Book Review: The Golden Age of the Track

This wonderful collection of horse and track photographs is a pictorial and sociological history of the 1930s-1950s.
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This wonderful collection of horse and track photographs is a pictorial and sociological history of the 1930s-1950s.

Book Review: Golden Age of the Track

Photographs by Bert Morgan
Chronicle Books, San Francisco
144 pages, $24.95

By Pohla Smith

Don't judge this book by its title. Don't even judge it by its breathtaking cover photo of the first triple dead heat in horse racing history, at Aqueduct Race Course on June 10, 1944.

Yes, this is a lovely coffee table book of horse and track photographs from the 1930s through the 1950s, years when racing rivaled baseball as the nation's top spectator sport. But it is also a pictorial history and sociology of that same period.

Through the eyes and artistic touch of high society photographer Bert Morgan, the reader sees how the very rich, famous and glamorous -- as well as the average betting fan -- found respite from the Depression, World War II, and the start of the Cold War. A jarring exception is an exciting photo designed to show the masterful 25-length victory Count Fleet scored over Fairy Manhunt in the 1943 Belmont Stakes to capture the Triple Crown. Look closely and you can see a sign to the right of the tote board reminding everyone of reality: "In case of air raid," it reads, "keep calm."

Use that same microscopic approach and you can learn much more while being entertained. Evident in many photos is the role women played in America during those times. Societal doyennes pose prettily on the grounds and in the clubhouses of New York tracks and the Kentucky Derby with demure white gloves and discreetly veiled hats. But note also that regular women are conspicuously absent from shots of grandstands and a bookmakers' corner; those duotone photos are jammed only with fedora-topped, suited men.

Morgan, whose shots of high society were published regularly in such magazines as Vogue, Vanity Fair and Town & Country, had a knack for catching people and horses off-guard without the tackiness of a paparazzo's pot shots. Personalities are revealed but not reviled.

The book is loosely organized by untitled themes, and each presents its own peculiar joy.

The earliest pages are warm but generally unposed portraits of the era's most famous horses: Man o' War, Citation, Bull Lea, Whirlaway, Bold Ruler.

Next come delightful shots of the rich and famous and the bookies and early tote boards that served them. An elegantly overcoated Bing Crosby strolls into Belmont with his rumpled racing form beneath his arm. George Raft, looking just like the gangsters he played in the movies, studies his program. President Ike and First Lady Mamie Eisenhower take a respite from politics and world affairs at Belmont. A beautiful young movie star named Elizabeth Taylor smiles as warmly as the sun at Hialeah, and a little girl named Jacqueline Bouvier shows the charm that later made her a charismatic queen in the days of Camelot. On the opposite page an aging Babe Ruth beams in a snazzy plaid sports jacket and spectator shoes.

An interesting series of shots shows the evolution of the starting gate. Later come some of Morgan's most famous racing shots (he eventually became official photographer for the New York Racing Association). Besides the triple dead heat there are Bold Ruler and Gallant Man nose to nose in the 1957 Wood Memorial and Seabiscuit stunning the Pimlico crowd with his drubbing of War Admiral in their famous match race of 1938.

Another great series captures the cockiness and fighting spirit of jockeys who rode without helmets in the days when they got away with any rough riding not captured by a camera's unblinking eye.