5 Questions with Equestrian Author Dawn LeFevre

It’s time for another five questions! I’m so excited to welcome Dawn LeFevre to my site. Dawn has just published a new equestrian fiction novel, Backstretch Girls. And with her racing creds, I think everyone should know about it! Let’s dig in.

Backstretch Girls by Dawn LeFevre

Dawn, thanks so much for joining me at my blog! You’ve just published a new horse racing novel, and we want to hear all about it. But first, tell us a little bit about your background. You’ve got some first-hand racing experience, right?

I worked at Atlantic City Racecourse every summer from the age of 16 until I graduated from Cook College.  After graduation, I became an assistant trainer for Walter Medio, aka, the King of AC and spent 13 years owning and training racehorses at AC, Garden State Park, Monmouth, Meadowlands, Delaware and Philly Park (now Parx). 

Dawn LeFevre win photo

LeFevre’s racing credentials are rock-solid!

That’s a great resume! Tell us a little about your new book and the inspiration for Backstretch Girls.

Backstretch Girls is about the friendship between a hardheaded ponygirl, Teagan, and Anne, a naïve jockey wannabe and is set in the late 1980’s at Atlantic City Racecourse. Teagan is the black sheep in her Olympic equestrian family; Anne grew up in a trailer park and had to play stable slave to ride, yet they bond over their love of horses.

Dawn LeFevre racehorse Haunting Melody

Haunting Melody, a real-life inspiration for LeFevre’s Backstretch Girls

 

My inspiration for Backstretch Girls is all those wonderful Thoroughbreds I knew and loved. All the racehorse names in my book are cobbled together from real racehorses. Lucky All Over is a tribute to two wonderful fillies – Plain All Over (a stakes winner voted champion New Jersey bred two year old filly in 1989) and Luckey Lipco (a game claimer known for her win streaks at AC).

Haunting Melody is the only actual name I kept, although the real horse was a dark bay filly I owned back in 1999.

I love those names. Getting names right is such an important part of writing equestrian fiction! What’s your writing process like? Did the idea for Backstretch Girls come slowly to you over the years, or all at once?

My writing “process” is just me scribbling incoherently in a notebook then trying to read my handwriting while I edit and type it up. First, I create my main characters and their backgrounds then figure out how I’m going to “ruin their lives”.

While Backstretch Girls is my first published novel, I’ve actually written two others prior to it, one of which was also set on the track. My goal with Backstretch Girls was to provide an unflinching look at the racing industry – the sexism, the unethical veterinary practices, and the owners who put profit ahead of their horse’s welfare. On the flip side, you have those unsung workers who will sacrifice everything for their horses, the grooms, hotwalkers, trainers, ponypeople, etc.

It’s definitely a wild and wooly place, with good and bad people. (And horses honestly!) What’s coming next for you? Are there more racing stories on the horizon?

I’m currently working on my next novel which will also be set in the racing world but is a more personal story – the main character trying to cope with the loss of her mother while training a ragtag stable of claimers.

My mother was the reason I fell in love with horse racing; we’d watch all the major races on TV together as well as the New York racing show every Saturday when I was growing up. For my high school graduation gift, she took me to Kentucky where we visited Claiborne and Spendthrift farm and I had the pleasure of meeting Secretariat, Seattle Slew and Affirmed. My mother passed away suddenly in 2018 and it devastated me. I stopped writing for over a year. Finally, I decided that this book would be a tribute to her and Garden State Park.

That’s a lovely tribute. Now, I love to know what everyone’s reading, so tell us about some of your favorite reads of 2019. What do we need to get on our reading lists ASAP?

The last horse racing book I read was Casual Lies – A Triple Crown Adventure by Shelley Riley. I always wondered what had happened to her after the 1992 Triple Crown; she’d done an amazing job with this horse and yet, was never given another big horse to train. The book is a double love story – between Shelley and her husband, Jim and then between Shelley and Stanley, aka, Casual Lies. It’s a funny, sad, entertaining read and a must for any woman thinking about becoming a trainer. It saddens and angers me that still no woman trainer or jockey has won the Kentucky Derby and few even are even given the chance to compete.

I just finished reading When Elephants Fly by Nancy Richardson Fischer. I was originally drawn to it because of the ongoing debate of whether animals should be kept in zoos and circuses. Right now a lot of those same animal rights questions tackled by this book are being thrown at the horse racing industry. Activists are quick to cry “Ban it!” without realizing the repercussions, such as what are you going to do with all these animals after you shut down the circus or racetrack? I was also pleasantly surprised by how well the subplot regarding the main character’s struggle with mental illness was handled.

