Who doesn't love a Cinderella horse race? Author Jaimy Gordon has a doozy of a dark-horse story, although hers takes place off the track: A professor in Kalamazoo, Mich., labors for 10 years on a novel about misfits and gangsters at a small-time track, then wins the National Book Award two days after her book (initial print run: 2,000 copies) is published.
The horses and trainers in her Lord of Misrule aren't in for the same kind of fairy-tale ending.
Tommy Hansel has a plan: Bring his string of four horses to a decrepit track, run them in some small claiming races, and get out with the money before anybody notices.
The problem is that, at an operation as small and shady as Indian Mounds, everybody notices everything. Tommy and his girlfriend/partner/stable girl, Maggie Koderer, immediately come under the scrutiny of veteran trainer Medicine Ed, who can't quite find a way to retire and is sure the couple spells trouble, and gangsters Joe Dale Bigg, who's eyeing Maggie, and Two-Tie Samuels, who has a personal connection to the girl.
“Aaay, racetrackers are crazy. You start with that presumption,” one character says, and it's good advice.
The horses, from wise, patient Pelter, who's come down a ways from his days of glory, to neurotic but adorable Little Spinoza, are all more vivid than Tommy, but in the end, that weakness doesn't matter. Gordon worked at a track at one point, and she brings such an insider's specificity that you can just about smell the pine tar, sweat, and manure. And if you've never been within 100 miles of Churchill Downs, don't worry. These horses haven't either.