PW: One of the undercurrents of your book Blood Horses is the issue of class in horse racing—the wealthy owners and breeders on the one hand, and the working-class fans and bettors on the other. Do you think this contrast offers any kind of equilibrium, or is it just a quirky, possibly even dangerous, aspect of the sport?
John Jeremiah Sullivan: Horse racing is one of those few contexts of American life where you get the most extreme classes elbow to elbow. It's built into the fabric of the sport. You have this demanding work that requires a lot of people to get dirty, and then you need a lot of money to buy and raise the horse.
PW: The economics, particularly the gambling, stand in contrast to the animals as well, don't they?
JJS: They do. It's just this irreconcilable thing, and that's what I wanted to get across in the book—you have these sublime animals who are able to pull off these astounding feats. There's real beauty at the center. And at the same time you have some real skeeviness there, too.
PW: Does it bother you, as a fan, how little attention the sport gets beyond the Triple Crown?
JJS: One thing that maddens serious fans is that there's nothing to set these races apart. When you think about the NCAA tournament or the Super Bowl, there's a pyramidal buildup to something. Something is proved because the teams have fought to be there. In horse racing, it is much more arbitrary. We pay attention to three-year-olds because that's when animals come into their full strength. But there is another way to look at it. The sport is lucky to get national TV exposure in that way. And part of the beauty of the sport is that none of it makes any sense.
PW: You write about the lack of human characters being an obstacle to the sport's popularity. Do you think characters could be made out of the horses, or are they doomed to anonymity?
JJS: It's always going to be a problem for the sport. Secretariat would do all these things, like take the pencil out of a reporter's hand. But then, the good ones sometimes don't do anything—Funny Cide sort of just stood there.
PW: Your book is laid out in a sort of unconventional way—your transitions between the history of the horse and your own experiences with your father, for example, are often more literary than logical. How much of a conscious decision was this?
JJS: It's a tough question. I don't understand myself how it happened. These things seemed to me to fit together—just not in a way that can be articulated. Setting these things next to one another and letting the juxtapositions be their own explanation seemed like the best way.
PW: So, for example, your desire to re-create the life of your late father and the discussion of the bloodlines of horses—that is, their connection to this kind of endless past—just felt right?
JJS: In both cases, I'm trying to pin down something that's gone, or several things that are gone. If I've done it correctly, the theme of the book should materialize in the reading. It's meant to be a collage; I left the reader to assemble the parts.
PW: Okay, the inevitable: Who do you like in the Derby?
JJS: [Laughs]: It's really early. I've learned watching this sport for so long not to get too attached to a horse because you can get your heart broken. We don't even know who will run. But we'll know more in the next few weeks.