When his father told him late in life that the favorite memory of his sports writing career was covering Secretariat's Kentucky Derby win in 1973, John Jeremiah Sullivan was immediately intrigued.
He had never heard much talk about horse racing before from his father, who covered that and many other sports during his newspaper career. But now, as he lay in a hospital bed recovering from sextuple bypass surgery, Mike Sullivan told his son that Secretariat's run that day was "just beauty, you know?"
That simple memory sent the younger Sullivan on a quest to discover horse racing and its intoxicating qualities for himself, and, by so doing, maybe become a little closer to the father who always seemed just out of reach.
The result is "Blood Horses: Notes of a Sportswriter's Son," an amalgam of memoir, reportage and research in which Sullivan attempts to trace the horse from its roots in prehistoric times to today's thoroughbreds racing for multimillion-dollar purses.
Sullivan is a horse racing neophyte whose lack of expertise helps him when it comes to this book's writing. His outsider's view and lack of jargon give a clear picture of a highly specialized world, especially when he details training regimens and the yearly horse auctions where future champions are bought by princes for millions of dollars.
But Sullivan is not out merely to spend a year in the life of the horse racing community. He's also attempting to trace man's fascination with the equine, a task that has him quoting everyone from Kafka to Stephen Foster, with some Shakespeare and Dylan Thomas thrown in for good measure.
It is the inclusion of these passages that turn Sullivan's book from a mere memoir into a gem of curiosity, offering wonderful examples of the horse's importance through the ages.
It is also where he stumbles. Some of those passages almost feel as though they were slapped in merely because they contained the word "horse" and not because they advanced the theory of man's inexorable link with the animal. It's hard to see the purpose, beyond noting the fact that horses are still used for combat and not just racing, why a transcript of a "Face the Nation" interview with Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz was included.
Throughout the book, however, a subtle portrait of the author's father appears. Literary, frustrated, set in his ways, Mike Sullivan becomes the central figure, one whom his son portrays affectionately (though it would be hard to portray someone who communicated exclusively by using Bob Dylan songs for an entire summer any other way).
At the book's end (with a final line that would make his father proud), Sullivan has used his study of horses as a way to somehow draw both himself and the reader closer to his father.
It's a literary trick that Mike Sullivan would have no trouble admiring.