Ten must-read racing books: Mike Cattermole recommends his favourites

Work your way through these 10 books during - and after - isolation

Mike Cattermole has ten must-read racing books to enjoy during the shutdown - but we also want your recommendations.

Perhaps one positive to take right now during these strange and frightening times is the opportunity to catch up on some reading.

The only time I tend to do it these days is while on holiday or on a plane but I am now setting aside a few titles that I will be dipping into over the next few weeks. A lot of them are racing books, just so I don’t forget how I make my living.

One is “The Druid’s Lodge Confederacy by Paul Mathieu, which has been recommended so many times, likewise Ken Payne’s “The Coup”. Another, hot off the press, is “Fearless”, Chris Pitt’s biography of former champion jump jockey Tim Brookshaw. I’ll let you know what it’s like.

The list below is a personal one of course – and will be missing lots of good titles. But these are books that I have enjoyed and will read again.

The good thing is that you can probably find most of them, very cheaply, on EBay and online stores.

If you have some other suggestions, it would be great hear from you. I am on Twitter @catters61.

10. RACING CRAZY, THE BEST OF DAVID ASHFORTH

It’s been a while since David wrote extensively in The Sporting Life and Racing Post but his easy-going and humorous style is a joy to read right now and there is plenty of it in this compilation.

David has a wonderful, benign wisdom and always an interesting take on life, and his tales of punting highs and lows, mixed in with his background as a PHD and college lecturer are all very appealing and highly amusing.

Throw in his legendary reports from “Court 12”, when covering the Kieren Fallon case, and you have a bit of everything.

9. THE RACING TRIBE – KATE FOX

This is a racing book with a real difference. It’s a close-up of our sometimes crazy, insular world as seen through the eyes of social anthropologist, Dr Kate Fox.

Kate discovers “a tribal subculture, with its own distinctive customs, rituals, language and etiquette,” all meat and drink to somebody like her to observe and analyse.

It was written some 20 years ago now but is still a very interesting read and contains many observations about the future that ring very true today.

8. A WEIGHT OFF MY MIND – RICHARD HUGHES

I loved watching “Hughesie” ride – he was pure class and, because of his height, the most like Lester.

His weekly columns in Racing Post were a must read at the time and so is this very frank account of his riding career, alongside battles with the bottle and his weight.

Written, like those columns, with the assistance of Lee Mottershead, a lot of ground is covered and it makes for a highly readable and fascinating book.

Richard Hughes

7. JENNY PITMAN, THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY

Jenny’s tale of her rise from humble origins to the top of the jumping world is an extraordinary and inspiring one and she describes it in her usual honest and no-nonsense manner. Her love and understanding of horses shines through so strongly in these pages.

It is amazing to think she has been retired for two decades now but what an impression she made.

6. HOW’S YOUR DAD – MICK CHANNON JNR

Young Mick’s account of living in the shadow of a sporting legend is, in essence, a loving tribute to his old man.

Junior is a natural with words and it is a joy to read. It’s also extremely funny in places and very uplifting.

The Channons - wonderful book

5. THE WAYWARD LAD – GRAHAM BRADLEY

I read this again quite recently in anticipation of interviewing Brad for a feature on Sky Sports Racing and it is such an entertaining and honest book.

As well all know, Brad got mixed up with some proper characters during his colourful career in the saddle.

It’s all here and the full transcript of a telephone conversation with Barney Curley, in which the Irish gambler accuses him of stopping a horse, is both toe-curling and funny in equal measure.

4. MCILVANNEY ON RACING

Another book to dip into whenever you please, it never disappoints and contains prose from one of the greats via his columns in The Observer and The Sunday Times over a period of four decades. Great horses, great trainers, great jockeys and great races are all covered.

There will be many times when you stop to reread and marvel at his skills and the full range is on display here.

The famous description of Lester’s ruthlessness: “hints at a deep core of something close to violence in his nature but for the most part it remains hidden and controlled, a volcano trapped in an iceberg,” is one such example.

Hugh McIlvnney - legendary sports journalist

3. A LONG TIME GONE – CHRIS PITT

Chris is one of the great racing historians, who is still producing the goods.

Abandoned racecourses fascinate me and have done ever since playing golf as a teenager on the Carholme in Lincoln. Imagining the cavalry charge of the original Lincoln Handicap was not difficult as the rails and main grandstand were still in place. The course had closed in 1964 but you can see films of the race on YouTube. Some of the fields were massive.

Another old jumping course I used to pass regularly was Buckfastleigh in Devon. The grandstand is still visible from the A38.

Almost 100 racecourses in the UK closed in the 20th century and Chris has unearthed the stories behind them all. This is a book you can dip in and out of for a long time and never get bored. Fascinating stuff.

2. DOPED – JAMIE REID

Winner of the William Hill Sports Book of the Year Award in 2013, a list that included David Walsh’s “Seven Deadly Sins” (his account of exposing Lance Armstrong).

“Doped” is a great read and one of those rare things, a book about racing that is really hard to put down.

Set in the late 1950s and early 60s, it tells the true story of bookmaker, gambler and horse doper, Bill Roper and his alluring mistress Micheline Lugeon. Reid’s research into the characters of the story was obviously meticulous; he genuinely manages to bring Roper and the characters around him in their both glamorous and seedy world, back to life.

