TD Thornton was standing ankle deep in floodwater when he sold his first book. After 20 rejections, and in the middle of trying to save his home from the effects of a 2006 Mother’s Day storm, he got the call. “Not By A Long Shot,” a no-holds-barred account of the 2000 racing season at Boston’s Suffolk Downs, had finally hit the publishing toteboard.
What the experience underscored for Thornton: Never give up.
Even though it took him six long years to get there, when PublicAffairs Books called, Thornton says it felt like good fortune arrived, “hurtling down the stretch” toward him.
Since then, he has been busy hammering out chapters for his next book, this time focusing on the boxing world. Thornton also writes for several publications, including the Boston Globe, New York Times, and myriad racing publications. And in the summer, he announces races at Suffolk Downs.
Enthralled with horseracing from a young age, Thornton grew up watching his father saddle horses at Rockingham Park, dreaming of a way to get closer to the sport. By 1992 he had landed a job at Boston’s track, and by 2000 he was public relations director for the track, and busily keeping a journal that would inspire his book.
In this interview with Off-TrackThoroughbreds.com, Thornton discusses his book, the racing world, Barbaro, and reasons he feels racing, despite some appearances, will one day thrive again.
Q: Can you begin with a biographical sketch, starting with your father’s history with the track, and yours.
My dad got his start in racing as a hobbyist—he was a schoolteacher with one horse. We grew up in Salem, N.H., not too far from Rockingham Park. As a kid in the 1970s, I loved the buzz of the racetrack more than anything else: The crowds, the old-fashioned toteboard, the massive sea of discarded tickets on the floor, all the wacky characters, and, of course, and the horses. I can remember watching my father saddle horses in the paddock before races. Kids weren’t allowed in the paddock, so I had to watch from the other side of the fence. I didn’t quite have it all figured out, but by around age five, I just knew I wanted to end up on the other side of that damn fence—it was the place to be, where all the action was.
By the time I went to college, at the University of New Hampshire, my twin passions were writing and horse racing. I majored in journalism, and thought it would be the greatest thing if I could con someone into paying me to go the racetrack and write about it. I lucked out and landed with the short-lived but meteoric Racing Times when the paper launched in 1991. My dad retired from teaching, and because he now had a son who worked at the track, he got more involved in training racehorses, building up a public stable. So it’s kind of neat how my old man first introduced me to the sport, then it was my turn to lure him back after he had stepped away from the game for a while.
I started working at Suffolk Downs in 1992, and one of the cool things about a mid-sized track is that you can get a chance to wear a lot of different hats. I had gigs as a TV commentator, announcer, and publicist. Eventually, I was named the track’s director of public and media relations, and that was my vantage point for the 2000 racing season, the year I started keeping the journal that became Not by a Long Shot.
Q: Please set the stage for your decision to write Not By A Long Shot. The book is rich in racetrack lore, but was there one event, or series of events that made you say: I have to write a book!
Growing up, I was mesmerized by horse racing literature. I read a lot of great books about the sport’s champions and iconic figures, but after awhile, it started to dawn on me that very few of those books spoke of the racetrack as I knew it—minimum-wage stable hands busting ice out of frozen water buckets, jockeys who starve themselves to make riding weight, fragile, beautiful horses with immeasurable tenacity. All of these elements keep the industry humming along in unheralded fashion so the highest echelon of the game can bask in the spotlight, yet these people and horses never seem to have a voice. I wanted to give them one. At the racetrack, there is always hope, and that hope is a very powerful story when parlayed with a raw, visceral love of the horse.
Q: How was it received in racing circles, and at Suffolk? And what is its place among horseracing books?
Long Shot takes an unflinching look at topics that have traditionally been taboo in racing literature—cheating, drug abuse, race fixing, and animal welfare. I’ve had conversations with people portrayed in the book who weren’t exactly thrilled about being included. The truth hit a little too close to home. But those folks are outnumbered by racetrackers who tell me that I nailed the backstretch scene fairly accurately, and that’s very gratifying to hear.
Q: In general, where do you see horseracing going? Do you think it will ever gain ground again with the general public?
People say horse racing is dying. It’s not—it’s changing. And some people in this industry are deathly afraid of change.
Horse racing will soldier on, and over time, it will thrive. But if people’s idea of “thriving” is to turn the clock back to the 1940s when tens of thousands of people packed racetracks every day, that’s an unrealistic fantasy. That idea is not grounded in reality, and it isn’t going to happen.
Even though I love a day at the races with all the at-the-track action, I’m also a huge fan of the convenience of at-home wagering—I can watch racing from around the planet from the comfort of my own couch, almost 24/7. This wasn’t even remotely possible just a short while ago, and I think there are lots of people out there like me who want it both ways: A rich, enhanced, convenient off-track experience that also entices people to visit their local tracks, by whetting their appetites for the real deal.
In terms of equine welfare, the Thoroughbred industry has done more in the last 10 years to raise awareness for racehorse care than in the previous 50. The Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation, CANTER, and the Old Friends organization are just a few of the “second career” placement groups that do excellent work. Even the tragic tales of Barbaro and Eight Belles have brought about positive changes within the last decade, such as tracks installing safer surfaces and upgrading on-track emergency veterinary services.
