Lady Joe is a keeper

Sunday, August 30th, 2015

Lady JoeRead the first paragraph of Lady Joe, then try to put it down.

I love good fiction, but from experience I am leery of books that cross my desk with horses’ names in the titles and horse trainers as main characters. So I was not prepared when Lady Joe, by Mark Saha, grabbed me on the first page and held me until the buzzer.

It was quite a ride – no less than 78 points on my scorecard.

Aspiring young trainer Lee Estes never has to look for trouble because it always seems to show up like a stray hound. This time it finds him in charge of a Quarter Horse ranch while the owner is in Europe on business. One misadventure follows another, as Estes enlists the help of his hapless buddy Jim Harrison.

Lady Joe’s broad appeal lies in the charm of her characters and the resolution of Lee Estes’ dilemma. But cutting veterans will relish Saha’s portrayal of their sport:

“The brindle had more tricks than a gambler with a crooked deck and played every card.”

“The following week, Lady Joe took on a cow from some other planet to win at South Point with a 231.”

“They wanted to know what it feels like on the hurricane deck of a cutting horse when she gets down in front of a cow.”

Mark Saha grew up in cotton country along the Texas Gulf Coast. He earned a BA at the University of Notre Dame; attended film school at UCLA, where a collection of his short stories won a Samuel Goldwyn Creative Writing Award; and for many years wrote scripts for film and television. He currently lives in Santa Monica, Calif.

The Ghost Horse

Thursday, July 10th, 2014

A book with the title “The Ghost Horse – A True Story of Love, Death, and Redemption” is one that would not ordinarily interest me. But the author’s name gave me pause, so I picked it up.

Joe Layden, a New York Times best-selling author and award-winning journalist, connects on a gut level in the unvarnished story of 57-year-old, small-time race trainer Tim Snyder and a $4,500 filly Snyder named Lisa’s Booby Trap, in honor of his late wife, who had galloped horses for a living and said before she died of ovarian cancer in 2003 that she wanted to be reincarnated as a horse.

“Horse racing is not so much a business as it is a calling,” notes Layden. “The work requires too much time and energy to pursue it with anything less than utter passion; and even then, the odds against success can seem practically insurmountable. But for those who are drawn into the game, particularly at a young age, success and failure are almost irrelevant. Theirs is an obsession that must be fed, often without regard to the usual societal constraints, or the expectations set forth by family and friends.”

Such was the case of Snyder, a jockey’s son born in the first-aid station at a small Massachusetts racetrack, always on the lookout for a big break, but nevertheless the practical philosopher.

“For most of us it’s a really rough life,” Snyder told Layden. “It doesn’t matter how pretty they are, they’re still horses, and what goes on in the barn in the morning is what really matters. All that other stuff – the braided tail, the colorful silks, the guy wearing a suit in the paddock, in the afternoon, before the race? That’s all window dressing.”

Unlike Snyder’s unceremonious backside birth, Lisa’s Booby Trap was bred and raised at Florida’s prestigious Ocala Stud and nominated at birth to the Breeders’ Cup. But as an early 2-year-old, she showed little promise and Ocala Stud handed her off to horse broker John Shaw.

“She was a good-looking horse, big and strong, with a decent pedigree,” Shaw told Layden. “Not great, but respectable. But when I tried to work her? Jesus Christmas, she was slow. I practically had to time this horse with a sundial. It was ridiculous.”

Shaw, in turn, handed the filly over to another broker, Don Hunt. “My deal with Don was ‘Come and get her, try to do something with her. I gotta tell you though, she’s so slow you have to mark the ground to make sure she’s moving.”

Ultimately, the filly ended up with Snyder, who paid $2,000 down, with a promise to remit the remaining $2,500 from her earnings. In her first start, at Finger Lakes Racetrack, where Snyder camped out in a tack room, Lisa’s Booby Trap won a maiden special weight by 17¾ lengths, After her second start, won by 10½ lengths, Snyder was offered $50,000 for Lisa’s Booby Trap, but turned it down. He did the same when offered $125,000, following her third start, which she won by 8½ lengths.

From Finger Lakes it was on to renowned Saratoga Race Course, where Lisa’s Booby Trap won $42,000, as the six-length winner of the Loudonville Stakes. By now the all but throw-away filly had won four races out of four starts, by a total of 42½ lengths. And her story had just begun.

