On the first Saturday in May, sports fans look toward Churchill Downs, where last year the fantasy of a lowly longshot beating the odds turned into reality. The tale of this unlikely Kentucky Derby winner is told in Funny Cide: How a Horse, a Trainer, a Jockey, and a Bunch of High School Buddies Took on the Sheiks and Bluebloods . . . and Won. It's an exhilarating story of how 10 friends traveling in rented school buses instead of limousines, eating hamburger instead of steak, and guzzling beer rather than sipping champagne snared racing's biggest prize. No gelding had won the Kentucky Derby since 1929, and no New York-bred horse had ever won it, but Funny Cide's owners from upstate New York showed that a relatively cheap horse with a modest pedigree could defeat the most expensive horseflesh.

Collaborating with the principals, Sally Jenkins, co-author of champion cyclist Lance Armstrong's best-selling It's Not About the Bike, also tells the story of Funny Cide's jockey JosŽ Santos, once the nation's leading jockey who was bouncing back from injuries, divorce and debt. "This is the one," Santos had confided to his agent a year before the Kentucky Derby. "This is the one." As a three-year-old, Funny Cide won only two of eight starts, but those victories were in the Derby and the Preakness, the first two legs of the Triple Crown. Millions of middle-income fans, feeling they owned a piece of the horse, generated a surge of excitement for the sport as the third leg, the Belmont Stakes, approached. Funny Cide lost that race on a sloppy track and as he slowly headed back to the barn area with his head down, hundreds of thousands of bettors at Belmont Park applauded him and booed the winner.

Horse racing's goal is simple: If your horse crosses the finish line first, you win. However, attaining that goal is more complicated, as we see in Jane Smiley's A Year at the Races: Reflections on Horses, Humans, Love, Money, and Luck (Knopf, $22, 288 pages, ISBN 1400040582). A versatile writer whose previous works include the Pulitzer Prize-winning A Thousand Acres and the best-selling comic novel, Horse Heaven, Smiley now turns with unbridled enthusiasm to the realities of a sport/industry, citing scores of personal experiences. Her theories linking equine thought processes and emotions to human actions are intriguing.

Smiley offers a sage observation about young women who fall in love with horses and give up virtually everything else as she did. She writes: "Someday, we would have boyfriends, husbands, children, careers that's what horses are a substitute for, according to adult theorists. But what truly horsey girls discover in the end is that boyfriends, husbands, children, and careers are the substitutes for horses." Alan Prince of Deerfield Beach, Florida, is an expert on horses that lose.

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