Q: How do you envision a business that will do well, even if it never becomes a model of the 1940s?
The sport is going through an odd phase right now, a contraction coupled with working expanded gaming into the mix. Ten years ago the big catchphrase was, “There’s too much racing.” Now tracks are dropping off the map left and right. It’s uncomfortable to witness friends losing their jobs and small racing stables being put out of business. But in the long run, you have to have faith that this great “shaking out” will leave the sport better off—this is how a competitive, free marketplace functions.
Casinos and racinos can be part of an effective game plan for horse racing, but slot machines can’t be the only strategy. When people look back at this era of our sport many years from now, they will probably wonder why such a unique, captivating, and vibrant pastime as horse racing didn’t fully believe that it could stand on its own four feet. There is a tremendous opportunity right now for the next sizable track that gets expanded gaming to show the industry how to mix the products properly, and by that I mean using Thoroughbred racing as a centerpiece and a showpiece to drive the overall gambling experience. Too many racinos out there have promised that sort of setup, but then they treat the whole business of animals running around in circles like an annoying subsidy. Tracks that marginalize horse racing aren’t doing the industry any long-term favors, because how will the next generation of fans be introduced to the sport?
The concept of “exchange wagering”—think of it as an eBay platform for bettors, where wagers are matched without a middleman—is the next big thing in horse racing. It was just legalized in New Jersey, and it’s scheduled to come online in California in 2012. Market-based betting (ie making playing the ponies more like trading stocks) and exchange wagering are the wave of the future as far as I’m concerned, because both emphasize transparency and a higher degree of odds options for the average bettor.
Q: How did Barbaro change things?
Purely from a public-perception standpoint, Barbaro taught the industry that it had better get its act together in terms of racehorse safety and welfare. We’ve made steps in the right direction, which are commendable, but there needs to be better follow-through.
The major events—the Triple Crown races and Breeders’ Cup—are well covered in terms of emergency services, but this level of preparedness has yet to trickle down to racing’s smaller venues. The National Thoroughbred Racing Association Safety and Integrity Alliance just released a report the other day that said only 19 tracks nationwide meet the alliance’s accreditation standards. It shouldn’t matter whether a racehorse is a champion worth millions of dollars or a bottom-level claimer—they should all be treated with the same level of care, respect, and dignity.
Barbaro’s owners, the Jacksons, and Michael Matz, his trainer, were extremely open and generous with their time and with Barbaro, affording the general public way more of an intimate connection with their horse than other owners would have under extremely stressful conditions. They were exemplary spokespeople for the sport, and I think that even during their suffering, they showed the rest of the non-horse world a more compassionate side of Thoroughbred racing, a side that not everybody knows exists.
Q: Since Not By A Long Shot was published, how has life changed for you?
The most important thing I learned from publishing Long Shot is that no matter how many people say “no” to you, it only takes one “yes” to turn your life around.
Long Shot itself was a long shot. It got rejected by 20 publishers before somebody took a gamble on it. The most common criticism was along the lines of “It’s a nice piece of writing, but we don’t think we can make any money publishing it.”
I live on the North Shore of Massachusetts, out by the salt marshes. In the spring of 2006, my house was two feet underwater after the historic Mother’s Day flood. I was wading through my bedroom with no idea how I was going to restore my home when I heard a call on the answering machine in another room—it was Lisa Kaufman, an editor at PublicAffairs, and she wanted to buy the manuscript I had pitched her. I couldn’t believe it. At one of the most stressful times of my life, here was good fortune—like a racehorse soaring down the stretch from out of nowhere—hurtling directly toward me. I decided to grab on and enjoy the ride.
Q: Are there other books in the offing?
I’m switching topics for my next book, but my fascination with the “glorious underbelly” of sports continues. Right now I’m working on a boxing book that explores the sport through long-forgotten fight fatalities. The history of boxing is usually told through its prism of champions. But just like in horse racing, if you dig deeply enough beneath the surface, you can shed light on the game’s most compelling characters and storylines.
During the summer racing season, I’m the announcer at Suffolk Downs. I’m also a sports correspondent for the Boston Globe, and I freelance for various racing publications.
Q: How did you transition from racing to boxing? Have you found a publisher for your new book?
Horse racing and boxing are the world’s two oldest sports, and they are similar in many ways. Both are fueled by athletes who risk long odds and great physical peril to attain their dreams. Both are rich in history and tradition. Both are driven by gambling. And although it’s not politically correct to say it, from a spectator’s point of view, the inherent dangers of each sport are undeniably part of the overall allure.
Someone told me the other day that I seem to have a penchant for anachronistic things—horse racing, prize fighting, long-form journalism. I guess that’s a pretty fair characterization. I’ve always been fascinated by things that seem to be sliding off the grid. I can get lost in horse racing or boxing archives for days at a time.
The boxing book is a work in progress. By researching prizefight fatalities, I’ve discovered a whole sub-narrative of the sport that no one’s ever written about. I’ve just nailed down some sample chapters, and I’m putting the finishing touches on a proposal that I plan to pitch to literary agents in the very near future. I got extremely lucky with Long Shot by getting it published without an agent, but I’m on the hunt for one now because I learned I can’t both write and try to sell a book at the same time. It’s one or the other—that’s why it took me six years to see Long Shot get published.