I As a girl, I had an old paperback copy of a book called Old Bones: The Wonder Horse by Mildred Mastin Pace. It was one of my favorite horse stories, and I remember reading it over and over again, but I didn’t remember much of what it was about– just the warm feeling I used to get when I read it. So, I was excited to learn that the superb equestrian writer, Eliza McGraw, was working on a new book about Exterminator, the racehorse in Old Bones.
I’m delighted to have Eliza McGraw visiting with me today to talk about her fascinating new retelling of that old story– fleshed out with the historical background that helps us to understand the world during Exterminator’s time.
What drew you to the story of Exterminator? Can you tell us what was special about him?
I think fell in love with Exterminator because he was a fascinating combination of
great athlete and huge personality. I was in awe of all of his racing accomplishments, but I also adored his uniqueness. He won so many races—50 out of 99 starts—which is extraordinary. But it was also the way he won them. He liked to wait until close to the end of race to move up on the leader.. That’s actually where the title comes from—when he surged up like that, the crowd would shout, “Here comes Exterminator!” That kind of symbolizes him, to me. He started his career as something of an underdog, but then proved with his 30-1 Kentucky Derby victory that he was a contender. And people loved him for it, they loved to root for him. He was a winner, but in his own way.
How long did it take you to write the book? Can you tell us a little bit about your research process?
I first got interested in Exterminator around 2010, and started stockpiling information then. But researching and writing in earnest took about two years. I did a lot of online research—much of the Daily Racing Form is digitized, and I used sites like ProQuest, fultonhistory.com
, and newspapers.com
. I worked at the Library of Congress, the National Sporting Library, the library at the National Racing Museum and Hall of Fame, the historical society in Binghamton, where Exterminator lived, and the Keeneland library. Then, once I have the files—whether they’re downloaded or photos I have taken of pages in a library–on my computer, I tend to make folders chronologically—with articles named the way photographers often do photos—so, for example, I’d have one from Exterminator’s Derby May named “19180511 DRF profile with crowd color.” I think it’s kind of like looking at someone else’s pantry—I swear there’s an order to it, but maybe only I can see it. Then, once I have everything in order, I make more folders with period details or what was going on in the news.
I can get a little trance-y when I am deep in another time—leafing through old Thoroughbred Records in the basement of the NSL—it’s sort of similar to when you’re riding back to the barn at sundown. Everything around fades away.
What is your background with horses?
Like so many of us, I can’t remember when I wasn’t horse-crazy. My parents say I begged for riding lessons when I was about three, and I rode a lot until I was about thirteen. I didn’t ride as much in high school or college, but when I was 21, I moved to Nashville, Tennessee for graduate school—I was working on a PhD in English. I was surrounded by all that beautiful middle Tennessee countryside, and all I could think was: horses. I started riding lessons before my first day of school. That was when I really learned the most—working in barns, leasing horses, schooling them, training my green horse Romeo, teaching riding lessons, mucking stalls, and just riding anything I could. I had one life on campus, and another out in the country, schooling my horse, trail riding all over, hopping in a friend’s truck to go to horse sales, up to Churchill Downs, or to Keeneland. I started writing for horse magazines then, too. I was all in. I realized I didn’t ever want to go without horses again.
Then I was in a bad riding accident in 2006, and it wasn’t clear if I’d be able to ride again after that, but Romeo was a seasoned, wonderful gelding by then. I trusted him enough to get back on. So he carried me through that, and then died too young in 2008. A friend pointed out that in some ways my Exterminator obsession was an outgrowth of how connected I’d felt to Romeo, and I think she is right.
In looking back at such a distant time period, were you more struck by how different things seemed— or how much the same?
That’s a terrific question and the answer is both. The World War I era, when Exterminator started running, and the roaring Twenties, when he really came into his own, were unique times—there was this vertiginous switch from a hyper-patriotic wartime era into a flashy, celebratory one. Looking back, those times seem so different from today, in terms of how people lived, and how much information they had at any given moment compared to what we have. And horse management was different in many ways, with some of the things that were done back then seeming unkind to us now. But I think horse people would be ok dropped off in any decade, don’t you? We could find a barn, and figure it out.
What surprised you the most about Exterminator’s story?
I was amazed by how much of a household name he was. These days, almost everyone knows who American Pharaoh is, for example. And horse people and racing fans probably know that his lead pony’s name is Smokey, and that he wears earplugs and likes carrots. But in Exterminator’s day, everyone knew him. They knew that he was uncommonly calm, even when the other horses around him were plunging before the race. They could tell if he’d gained or lost weight, or if he looked sore up front. They knew if they came to watch him race, he’d seem as if he were bowing to the stands. And they knew his dynasty of Shetland pony friends, all named Peanuts. When I first understood the intimacy with which reporters wrote about him, for so many years, I was surprised. And had to know more.
Thank you so much for visiting with me today! Here Comes Exterminator
is available now in hardcover, ebook, and audio editions! I highly recommend this enjoyable read.