That does sound really interesting. It’s so important to look at both sides of an issue… I wish more people would do that before they just start shouting “animal rights!”

***

Backstretch Girls by Dawn LeFevreWell, many thanks to Dawn LeFevre for jumping in and telling us about the inspiration and backstory for Backstretch Girls. 

You can find the Kindle edition of Backstretch Girls at Amazon here. 

Paperbacks are available from BookBaby here.

Add Backstretch Girls at GoodReads!

Preview 2: The Hidden Horses of New York

Did you read the first thousand words? Ready for another sneak peak? Here is the second thousand words from my new novel The Hidden Horses of New York, available in pre-sale from Amazon! Order it now to receive an automatic download on November 26, and add it on GoodReads here.

Read the first thousand words here if you haven’t already!

Racehorse in the paddock before a race

Image by Artcats from Pixabay

In her pocket, Jenny’s phone buzzed three times—then stopped again. They were learning, she thought, tugging Mister in a circle for the jockey.

Mister was not the sort of horse who stood still for mounting, despite Jenny’s best efforts to teach him good manners. She’d come home last summer and ridden him each morning, teaching him to be a racehorse on the white-fenced oval back home in Ocala. It hadn’t been enough. Jenny’s mother had snorted that a body could hardly expect some rude New Yorker to teach manners to a two-year-old colt, and Jenny had protested even while inside she felt a glow of pride at being called a New Yorker. There was something about belonging in the city that was beginning to call to her by then, a realization that the alien streets and endless traffic and soaring towers were somehow as richly intoxicating as the green hills and ancient oaks and molasses-scented feed rooms of Ocala, and she had already begun to wonder if she was going to stay on after school was over.

Now, she was just waiting for the chance.

Her phone was still and silent, but she felt it rumbling against her hip, a phantom vibration with every step. Her whole life was waiting to begin, and she’d find out what came next in minutes… if she could just get Mister out to the race course without bloodshed.

She kept walking the colt, slowing his stride infinitesimally (infinitesimally was all Mister would tolerate) as her mother held out her palms alongside the colt, waiting to help Manny spring into the saddle. Mister, watching him with a sideways ear, tensed his muscles, his steps shifting into a hopping-skipping jig, his hindquarters weaving sideways as he hit Jenny’s unforgiving hands on the leather and chain binding them together and he ran out of room for all of the energy flowing through him. He held back for a moment, and Manny put his hands on the saddle, his knee into Andrea’s hands, and jumped onto the colt’s back.

“Watch him in the gate,” Jenny’s mother spat out, falling back from Mister’s swinging haunches before he let a hind hoof fly, heedless of what might be in his way. “Don’t let him twist and carry on or he’ll miss the break.” It had been Mister’s undoing in all but his last start this year. It was the reason he was still in Florida in May, when everyone had expected him to go to Kentucky. He just hadn’t had the brain to go with his speed yet.

Jenny thought his brain had finally caught up.

“I got this, Miss Andrea,” Manny said, his voice confident. Jenny glanced up at him and he grinned back at her.

“I’m glad you’re riding him,” Jenny told him.

“Yeah, me too.” Manny laughed and adjusted his stirrups. Mister was still trotting in slow motion, but the jockey wasn’t bothered. The only thing that would have gotten his attention was if the horse reared or bucked. Spine flat? All systems go. “I like this boy. He got a lot of spirit, but he not stupid.”

They gave up their circle, and started toward the gap in the track fencing. The outriders were waiting on their track ponies, the retired racehorses and bored quarter horses watching the younger horses’ antics without interest. Track ponies had seen everything before, twice over. Jenny slid the chain free of Mister’s halter, and began to unbuckle the strap behind his ears, preparing to turn the colt over to the outriders. Manny wouldn’t be asked to control Mister alone until the bell rang and the gates sprang open.

A darkly tanned woman with a long bleached ponytail flowing from the back of her helmet leaned down from her rangy horse’s back, and, just as Jenny slipped his halter free, the outrider slid a slim leather strap through the ring of Mister’s bit.

She timed it perfectly; Mister was never free for a moment.

