Blood Horses, by John Jeremiah Sullivan

The horse is the animal mankind has enjoyed the closest relationship with, at least until the advent of the horseless carriage; nowadays the closest most of us get to equus caballus is eating it, a subject John Jeremiah Sullivan touches on in this luminous, hard-to-characterise book.

It is in part a memoir of his father, "Sully", a hard-drinking, chain-smoking sports reporter with a poetic streak who, when asked by his son what his most memorable sporting experience was, replied: "I was at Secretariat's [Kentucky] Derby in 1973. That was… just beauty, you know?"

This inspired Sullivan to delve deep into the history of the horse in general and thoroughbreds in particular. The result reads more like a series of long magazine articles than a sequential narrative, but his relationship with his father binds the many elements satisfyingly together. Along the way he asks where and when did man first sit on the back of a horse, and why, and informs us there was an official record of equine aristocracy, James Weatherby's 1791 Stud Book, 35 years before Burke's Peerage did the same for human beings.

The racing scenes may be set in America but the themes and emotions Sullivan examines are universal, and by the sheer fizzing excellence of his writing he carries off the difficult task he set himself triumphantly.

Published in hardback by Yellow Jersey, £12.99

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