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Sports books for Christmas: Charmed life of a champion and the luck of a chancer

Racing books

As the racehorse population swells through overproduction, so too do the annual additions to the racing library. In such a crowded field head and shoulders above the rest, in literature as in life, stands Arkle: The Life and Legacy of 'Himself' by Sean Magee (Highdown, £20.00).

Magee is a master of research and 40 years on from the great horse's heyday he has unearthed much that has not been on display before, including the Radio Times page with the Light Programme schedule for Saturday 7 March 1964, Arkle's first Blue Riband: "3.32 Racing from Prestbury Park; 3.45 Cheltenham Gold Cup with commentary by Peter Bromley; 4.00 Association Football, with commentary by Raymond Glendenning and Gerald Sinstadt". Not much hanging about for post-race palaver there.

As with all representatives of the Highdown stable, a branch of the Racing Post empire, Arkle is immaculately turned out with magnificent pictures and presentation. From the same team and to the same high standard comes Racing Post, 100 Greatest Races (Highdown, £18.99) and it is impossible to quibble with the choice as they were selected by that newspaper's readers.

Chosen with the heart are Peter O'Sullevan's Horse Racing Heroes (Highdown, £16.99) but this is far more than a sentimental ramble through old times, and the pinpoint accuracy that marked The Voice's race commentaries is still there as he looks back on 60 years in the sport.

Colin Cameron's Dawn Till Dusk (Highdown, £15.99) deserves special mention and not just because the royalties go to the charity Racing Welfare. Cameron relates the stories of the stalwart horsemen and women behind the champions of the track, the underacknowledged stable staff.

Richard Dunwoody's The Horses Of My Life (John Blake, £20) sets the seal on the great stylist's exploits in the saddle while he comes to terms with life after race-riding and embarks on adventures from pole to pole in search of an equivalent adrenalin rush.

It is easier, though, to identify with Ian Carnaby in Not Minding That It Hurts - The Observations of a Chancer (Marten Julian, £9.99, obtainable from the publisher on 01539 741007). Easier and yet more painful for those whose recollections are stained by wine, whisky and the odd tear. This is not an advisable purchase for those who do not bet and booze, those who do not love and cry too easily or laugh too loud. For those that do it is essential.

Boxing: No punches pulled in fighting talk

Like the boxing year itself, fistic lit in 2005 offered a mixed bag of big hitters, glass jaws and second-rate palookas. Among the very best Kings of the Ring (Gavin Evans, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £20) is a meticulously researched and stylishly written chronicle. Charting the heavyweight division from James Figg to Vitali Klitschko, it contains some striking photography and a short bio on each of the division's rulers, including the lesser-known and cruelly ignored "coloured champions" such as Sam Langford and Peter Jackson.

Two books, Beyond Glory: Max Schmeling vs Joe Louis and a World on the Brink (David Margolick, Bloomsbury, £18.99) and Ring of Hate (Patrick Myler, Mainstream Publishing, £15.99), tackle head-on the rivalry between The Black Uhlan of the Rhine and The Brown Bomber. The latter is a concise and rapid-firing read, while the former is a longer and more detailed study of the events and characters surrounding their two encounters. Both bring a new perspective to a fascinating antagonism between men and nations.

Unforgivable Blackness (Geoffrey C Ward, Alfred A Knopf, £18.99 ) is an intricately structured and absorbing examination of the life and reign of flamboyant master Jack Johnson that astounds with its detail and passion, while The Great White Hopes (Graeme Kent, Sutton Publishing, £18.99) also concerns Papa Jack, though from the perspective of those trying to contrive his downfall. An extraordinary insight into both the men who entered the ring and the politics of the sport in the early twentieth century, it is a gripping read.

For something more contemporary Pocket Rocket (Wayne McCullough, Mainstream Publishing, £9.99) sees the Northern Irish Bantamweight penning a searingly honest insight into his brutal victories and losses both inside the ropes and out.

Book of the year? For this reviewer, Margolick wins a split decision.