“Let’s go, old man,” the outrider told her mount, and the horse broke into a shuffling jog while Mister hopped alongside like a big gray bunny, shaking his head furiously against the outrider’s taut hold on his bridle. As he sprang away, a gob of white foam slopped from his bit and onto Jenny’s shoulder. She brushed the saliva away without looking at the damage done to her blouse, wiping her hands on her race-day khakis, which had seen much worse. For one long, frozen moment she just watched Mister cavorting at the end of the leather thong. He flipped his head, propped his shoulders, blew loudly through his nostrils. No one paid him any mind. The outrider was ignoring him, the pony horse was ignoring him, even Manny, perched above his withers, was ignoring him. Refusing to acknowledge his foolishness was the only way to deal with Mister’s mischief-loving heart; the moment you got on his case about something, the colt escalated things to a scale that quickly got dangerous for everyone.

Jenny thought about how much she loved him, and how much she had missed him while she’d been in New York, and how much more she would miss him if she went back for good.

Then her phone buzzed again, breaking the spell, and she pulled it out of her pocket just as her mother came hustling up. “Let’s go, girl. You’re standing in the track like a crazy person,” Andrea commanded. “They’re trying to put a race on, if you haven’t noticed.”

She hit the green button on her phone’s screen, her heart between her boots, suddenly afraid of whatever news was waiting. Yay or nay, go or no go, it was all going to be a disaster for half of her.

“JENNY!” the people in her phone shrieked in a chorus, and her heart rebounded like a balloon freed of its string, soaring up into the endless blue of the Florida sky.

“GUYS!” she yelled back. “HOW DID IT GO?”

***

Stay tuned for another preview next week… or order your copy now!

Amazon Kindle and paperback release date: November 26

Add it on GoodReads!

Belmont Stakes Shenanigans

As long as we have lived in NYC, we’ve made it a point to go the Belmont Stakes. Who wouldn’t? I mean — it’s the freaking Belmont Stakes, one of the great horse races of the world, and it’s just a short train ride away. Sounds so perfect, doesn’t it?

Eh. Here’s the thing.

I'm guessing this sign predates several Triple Crown wins.

I’m guessing this sign predates several Triple Crown wins.

When California Chrome won the Preakness Stakes rather handily, it started sounding a lot less perfect, and a lot more crowded. The ominous predictions of 105-125,000 people descending upon Belmont Park, many of them by the same train we’d be taking, was being retweeted with gleeful abandon by racing fans who were excited to see a racecourse being used for anything besides pigeon nesting grounds. But I was already missing the tumbleweeds that typically blow through the cavernous grandstand of Belmont Park, and we were still weeks away from the big race.

 Now, Belmont Park was built for crowds. And once upon a time, I hear, people used to go there for other reasons than the Belmont Stakes. But crowds just aren’t my thing.

If I have to wait a long time for something (whether it’s a restroom or a drink or a food truck or anything free at all) I probably won’t have anything to do with it. It’s a prejudice I developed as a Cast Member at Walt Disney World, where I became pretty accustomed to only visiting the parks on the least-crowded days and shunned any ride with a wait time over 20 minutes because I knew I could drop by next Tuesday or whenever and just ride it then.

It’s gotten to the point that if there was a truck parked outside offering free puppies, but the line was an hour long, I’d just go buy a puppy somewhere without the wait. (Unless it was free beagle puppies. Then I would go buy one and stand in line for a free one and then I’d have two beagle puppies and I’d be the happiest girl in the world.)

But although not puppies, it was the freaking Belmont Stakes, as stated before. And although the Triple Crown bid made it a less desirable event, in my mind anyway, that also made it completely impossible to skip. What if that pretty chestnut won the Triple Crown and we were sitting in our living room in Brooklyn? How lame would that be? The lamest, that’s how lame. The absolute lamest.

Cal at Belmont

A proper horse-player’s hat in a sea of straw.

So we put on our Goorhin Bros hats and we went. First: crowded trains are crowded. There aren’t many other ways to describe them. And, according to one Long Island Rail Road employee, the rails are so decrepit on the Belmont tracks that the trains are only allowed to go five miles per hour. And the air conditioning stops working. So it takes a very, very long time and it is also crowded and it is also hot and that’s just never what you want in your public transportation in June. The nose rebels. Luckily, a regular rider told us about his pal that uses the Queens Village stop and walks over. That came in handy later when we decided to get the heck out of Dodge.

