For the first time in its fourteen-year history, the Dr. Tony Ryan Book Award has gone to a multi-collaborative effort, as opposed to one written by a single author, or two working in tandem. The 2019 winner is “Better Lucky Than Good: Tall Tales and Straight Talk from the Backside of the Track,” published through the Louisville Story Program and edited by Joe Manning. In this work, a diverse cross section of Churchill Downs denizens—including exercise riders, grooms, assistant trainers, hotwalkers, outriders, security guards, silks makers, outriders, and touts—penned their personal and very different takes on racing as they have experienced it. Altogether, this is the ultimate insider’s view of a sport that has captured the imaginations of multitudes down through the centuries.
Other finalists were: “Justify: 111 Days to Triple Crown Glory," by Lenny Shulman (Triumph Books) and "The Triumph of Henry Cecil: The Authorised Biography," by Tony Rushmer (Little Brown Book Group).
“ ‘Better Lucky Than Good’ is a true insider's look at a historic racetrack that goes well beyond the barns to encompass stories of little-heralded employees, neighbors outside the gates and the ancillary business owners who also are so important to the sport of racing,” said Book Award judge Kay Coyte. “All the stories are recorded, guided and edited with great respect and affection by the Louisville Story Program team.”
The top three were selected from an eclectic and exceptionally strong group of 15 entries, all published during the 2019 calendar year. As always, a $10,000 first prize was awarded along with $1,000 to each of the two finalists, with all three receiving Tipperary crystal trophies in the form of Castleton Lyons’ iconic stone tower.
A panel of three literary and racing industry judges, headed by Coyte, a former editor at the Washington Post, worked together in determining this year’s results. Coyte was joined by award-winning TVG broadcaster Caton Bredar, and noted Kentucky poet Jayne Moore Waldrop, whose forthcoming book is “Drowned Town,” a short story collection about the people who lived in the Land Between the Lakes.
Also, for the first time, the Book Award was not bestowed in person due to coronavirus precautions. The award timeline would normally have concluded last spring with a ceremony in the historic stallion barn at the Ryan family’s Castleton Lyons, near Lexington, Kentucky. But there was nothing normal about 2020, which will go in the books as the Year of the Great Pandemic. From necessity, the process was altered, the schedule pushed back, and ultimately, the traditional winner’s reception was scrapped in favor of an online video conference call announcement on November 20.
The “Better Lucky Than Good” cover photo of groom Paul Goffner leading the 1981 Derby Trial winner with the colt’s name What It Is printed on his red T-shirt turned out to be the perfect image for this disrupted year, Coyte said. “We’ve all had to adjust to What Is.”
The award was founded in 2006 by philanthropist and noted global businessman Dr. Tony Ryan, to recognize the best book-length writing with a horse racing backdrop. Since his 2007 passing the competition has been continued by Dr. Ryan’s son and current president of Castleton Lyons, Shane Ryan. Past honorees have included a recipient of the prestigious National Book Award and several Eclipse Award-winning authors.