“Breeding is as much about hope and luck as it is science,” says Layden, a longtime racing fan. “You throw all that DNA into a blender and hit the switch, and then you stand back and let nature take its course.”

Or perhaps, as in the case of Lisa’s Booby Trap, let love takes its course.

“I don’t really believe so much in reincarnation,” Snyder has been quoted as saying. “It’s a big word, you know what I mean? But, there are a lot of things in this horse that resemble my wife.”

Saddle up for a ride

Monday, July 15th, 2013

Giant? Lonesome Dove? Saddle up for quite a ride and make room on the bookshelf and inevitably on the big screen for The Son, an epic Texas saga written by Phillip Meyer.

Already being hailed as an American classic, the narrative of The Son is woven through alternating chapters by three members of the McCullough family: Eli, born in 1836; Eli’s son Peter, born in 1870; and Jeannie, or J.A., granddaughter of Peter, born in 1926 and heir to the McCullough empire.

Taken captive at 13 by marauding Comanches, who slaughter his mother and sister, Eli McCullough adapts quickly to Indian life, and five years later readjusts to white society as a member of the Texas Rangers, who employ some of the savage tactics of Comanche raiders.

“My father was not religious and I attribute my heathen ways to him,” says Eli with irony and insight, early in the novel.

By the time of his death in 1936, Colonel Eli McCullough is patriarch of an extensive empire of cattle and oil wells. Readers familiar with Texas history will not be surprised to find names such as Mackenzie, Goodnight, Reynolds, Kenedy, Kleberg and King Ranch threaded into the narrative.

With riveting drama and consummate detail, The Son offers a stunning panorama of Texas history as seen through a flawless lens.

Here are some excerpts from the book –

Eli McCullough
By the end of summer (1860), most Texans were certain that if slavery was abolished, the whole of the South would Africanize, no proper woman would be safe, amalgamation would be the order of the day. Though in the next breath they would tell you that the war had nothing to do with slavery. It was about human dignity, self-governance, freedom itself, the rights of the states; it was a war to keep us free from the meddling hand of Washington. Never mind that Washington had kept us from becoming part of Mexico again. Never mind they were keeping the Indians at bay.


Diaries of Peter McCullough, March 25, 1917
Drought is back but cattle remain high due to war. Woke up after a night of vivid thought, pulled the curtains expecting the green country of my youth and of my dreams. But with the exception of the area around the house, there was nothing but sparse brittle grass, thorny brush, patches of bare caliche. My father is right: it is ruined forever, and in a single generation.

Jeannie McCullough, 1942:
“So we should drill?”
“Of course we should drill. How your father can be thinking of cows is a mystery. Every bit of profit we made in the old days was based on overstocking, on using up a thousand years of grass in a decade…it was mining for grass. But facts are boring, especially to men like your father. Because what does every coonass wildcatter do when he makes his first million? He buys a ranch and stocks it with Herefords, in the same way he acquires a Packard or a beautiful wife. Though he does not expect any of them to be profitable investments.”


J.A. McCullough:
As for [the assassination of] JFK, it had not surprised her. The year he died, there were still living Texans who had seen their parents scalped by Indians. The land was thirsty. Something still primitive in it…A man, a life – it was barely worth mentioning. The Visigoths had destroyed the Romans, and had themselves been destroyed by the Muslims. Who were destroyed by the Spanish and Portuguese. You did not need Hitler to see that it was not a pleasant story.

Looking for a good book? Search no further…

Thursday, May 16th, 2013

Parker County in North Central Texas is named for her Uncle Isaac. Yet had it not been for her son, Comanche warrior Quanah Parker, Cynthia Ann Parker’s name might have been lost to history, along with countless other victims of brutality on the Western frontier.

When Quanah Parker appeared as part of the posse in the 1908 silent short The Bank Robbery, it was a pivotal moment for the fledgling movie industry and the beginning of America’s love affair with the bygone Western frontier. In his recently released book “The Searchers: The Making of an American Legend,” Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Glenn Frankel connects the saga of Quanah Parker with the making one of Hollywood’s most iconic movies.

Directed by John Ford, starring John Wayne, and released by Warner Bros. in 1956, The Searchers was based on Alan LeMay’s novel of the same title, inspired by the story of Quanah Parker’s mother, Cynthia Ann.

