Using Grade I wins and victories in the Classics as the measure of attainment, Team Valor International is the most successful U. S. enterprise ever in the business of horse-racing partnerships.  Its record of achievement includes such stellar races as the Arlington Million, the Dubai World Cup, the Kentucky Derby, and the Santa Anita Derby.  The entrepreneur behind it is Barry Irwin, who has written a book titled Derby Innovator that takes the reader inside the ups and downs of Irwin and his horses.

Irwin grew up in Beverlywood, California, on the west side of Los Angeles, in a non-horse family.  Irwin says he “had been interested in horse racing from the time I could walk.”  His parents, who “shunned” the sport, would surely have been chagrined had they known that their 14-year old son was selling racing tip sheets on a street corner in 1957.

The adolescent Irwin became enamored with the Thoroughbred stars of the day, and in particular his all-time favorite Swaps (he published a 2002 biography of the 1955 Kentucky Derby winner).  As a high school student, Irwin was a competitive athlete in track and field, where he specialized in the high jump, a sport he shared a love for with his father, who died of a heart attack at age 41.

Irwin’s winding life journey has brought him into contact with a potpourri of colorful characters that horse racing is so well known for.  Irwin went from down-on-his-luck broke to seeing Team Valor horses in the winner’s circle for Grade I events in Louisville, Dubai, Hong Kong and other venues where only the best compete for money and acclaim.  (The only quibble I have with the book is that I would have found an index useful so I could readily reference the many humans and equines mentioned.)

Irwin’s early involvement with racing included stints as a writer, editor, columnist, and TV/radio host.  He eventually decided, however, that he wanted to shift his efforts from writing and talking about horse racing to becoming a participant instead.

If I had to describe Irwin’s overriding approach to writing this book, in a word, it would be “candor.”  He conveys his unvarnished impressions of people, both living and dead, who he has come across or done business with.   Some of the subjects would undoubtedly strenuously disagree with how Irwin portrays them–e.g., con man, disingenuous, and liar–but the reader is left with no uncertainty in regards to how he feels about them or their actions.

While Irwin’s forthrightness has sometimes not been well received, he views his blunt talk as a personal code of conduct.  To illustrate, he states that the “most meaningful” congratulatory note he received following Animal Kingdom’s win in the 2011 Kentucky Derby came from a Kentucky farm owner, who wrote:  “You have never worried about what others think, and I admire your independence…”

The old sports metaphor about chicken and feathers is an apt description of what it is like to be actively involved in horse racing.  Some days the reward is chicken and many days it is feathers.  Irwin reminisces about the chicken and feathers times in his life and the triumphs and travails of Team Valor International.  If you are an aficionado of horse racing–and appreciate underdogs becoming top dogs–you should enjoy this easily readable tale of improbable rise from college dropout to the apex of the sport.

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