Book Review: The Sport of Kings by C.E. Morgan

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This powerful, epic work of macro fiction has all the makings of a classic novel. I’ll be honest: at first I could barely muster the interest to start reading it. A 550-page book about horse racing? Nah, not for me. But The Sport of Kings is so much more than it appears to be: beneath the surface, it’s a sweeping examination of racism and classism in America.

At the center of this ambitious novel is the Forge family, one of Kentucky’s oldest and most powerful dynasties. As a young boy in the middle of the 20th century, Henry Forge is taught by his father that “man is the measure of all things” and that “real knowledge begins with knowing your place in the world.” Much to his father’s chagrin, Henry is intent on altering his family’s legacy. He has greater ambitions than growing corn; instead, he becomes obsessed with breeding the next Secretariat, and years later he enlists his daughter, Henrietta, to help.

Henry and Henrietta are each given entire sections of the book—and they’re fascinating characters. But there’s another key person at the heart of their story: Allmon Shaughnessy, the biracial groom Henrietta hires (without consulting her father) to help them with their horses. While the Forges have a deep history of wealth and racism, Allmon carries with him the wounds of being a poor black man in a country that seems hellbent on tearing him down. Inevitably, they converge in a myriad of complex ways that build to a tragic denouement.

This isn’t a quick, easy read. It’s dense and it’s demanding and it requires a significant investment—and yet it’s ceaselessly compelling. Morgan is smarter than most of us—and to the delight of a reader like myself who enjoys being challenged intellectually and emotionally, she isn’t afraid to show it. She quotes Darwin and Protagoras. She doesn’t give us easy answers or tidy resolutions.

Although it takes place in modern times, we learn about the Forge’s history as slaveowners and the tragic story of Allmon’s great-great-great-grandfather, an escaped slave. And through all of this is a sense that the characters have fixed destinies—a fatalism from which they are each desperate to liberate themselves. Horse racing is about lineage, and so, too, is the story beneath the surface in The Sport of Kings. But people aren’t animals, and their lineage is more than just biology and genetics; it’s history and circumstance, both familial and sociological.

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