In 1836, nine-year-old Cynthia Ann Parker and four family members were abducted during a Comanche raid on their isolated pioneer stockade, in the newly created Republic of Texas. Five others, including Cynthia Ann’s father, uncle and grandfather were savagely killed and dismembered. Twenty-four years later, having assimilated Comanche culture and mothered three children by tribal chief Peta Nocona. Cynthia Ann was discovered by Texas Rangers, following the Battle of Pease River, and released to her uncle, Isaac Parker.

Terrified by her white “captors,” Cynthia Ann more than once attempted escape with her infant daughter Prairie Flower, before resigning herself to her fate. Despite well-meaning efforts by a succession of Parker family members who took her in, Cynthia Ann pined for her Indian family until her death in 1871.

“She was virtually a prisoner among her own loving kindred, but they did not realize it until it was too late,” said Isaac Parker.

The transition to the white man’s world was much easier for Cynthia Ann’s son, who had evaded capture until 1875. Practical, as well as savvy, Quanah Parker helped enforce reservation laws and negotiate peace with the few remaining renegade bands that remained on the High Plains. He also made friends and eventually became business partners with influential ranchers such as S.B. “Burk” Burnett, E.C. Sugg, and Dan Waggoner, and even won over Theodore Roosevelt, who invited him to participate in his 1904 inaugural parade.

Proud of his white blood, Quanah Parker tracked down his mother’s unmarked grave in 1910 and had her reburied near his home in Comanche County, Okla. According to his son-in-law, Aubrey Birdsong, at the reburial, Quanah Parker said, “I love my mother. I like white folks….When people die today, tomorrow, ten years, I want them be ready like my mother. Then we all lie together again.”

Quanah Parker died in February 1911 and was buried next to the grave of his mother and Prairie Flower. The funeral was attended by 1,200 people, evenly divided between Indians and whites. His headstone bears the inscription: “Resting Here Until Day Breaks and Shadows Fall and Darkness Disappears Is Quanah Parker Last Chief of the Comanches.”

Meet the author: Ben Emison

Tuesday, February 19th, 2013

Ben Emison

Horseman, auctioneer, bloodstock agent, sales producer, all of those titles fit Ben Emison,a prominent figure in the world of Western performance horses for the past 50 years.

This week, Emison, a founder and co-owner with Milt Bradford of premier performance horse sales company Western Bloodstock, took on a new title as co-author of The Search for Hannah Lea, a crime thriller published by CreateSpace and available through

“I’ve always been somewhat of a dreamer,” said Emison, who fleshed out the bones of what would become The Search for Hannah Lea twenty-five years ago. “I had a vivid imagination, but not really the time to do anything with it. When I got involved with training and showing and then Western Bloodstock, I laid everything else aside.”

In 2006, Emison, who lives in Weatherford, Tex., attended his 50th high school reunion in Caraway, Ark., a small farming community in northeastern Arkansas, and reconnected with schoolmate Jerry Branscum. “We discovered that he was interested in writing, too,” said Emison. “So later he came to visit us in Texas and we began to go through my dead book file.

“Everything I had written was in long-hand, in notebooks or legal pads, and after (Jerry) skimmed through (The Search for Hannah Lea), he asked if he could take it home and write with me, and I said, ‘Yes, of course.'”

Emison, who was raised on a farm and grew up “behind a team of mules,” dreamed, when he was in high school, of a career as a hands-on cowboy. Branscum, however, pursued a career in agri-business that eventually took him around the world.

“Jerry was always the whizz kid in school and this (book) would not have worked without his help,” said Emison. “I excelled in ag, and was intersted in history and geography, but I didn’t like English and they kicked me out of typing. I had the imagination, but not the education to do anything with it.”

Emison’s plot and and Branscum’s story line come together in a perfect pitch in The Search For Hannah Lea.

Making Money with Western Horses

Wednesday, January 2nd, 2013

Recently I came across a few treasures at an antique mall – dated but timeless books about horses, including George Tyler’s guide to the economics of the Western horse business.

Making money with Western horses?

Sixteen-year-old George Tyler did in 1926, when he borrowed $35 to buy a green 3-year-old gelding. Tyler put “a little handle” on the horse and sold it a few months later for $100.

