McEvoy still relishes life at the track
Photo finish: Book signing with author John McEvoy
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Updated: May 23, 2012 3:07PM
It’s spring, the time of year when most Americans become horse racing fans, if only for the two minutes it takes to run the Kentucky Derby on the first Saturday in May, or perhaps for a few weeks longer if a viable Triple Crown candidate emerges.
Just in time to take advantage of this annual uptick in interest in following the ponies comes Photo Finish, the fourth installment in Evanston author John McEvoy’s racetrack thriller series featuring tough guy Jack Doyle.
This time around, Doyle is working as a jockey’s agent for a talented young female rider from Ireland when all hell breaks loose at a fictitious Midwest track that has more than a passing resemblance to a certain glitzy Chicago racing venue.
Local references abound as a dizzying tale of death threats, drugged horses and danger unspools. With more than 30 years of experience as an editor and correspondent for Daily Racing Form, McEvoy’s take on the goings-on at the track are chock-full of realistic detail and knowledge of the milieu.
Pioneer chatted by phone with McEvoy recently to learn more about the evolution of his series and the glamorous life of a racing expert.
Q: I see that Moe Kellman is back. “Furrier-to-the-Mob” — I so love that description.
A: He’s a useful character. He can bounce things off Jack and vice-versa. I think they have an interesting relationship. He’s kind of like the older advisor and he’s also a pretty good source of humorous comments, so I enjoy using him.
Q: In this book we seem to see a softer, nicer Jack Doyle. Is he evolving?
A: He is. He’s getting a little bit less abrasive. But he’s still as persistent as always, which I think is important for any protagonist.
Q: And he’s also job-hopping. It seemed at the end of this book he’s through with being a jockey’s agent.
A: It think it’s believable, the transitions that he makes. And it enables me to look at racing from different aspects.
Q: In this book you talk about drugs, you talk about misrepresenting ownership of horses, race fixing … do you sometimes feel like an “anti-ambassador” for racing?
A: Well, I know that (another turf writer) thinks that I am. (Laughs) He thinks I’m Mr. Gloom. He says, ‘Why aren’t people writing books that are positive about racing?’ Well, then nobody would read them! And I think the issues that I deal with are worth dealing with. What I’m trying to do is perhaps expose some of these things so that they can be prevented.
Q: And also because it makes for a crackling good read, as they say?
A: (Laughs) Well, I hope it does, anyway.
Q: What do you think it is about the racetrack environment that attracts so many “characters?”
A: Well, I don’t know. I think horses are a big attraction to a lot of people. Did you watch any of that (HBO) show, “Luck?” When I read that it was going to happen, I wrote a letter to David Milch, the producer. And it was a pretty funny letter, I thought. He called me and he said, ‘Would you be interested in looking at the script for the pilot?’ I said, ‘Sure.’
So he Fed Exed it to me and I went over it. It was pretty interesting but there were some factual errors. Anyway, I wrote down about 20 suggestions and I sent it back and he called me and thanked me. So that was the last I ever heard from him. (Laughs) And I watch the first show and they used like five of my suggestions. And I never heard another word from him.
Q: Why did you write to Milch initially when you heard it was coming out?
A: I thought maybe I could work as a consultant. (Laughs) That didn’t work out. … And a couple of weeks ago, you probably read about that groom who was murdered at Churchill Downs the night of the Derby? Well, the next day I got a call from a guy who was with “Good Morning America” in New York and he asked me, “Would you want to talk to us about it?” and I said, “Oh, sure.”
So they sent a television crew here to my house that afternoon … and to make a long story short, this took 90 minutes and the next morning it was on “Good Morning America” for about 15 seconds. Most of me was on the cutting room floor!
Q: Do you think that between you and Dick Francis we’ve exhausted every angle in the horse racing thriller genre or is there more to be said?
A: We haven’t exhausted it yet. I’ve got some ideas for maybe one more. And I think I’ve got some different plot elements. I’m going to do it a little differently. I’m going to make it more of a mystery. These books have been primarily thrillers — where you know who the villains are. The thrill is how the protagonist is going to discover them. And this one that I’m thinking about I’m going to have two villains whose identities are not revealed until the end. And again it’ll be a racetrack setting with Jack Doyle involved.
Q: Do you go to the backstretch (of racetracks) anymore, trolling for characters?
A: No. I did that for so many years I think I’ve got them identified.
Q: What are the archetypes?
A: Racing has always fascinated me because I think it’s a great macrocosm. You’ve got these very wealthy people that own horses … and then you’ve got this middle class — let’s say the trainers and the jockeys — who are struggling to retain their middle class status, and then you’ve got these lowly grooms and hotwalkers who are making maybe $300 a week. To me that was one of the things that fascinated me from the beginning when I first got into racing, was just the different, very disparate elements that are involved in this one thing.