, affirming the integrity and dignity of animals in a culture she finds too insensitive and exploitive. In addition, the metaphysical aspect of her essays adds a magical element to her work. As in fairy tales or wonder stories, the horses in Smiley's book have an otherworldly aspect and indicate a real connection with a supernatural plain of existence. Her work celebrates the mystery of animals and the way in which they are inherently marvelous.

With her regular consultation of a horse astrology Web site and her interest in the psychic and the telepathic, Smiley's A Year at the Racescontains elements that some readers may find overly invested in what is known as New Age thought. Additionally, Smiley's attempts to weave together factual information, personal anecdotes, and metaphysics does not always appear to be a seamless process. One problem is that, although the book is very detailed and comprehensive, it often fails to build the kind of narrative momentum one has come to associate with a writer of Smiley's talent. There is some repetition of her earlier novelHorse Heaven here as well, not only in theme but also in terms of returning characters. This return to the subject of horses in nonfiction may have been inspired, or at least encouraged, by the popularity of nonfiction books about thoroughbreds, notably Laura Hillenbrand'sSeabiscuit (2001). Smiley's love of horses and good-natured enthusiasm about the subject is genuine, however, and is something she communicates to her readers in a way that invites them to catch the spirit. As a result, this collection of essays should please casually curious readers, inveterate horse lovers, and those interested in an inspiring story of how one woman's midlife venture led to a series of personal and philosophical affirmations.

Review Sources

Booklist 100, no. 14 (March 15, 2004): 1242.

Entertainment Weekly, April 23, 2004, p. 85.

Library Journal 129, no. 7 (April 15, 2004): 93.

The New York Times Book Review 153 (June 27, 2004): 22.

Publishers Weekly 251, no. 13 (March 29, 2004): 51.

USA Today, April 20, 2004, p. D04.

The Wall Street Journal 243, no. 75 (April 16, 2004): W8.

The Washington Post, May 2, 2004, p. WBK09.

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