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1 - What is the single greatest change you have witnessed in the equestrian world during your life time?
Unfortunately, it is the decline of horse racing in Maryland, the state where I live. When I arrived in 1984 to work as a sports writer for the Baltimore Sun, every day of racing was a major event, and the state was full of thriving horse farms and well-bred horses. But economic and political problems, as well as problems selling the sport to the public, have reduced it to the point where it is fighting for survival. Breeders and horses have gone to other states where more money can be made. Racing dates have been slashed. There is talk of moving the Preakness Stakes, the state’s racing jewel. I find it unbearably sad.
2 - Do you ride?
3 - Do you own a horse?
4 - Who is your favourite horse in history?
My favorite is one of the most obscure Kentucky Derby winners – Lil E. Tee, winner of the race in 1992. He became the subject of my first book, “The Longest Shot.” He was a tall, somewhat ungainly creature who was bred inexpensively and almost died from a bout with colic as a yearling, but he regained his health while being sold several times and ultimately won America’s greatest horse race, an amazing underdog tale. I spent many hours with the owner, trainer and jockey, and also the owner of the Kentucky farm where the horse was a stud. He died at age 20 in 2009 but remains my favorite.
5 - Who do you think was the most influential equestrian human in history and why?
Since my expertise is limited to horse racing, I don’t feel I’m able to answer this question. I bow to the opinions of those with more well-rounded knowledge.
6 - What was your greatest equestrian influence from books or cinema when you were young?
I grew up in Texas in the 1960s and 1970s. The state is probably more associated with horses and riding than any other, but I was in an urban area, didn’t ride, and was interested in mainstream sports. And ironically, horse racing was illegal in Texas because of powerful church interests. (No longer the case.) I was just a sports fan, and I started learning about horse and racing by watching major races on television – specifically the Kentucky Derby, Preakness Stakes and Belmont Stakes, the so-called Triple Crown. I watched them avidly, read about them in the newspaper, and looked forward to them. That led me to read youth-age equine biographies about famous horses such as Man O’ War and Citation.
7 - What equestrian book would you recommend today and why?
I recommend “Secretariat: The Making of a Champion,” written by William Nack in the 1970s. Not surprisingly, the blend of a superb writer and a spectacular horse makes for unforgettable reading. This is far and away the best horse biography I have ever read, and I have read many and written a few. Nack truly makes you feel you are on the horse’s back, and also gets to the essence of what separates a champion horse from the rest of the breed.
8 - How did you initially become interested in your specific equestrian speciality?
I moved to Maryland to write for The Baltimore Sun newspaper in 1984 and, as a professional journalist, discovered my interest in horses and racing. Maryland has a proud racing tradition as the home of the Preakness Stakes, and while I worked as a general sports columnist and not a racing writer per se, covering those springtime classics became part of my job. As a writer, I loved the whole scene – the people, the dramatic events and of course the spectacular animals. I had never come across such a bountiful story-telling feast.
9 - What prompted you to enter that field?
Quite simply, being assigned to cover the American Triple Crown for my newspaper.
10 - Did someone encourage your decision or inspire you?
When I started to cover the races, having no experience, I was concerned that my lack of knowledge would make my stories seem sophomoric or ill-informed. The horse racing writer at The Baltimore Sun took me under his wing and taught me how to do the job – not the writing aspect as much as understanding the sport and its people and inner workings. His name is Dale Austin. At the time I was 28 and he was probably 60, a native of Oklahoma and an excellent journalist who know how to work a story. He introduced me around and for several years I ran everything that I wrote past him before it went into print. It is somewhat ironic that I have gone on to write four horse racing books and become known as a racing writer, while he is retired and out of the spotlight. He is the racing expert, not me. I’m just the guy who knows how to research and write a story.
11 - When did you begin your research, investigation, work?
I started writing about racing in The Baltimore Sun in 1985. A few years later, in my mid-30s, I was searching around for a book topic because I wanted to write one and never had. In December 1992 I signed a contract to write “The Longest Shot,” about Lil E. Tee. It came out in 1996. (Took me awhile.) My next racing book, “Native Dancer,” was published in 2003. I have gone on to also publish “The Great Match Race” and “My Guy Barbaro,” co-written with Hall of Fame jockey Edgar Prado.
