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Poetic view of assorted pond life at Suffolk Downs; BOOKS AND VIDEOS Not By A Long Shot - A Season at a Hard-Luck Horse Track by TD Thornton (pounds 15.99, published by Public Affairs).

Byline: Nicholas Godfrey

LOCATED in an unlovely quarter of East Boston, Suffolk Downs is a long way from the poster venues of the US racing scene like Churchill Downs, Del Mar or Saratoga.

Once home to Seabiscuit and regular crowds of 40,000, this gritty urban racetrack struggles along in the minor leagues, teetering on the edge of financial meltdown. More blue-collar than blue-blooded, the track has long since been stigmatised as 'Sufferin' Downs', a final home for a community of cheap, sore horses, hard-bitten punters and jockeys and trainers whose futures are already behind them.

T.D. Thornton spent 15 years there on and off, as a local reporter on the Boston Globe and latterly as the track's media director. In Not By A Long Shot, he offers an insider's version of a single four-month winter season at Suffolk Downs, a day-by-day, blow-by-blow account of the many and varied walks of racetrack life at close to the bottom level.

In his most successful sections, Thornton turns the spotlight on an unsung, woebegone array of diehards. "Any hardscrabble inner-city racetrack," he suggests, "counts among its core customers various loners, lost souls, labourers, tipsters, street toughs, cops and criminals, all grinding and gambling in collective desperation."

At times, the chosen snapshot style fails to gel - certain passages don't seem to go anywhere, stories lack any resolution - but there's no doubt Thornton can write. Witness a poetic turn among the 'stoopers', pond life who search the grandstand floor for discarded betting tickets in hopes of finding a wrongly discarded winner. One, who marks his territory over a heap of garbage, "stands sentinel over his pile like a haggard lord of lost opportunity".

Both this book and the Suffolk Downs season reach their climax in the historic Massachusetts Handicap, better known as the 'MassCap'. Revamped in the 1990s, this EUR500,000 event was won by both Cigar and Skip Away, the two best US horses of that decade. The season under examination here features a renewal of particular interest to any British-based reader, as the race features the unlikely challenge of Running Stag, with affable Epsom-based trainer Philip Mitchell a fine ambassador for the UK.

Suffolk Downs is a racetrack with troubles, as the epilogue makes plain. Although this book covers the 2000 season - why the seven-year delay? - the years following haven't been altogether kind.

Owing to financial difficulties, the MassCap was sacrificed three times in four seasons. Yet another revival is planned for September 22.

I can think of one passionate devotee who's a certainty to be there.
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Title Annotation:Sports
Publication:The Racing Post (London, England)
Date:Jul 8, 2007
Words:426
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