And we did get the heck out, thankfully before the mayhem that was the trains being shut down (although the railroad has not publicly admitted they shut the trains down). Here’s the thing: A lot of college students went to Belmont Park for the very first time on Saturday. They dressed up in weird approximations of what they thought was racetrack attire (I don’t know what impression college students are trying to make when they wear Nautica shorts and blue blazers but it isn’t a good look, especially when they are downing a six-pack of cheap beer they just realized they won’t be able to smuggle in). They stood in hour-long lines for $10 Coors Light and they shouted and they laughed and they cursed and they sat in the stairwells and created traffic jams and they smoked. An astonishing amount of smoke.

And I guess they had a good time, and maybe they think that’s what a trip to the races is like. And maybe they’ll come back next year for the Belmont, and do it all again.

But it’s definitely not like my typical day at the races. Because, well, they were there. Yelling and being drunk and blocking stairs and wearing those ridiculous faux-horseplayer outfits. (Pro-tip: At least go to a vintage store if you’re going to dress up. Don’t go to Macy’s.)

If there was a happy medium between a regular racetrack day and Belmont day, somewhere between 10,000 people and 100,000 people, somewhere between ghost town and seething masses of humanity, where you could enjoy the presence of other humans having a good time and still actually see the horses, I’d take that.

Sweet Whiskey before her sweet exacta in the Acorn (she lost to Sweet Reason in the photo)

Sweet Whiskey before her sweet exacta in the Acorn (she lost to Sweet Reason in the photo)

But what it really comes down to with racing: I have to see horses, and there were so many humans (and so much smoke) in my way, that in the paddock the view was dicey and on the apron, all I could see were the tips of their ears as they galloped towards the wire. After catching a decent glimpse of the field for the Acorn Stakes, I missed the race. And I never saw Princess of Sylmar at all, and she was on my wish-list, right alongside Palace Malice (yup, missed out on him too).

So it wasn’t very horse-centric. And then there were the Breathe Right girls.

Let’s talk about Breathe Right for a moment. They were handing out free nasal strips all over the place, because California Chrome wears a Flair strip, yadda yadda yadda. Clever product placement, and funny — until a Breathe Right rep shoved a packet of strips down my shirt when I wouldn’t take them from her. Literally, right down my shirt. It bordered on assault. It was weird. It did not make me want to rush out and purchase Breathe Right strips to attach to my nose.

A Thoroughbred Incentive Program ribbon with the TAA logo in the rosette, hanging at the TAA booth.

A Thoroughbred Incentive Program ribbon with the TAA logo in the rosette, hanging at the TAA booth.

I did enjoy seeing the booth from the Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance. Their booth was sponsored by the Daily Racing Form, which means every donation they received went straight into the charity. Serious props to the Form for this move. It’s exciting to see national racing publications picking up on the responsible retirement movement, especially one as die-hard horse-player as the Form.

I snagged an OTTB rubber bracelet, but for $10, I could have joined the giggling line of ladies and gents all ages who were posing in front a green screen. They’d walk away with photos of themselves galloping California Chrome past the wire. It was great to see so many people taking an interest in retired racehorses! Hopefully the TAA folks will be able to set up at more tracks this summer and keep educating the public (and reminding the powers-that-be) about how important comprehensive Thoroughbred retirement programs are.

Giddy-up, Cali Chrome!

Giddy-up, Cali Chrome!

The Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance booth also made me happy because on a day when the horses were completely out of reach, I was able to stop and talk with people who were there for the horses. Not a lot of folks at the Belmont Stakes were there for the horses. They were there because Time Out New York suggested it would be a hip and fun vintage-type thing to do.

But for those of us who show because we love the horses more than reason itself, the Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance symbolizes the very best thing about modern racing: the movement towards care and compassion, towards responsibility in retirement. And on a day of excess like Belmont day, it was a refreshing breath of clean air in a smoky room.

So, the 2014 Belmont Stakes. We went. We sighed. We went home. But I noticed quite a few banners for the July 5th race card, which includes several nice-looking stakes races. Will I be schlepping back out on the Long Island Rail Road? It’s possible. After all, I doubt I’ll be one in a hundred thousand next time. And that sounds pretty nice.

Other People’s Horses Selected as Semi-Finalist in Dr. Tony Ryan Book Award

For a girl writing about racehorses, it doesn’t get much better than this.

Other People's Horses: Book 2 of Alex and AlexanderYesterday, Castleton Lyons, home of the Dr. Tony Ryan Book Award, announced the eight semi-finalists for the 2013 competition. This unique award celebrates one common theme in full-length literary works: the racehorse.