12 - What do you think is your most important discovery, achievement or insight regarding your equestrian work?
Far and away it is “The Great Match Race,” my account of the 1823 race between Eclipse and Henry that so captivated America. The event itself was a remarkable and important historical event that had been lost to time, and by writing a book about it, I revived it and gave it the recognition it deserved. Not only was it the first major sports event in American history, but also, it helped define the lines of the American Civil War, which followed some three decades later.
13 - What modern technology, techniques and media have you found most helpful?
These days a writer can benefit from all the advances in technology that have become so prevalent. The Internet makes research easier. Email makes it easier to locate subjects and converse with them. Cell phones make it easier to find them and stay in touch.
14 - What part of your work do you find most fulfilling?
I am a nonfiction writer. I love the process of taking the nut of a story, researching it until there’s nothing left to uncover, and then writing a narrative-style account. The acclaim and publicity that follows is nice, but I like the part where you’re alone and working on “your” story.
15 - What’s been your biggest disappointment in your work?
Frankly, horse racing books don’t sell that well. I have written four. They all sold reasonably well but I would like to have seen them find a wider audience.
16 - How do you explain the gulf between academic equestrian investigation and the average horse owner?
I am at a loss here. Perhaps there is a gulf because horse owners, while certainly in need of advice at times, tend to be experts in their own right, at least to some degree. They’re more concerned with their own horses than with any lessons to be gleaned from academia. Their concerns are literal more than philosophical.
17 - What equestrian subjects are in need of more research and investigation?
I think the horse world can learn from its distant past. Having written about an 1823 horse race, I think it is fascinating to see how the horsemen of that era, in which horses were so central to society, treated their animals. Although horses raced much longer distances, they weren’t asked to do too much before they were mature and ready.
18 - Which part of the equestrian world would you like to see reformed and why?
Too many American race horses compete while on pain medication and other drugs. It is a shadowy world and has a devastating impact on racing’s image and popularity. People hate to think the animals are being taken advantage of. I would like to see the playing field leveled. Horses should not race on drugs. If they’re hurt or sore, they shouldn’t run.
19 - How do you traditionally deliver your findings or message and how would you ideally like to do so?
My work is published in books. It is an ideal method of delivery.
20 - What intellectual, technical or ethical advances would you like to see in the horse world?
Aside from the drug issue that I addressed in question 18, I also think horses should not begin their racing careers until they are at least three years old. They begin at two, when they’re still developing, and I think the early start hastens many problems. In researching The Great Match I discovered that many horses of that era didn’t race until they were four or five – a more proper time to start, when they are fully matured.
21 - Do you foresee any difficulties for the horse world in the immediate future?
Racing, my area of expertise, faces enormous problems in America. It used to be one of the most popular sports but it now lags badly behind other sports largely because of its failure to embrace television decades ago and also because of constant infighting between the sport’s many disparate factions. I don’t think it will ever regain the prominence it had a half-century ago. There are too many other sports that are more popular, and too many other ways for people to gamble on those sports – a key component of its appeal for many people.
22 - What is the greatest challenge facing the horse world in the long term?
Horse racing needs to strive to regain its self-respect and grow a new audience. It will always exist because millions of people love horses and the sport has a wonderful tradition and, as I have learned, so many great stories that appeal to the general public. But it needs to clear up the nettlesome issues of drugs and rampant unethical treatment of the animals, and then it needs to find new ways to attract new fans.
23 - What books, magazines, websites, etc. can people read and review to learn more about your work?
I have a website – www.johneisenberg.com -- where you can find information about all of my books, as well an archive of my other writing, which includes a story that ran in Smithsonian magazine about the first thoroughbred race on American soil (in 1752) and other feature stories about horses and racing. I welcome online visitors and encourage them to read my books and stories and get in touch through the website.
24 - Any final thoughts?
My most recent book was about professional football, not racing, and I am going to write another pro football book now. But I imagine I will return to racing as a subject at some point. I am eternally attracted to the stories of horses and the people around them.
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