Jo Anne Normile was all set to get herself a Secretariat grandbaby when fate intervened.
The horseman turned author of memoire Saving Baby: How One Woman’s Love for a Racehorse led to Her Redemption, knew little about the racing biz when a colt was born into her arms, and an odyssey that began on the track led her to a quest to raise awareness of horse welfare.
In this week’s Clubhouse Q&A, Normile discusses her well-reviewed book, which was inspired by her life with racehorse Reel Surprise (by Reel on Reel), and re-published by St. Martin’s Press.
Q: Saving Baby has caught the eye of a major New York publishing house—congratulations! How did that happen?
When I self-published the book it received some good reviews. Kirkus gave it a starred review, calling it “first class story telling” and saying that “action and emotion equally drive this compelling tale.” Publishers Weekly said Saving Baby was “an engaging memoir that is a must-read for animal lovers.” Reviews like that helped me get more than 13,000 followers on the book’s Facebook page. By last Christmas, I was selling 1,000 copies a week at online sites like Amazon and Barnes & Noble. An agent decided to represent the book and within three weeks it went to auction. St. Martin’s Press made the winning bid.
Q: How might the recent decision by St. Martin’s to reissue Saving Baby impact mainstream interest in horse welfare?
The book is now available in bookstores around the country. Previously, we were only able to distribute it through online sites. In addition, a large publishing house is able to do some heavy lifting in terms of publicity that a self-published author cannot. They will be able to get the book reviewed and talked about in mainstream media.
Q: Your book has actually received many rave reviews, lauding you for creating an extraordinary bond with a horse. Please tell me how Baby entered your life.
Baby was born on my farm by a fluke. I had borrowed his mother from someone because I wanted to breed her to a son of Secretariat who was standing stud near my house. I wanted a piece of Secretariat grazing in my backyard, like a snow globe come to life. But Baby’s mother was pregnant – with him – and I had to wait before sending her to Secretariat’s son to become pregnant with my Secretariat grandchild. Then, when Baby was born, right into my arms in the middle of the night, my heart immediately laid claim to him. I couldn’t bear to let him go. The only way the breeder would let me keep him is if I promised to race him.
Q: Some fans of your work have never ridden a horse or been in their company. Yet they love the book. What about this story holds a universal appeal?
Saving Baby is first and foremost a love story, and everyone understands that. Also, it’s a story about what happens when love is pricked by conscience, when you can make a decision to turn away from something difficult but instead make the more difficult choice to face it squarely because love is at stake. Few people have not had a moment in their lives when they were at a crossroads and had to make a decision, a painful decision, to keep their conscience intact.
Q: When and why did you start this project?
I actually started working on a book at least five years ago. I was frustrated. I had learned first hand on the backstretch that there’s much wrong in the racing industry with horses going straight from their last race to slaughter. They were also drugging horses and injecting fractured joints and putting them through other abuses, and I had been trying to change things through traditional channels. I would telephone and then send e-mails to those in the top echelons of racing. I met with government officials, submitted materials to a watershed Congressional hearing in Washington. I even took a track to court for how it treated Baby and came away with a meaningful sum. But the status quo in racing has remained the same, with horses’ well being too often sacrificed for the bottom line. I couldn’t deal with the frustration and the stonewalling anymore, so I decided to take the truth directly to the public – to change the industry from without because I couldn’t change it from within.
Q: What impact would you wish for the book, on the lives of readers and horses?
I want people to recognize that horses, like people’s dogs and cats, are sentient beings, that each has his or her own distinct personality, his own quirks. Most people have no trouble with the concept of falling in love with a house pet. Well, it’s the same thing with horses. Each is unique. Each one knows what it’s like to love and to feel loved, to bond. Horses are extremely intelligent, too. They have extraordinary memories and an extraordinary capacity for learning. So for them to be treated like investments at the track – inanimate objects to be bet on rather than the thinking, feeling creatures they are – makes their plight unimaginably difficult. They are fully aware of what they are being put through. If people were made aware of that, they would view horses – and racing – very differently.
Q: How did your work founding the national Thoroughbred charity CANTER dovetail into the decision to write a book?
For me it has always been all about treating horses with humanity and respect. That’s what I tried to do with CANTER, and that’s what I’m trying to do with this book. I have also started a new rescue, Saving Baby Equine Charity (www.savingbaby.org), which works to save all equine breeds from the brink and is true to my original aims. A portion of the proceeds from the sale of every single copy goes to the rescue, so when people buy the book, they become part of the Saving Baby story and they give the gift of life to an equine. They can read about those they’ve helped save right at the rescue’s website. — St. Martin’s Press is offering THREE free hardcover books for a giveaway. Winners will be chosen from comments to this story. ♦