Imagine my delight I was thrilled to see I FREAKED OUT AND NEARLY HAD A HEART ATTACK when I saw my own Other People’s Horses on the list, the lone novel amongst racing histories, memoirs, and biographies.

There are no words for my appreciation for not just the nomination, but all the readers who encouraged me, left me nice reviews at Amazon and GoodReads, sent me emails to let me know they liked the books, and have generally clamored for me to continue writing about horses and the people who love them. I never would have dared enter this competition without you and your support!

Thank you for telling me that Other People’s Horses means something to you!

I promise there is more to come.

If you haven’t read Other People’s Horses, I still love you. Go to my Facebook page for a coupon code for 20% off the paperback at the CreateSpace store, good now through March 31st.

And with that, here is the press release for the Dr. Tony Ryan Book Awards semi-finalists. Have you read any of the other books? Tell us about them in the comments!

2013 Dr. Ryan semi-finalists exceptional group

The 2013 Dr. Tony Ryan Book Award competition has drawn the strongest slate of semi-finalists in its eight year history to date, an impressive assortment of well-penned histories, fiction, biography, and autobiographies—both human and equine. In the end, the underdog theme ruled the day in this cycle of uniquely award-worthy entries.

Launched in 2006 by the late Dr. Ryan, the award, worth $10,000 to the winner, was the industry’s first to honor full-length literary work focusing on racing. Dr. Ryan loved good writing as much as he loved a good Thoroughbred, and thus placed few parameters on his concept other than skill with the written word.

Three 2013 finalists will be revealed via press release on March 17 (see: http://www.castletonlyons.com/). The winner will be announced during an invitation-only reception at the Ryan family’s historic Castleton Lyons farm near Lexington on April 9.

Book Award Semifinalists:

Battleship: A Daring Heiress, A Teenage Jockey, and America’s Horse
Author: Dorothy Ours
A character-driven work based in the early decades of the 20th century. Battleship centers on enigmatic Marion DuPont of the famed chemical manufacturing family … her battles against the gender limitations of her time, her marriage to a Hollywood movie star, and most importantly, her undying love for horses—most specifically her faith in a pint-sized son of Man o’ War, who, in 1938, packed her colors to victory in the world’s most heart-testing race: England’s Grand National Steeplechase.

Casual Lies: A Triple Crown Adventure
Author: Shelley Lee Riley
The feel-good narrative of a woman trainer who sees potential in a small, nondescript bay colt and runs with it—literally—parlaying a meager $7,500 purchase price into $795,991 in career earnings. Under the name Casual Lies, the colt took Shelley Riley on the ride of a lifetime, winning in graded company and, more importantly, placing in both the 1992 Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes.

Foinavon: The Story of the Grand National’s Biggest Upset
Author: David Owen
Another with the Grand National as a backdrop, this one provides an account of the 1967 renewal, unimaginably upset by the 100-to-1 title character, Foinavon. Owen details how the winner and his companion, a white nanny goat named Susie, thereafter charmed the British masses as they traveled the country on a “victory tour,” while reminding one and all of the true meaning and glory of the Grand National itself.

Jack: From Grit to Glory  
Author: Chris Kotulak
The story of a living American legend, told via anecdotal material, interviews of those who know him best, and through memories from the man himself. The down-to-earth Nebraskan is a Hall of Fame horseman and himself the son of a Hall of Fame trainer; and in the course of his nearly 60 years—and counting—on the track, Van Berg has remarkably developed both racehorses and other trainers of Hall of Fame caliber.

Other People’s Horses
Author: Natalie Keller Reinert
The only fiction entry among the finalists, this one brings back a pair of married trainers, Alex and Alexander, from 2012’s Head and Not the Heart. In this one, the husband is abroad on family business, leaving Alex at Saratoga running the stable, battling sexism, dealing with a naïve assistant, and falling hard for a crazy filly she thinks she can fix.

Ride the White Horse: A Checkered Jockey’s Story of Racing, Rage, and Redemption
Author: Eddie Donnally
Gut-wrenching autobiography of a jockey on a road straight to hell, replete with race-fixing schemes, batteries, and squandered dreams. Stalked by alcoholism, drug and sex-addiction, and mental illness, we follow Donnally’s life as it descends from nascent talent into hopelessness, homelessness, and total despair. Donnally’s gritty mea culpa of a life not well lived may be a tough read, but is ultimately, one of hope and redemption.