The descriptions of the doping operations, usually conducted in the dead of night as the gang broke into high-profile racing stables to nobble even horses owned by the Queen Mother, can have you on the edge of your seat.

It is genuinely shocking stuff and you really feel for the innocent racehorses and jockeys whose lives were obviously put in great danger.

The wonder is that “Doped” has not yet made it to the big screen.

1. SEABISCUIT, AN AMERICAN LEGEND – LAURA HILLENBRAND

I bet more people have seen the film than read the book and although the film was enjoyable, the book is miles better.

It takes you right there, to the era when Seabiscuit was running, during the middle of the Great Depression when he brought pleasure and excitement to so many facing very hard times.

His unlikely rise to becoming the brilliant racehorse that he was makes for an incredible story and the characters that made him the champion he was, Red Pollard, Tom Smith and Charles Howard et al, come alive on some brilliantly written pages.

A superb account of a wonderful tale and an absolute must read.

Seabiscuit - his story told in a remarkable book


Do you agree with Mike's top ten? Any glaring omissions but hidden gems we should all know about? Send your comments and contributions to racingfeedback@sportinglife.com


Your recommendations:

Frank Archer: A must read! The Tin Man, a semi-fictional story based around the amazing Fred Archer, his life and times! Excellent.

Eric Nielson: Vincent O’Brien, the master. Also, books about Lester Piggott.

Trevor Dickson: Was at Cheltenham great place, got the book at the festival !!!! By Richard Austen, great reading, thanks

Richard Crockford: I read 'Stable Rat' by Philip Welsh and it was excellent. Most of the autobiographies or biographies I have read but Jack Berry's stands out.

John: But it would be improved with the inclusion of Paul Carberry's 'One Hell Of A Ride' - a frank and entertaining account by one of racing's true characters.

Graham Knight: Nijinsky, Triple Crown Winner by Richard Baerlein (1971). Factual and evocative account of the horse which grabbed the emotional heartstrings of the racing followers of the British Isles.

Steven Baille: I loved Barney Curley’s autobiography. One of my favourite books across all genres.

Michael Mulcahy: A book I would highly recommend is “Vincent O’ Brien” The Official Autobiography by Jacqueline O’ Brien & Ivor Herbert. It is a fascinating insight into the Maestro, Beautifully illustrated and some great photographs.

Jimbo: Thank you for the smashing list, I have read one or two of them and the other recommendations certainly will give me plenty to read at this difficult time. If like me, you enjoy historical facts I thoroughly recommend 'A Social and Economic History of Horse Racing' by Wray Vamplew, originally published in 1976. I discovered this book about 25 years ago and still dip in and out occasionally. In my opinion a must read for Horse Racing fans.

Jane M: Good list of books, and here are a few others which are excellent, and will keep readers entertained and informed.

Desert Orchid-Richard Burridge
Phar Lap-Geoff Armstrong and Peter Thompson N
Northern Dancer, The Legend and His Legacy-Muriel Lennox
Eclipse-Nicholas Clee

James Fairweather: Thank you so much for your much appreciated efforts to keep the racing fires well stoked during these surreal times.

Reading is a greater comfort than ever today and we racing enthusiasts are lucky to have a wonderfully deep pool of great writing on the sport to enjoy, written over many, many years.

I suppose that my Top Ten would differ substantially from Mike Cattermole's, largely because I've enjoyed so much writing on the sport from across the eras that I wouldn't want my Desert Island picks to be too slanted to the modern. Of his Top Ten, I would certainly take McIlvanney on Racing with me - the greatest of all sports journalists on one of his three favourite sports is an absolute must.

Beyond that, though - well Jack Leach's Sods I Have Cut on The Turf - a candidate for the best title ever dreamed up by any author in any field - would be right at the top of the list. Warm, humane, witty, informative, it's as though you're having a conversation with a companion over a drink in a bar at Newmarket or occasionally in one of London's more upmarket establishments. Simply essential.

For a larger than life view of someone who made his living from punting and didn't care who knew it, can I proffer Come Fly With The Butterfly by John Mort Green as a suggestion? A former bookmaker in Australia, John came to inhabiit a Mayfair townhouse on the back of his racecourse successes, which included a legendarily successful series of bets on Sea-Bird's Derby. Brash and egotistical he may be at times (who knew that an Australian might be that way?) but it's a hilariously entertaining, and at times, seriously informative read.

Peter O'Sullevan's Calling The Horses is another vital book, in my opinion. The great commentator seemed to know half of society in most of Europe and beyond, quite apart from his deep racing knowledge and evident love of his sport. The stories are marvellous and his book stands as a useful historical monument in its own right as well as a warming trip down horse-racing's memory lane.

There are others - A Fine Place to Daydream - Bill Barich's account of how an American ended up living in Ireland and falling in love with an Irish girl and European racing, is wonderful; so is Steeplechasing by the Johns Hislop and Skeaping and the biography of Arkle - The Life and Legend of Himself - by Sean Magee.

So many more but I feel I may have written more than enough! keep up the great work, all of you, and many thanks once again for all you do.

Dave C: Ive gotta say 2 glaring omissions in my eyes would be Brough Scotts book on the maestro that was/is Sir Henry Cecil and Harry Findlays book on his punting lifetime, in my opinion not only 2 of the top 10 ever racing reads but 2 of the best books from any field that I have ever read.


Related horse racing links


Like what you've read?
Help your friends Know It All by sharing this article to your social media.

Most Read Racing