“That is when I learned the most important thing about making money with horses,” noted Tyler of that early experience. “Get a horse well-broke, get him looking good and somebody will want to buy him from you.”

One horse led to another for the Gainesville, Texas cowboy and by the time he wrote “Making Money with Western Horses,” in 1964 with journalist Bob Gray, he was an acknowledged expert on buying, selling, and showing Quarter Horses. “He was the smartest horseman I ever knew,” said Matlock Rose, the legendary cutting horse trainer and Tyler’s partner in the 1950’s.

Over the years, Tyler’s partners and clientele included King Ranch, Waggoner 3-D Ranch, Hank Wiescamp, Gordon B. Howell, Lester Goodson, Rex Cauble and B.F. Phillips, Jr. He also served as ring steward for the Fort Worth Livestock Show and Rodeo for 25 years, and at one time single-handedly judged the entire American Quarter Horse Congress in Columbus, Ohio.

George Tyler

Here are a few of Tyler’s words of wisdom from “Making Money with Western Horses“:

Everybody knows the price of an old $65 horse or mule, but nobody knows what a good horse or mule might bring.

Never look at the good things about a horse. They will take care of themselves. Look for the things you don’t like and weigh them in your mind. Once you own that horse, you have got to live with those bad points.

You will gain more, in prestige as well as dollars, from three outstanding horses than from 50 mediocre horses.

If you get the “big eye” on a horse, that is, if you start liking him too much, you are liable to have trouble making money from the animal.

I’ve never been to a sale in my life where there weren’t some bargains. If nobody else buys those bargains, I’m going to do it.

Tyler died in 1983 and was inducted into the AQHA Hall of Fame in 1998.

Feast Day of Fools

Thursday, June 14th, 2012

Mexican drug cartel, dismembered human bodies, millions laundered through a race horse operation. It sounds like the plot for one of James Lee Burke‘s “Hackberry Holland” novels.

Maybe fans will get lucky and Burke will write Hack into a similar plot. But luck ran out for Tremor Enterprises on Tuesday, June 12, when FBI raids shut down their Quarter Horse racing operation, including a stable at Ruidoso Downs in NM and Zule Farm in Lexington, Okla.

A powerful Mexican drug cartel known as Zetas, had been using Tremor to launder millions of dollars in drug money, and the Feds became suspicious when they learned Tremor had paid more than $1 million for two broodmares in a single day. While Zetas king pin Miguel Angel Trevino Morales lived on the run, and his henchmen dismembered victims and dumped their bodies along a busy Mexican highway (49 bodies last month alone), his brother and second-in-command, Jose Trevino, was rubbing shoulders with prominent horsemen at high-profile horse races and sales.

Details and back story on the raid and the Morales brothers and Zetas appeared in a front-page feature by Ginger Thompson in Tuesday’s New York Times.

For those who prefer cold reality filtered through fiction, I recommend James Lee Burke, a master of flawed characters and compelling plots, whose language draws the reader into the landscape, which in the case of the Holland novels is the Southwest.

“It’s like a picture postcard slashed with a bloody knife. It’s heart-breakingly gorgeous and sandpaper-harsh, both at the same time,” said one reviewer of Burke’s “Feast Day of Fools.”

“Holy shit does this novel crush into its pages a whole war chest of bloody drama and brutal questions about what it means to be an American and a Christian and a Christian American in the new century. . . . James Lee Burke—muscular and elegiac, brutal and compassionate—is a Stetson-wearing, spur-jangling giant among novelists,” said Benjamin Percy for Esquire.

Burke first found success with his character Dave Robicheaux, deputy sheriff of New Iberia, La., in a series that includes more than a dozen titles.

James Lee Burke with Love That Sante Fe and Missy's Playboy

His character Hackberry Holland is the middle-aged, widowed sheriff of a small Texas town near the Mexican border. Hack lives alone on a ranch, where he cares for two geldings, Missy’s Playboy and Love That Santa Fe (named for Burke’s own horses) to the point that he lines the sides of their water tank with wire mesh to assure that rats, if they fall in, will be able to climb out.

I can”t say enough good things about James Lee Burke based on his Hackberry Holland series, so I will stop here and provide links to: Feast Day of Fools, Rain Gods and Lay Down My Sword and Shield.