Recently, we talked with James C. Nicholson about this week’s giveaway book. Check out our Q&A with the author, and get a look inside this one-of-a-kind horse biography.
UPK: Never Say Die seems like a natural outgrowth of your previous book, The Kentucky Derby: How the Run for the Roses became America’s Premier Sporting Event, but how exactly did you get interested in the project?
JCN: A few years ago, my dad heard an NPR interview with the original Beatles’ drummer, Pete Best. Pete was telling the interviewer about how his mother, Mona Best, had pawned her jewelry to place a bet on a colt named Never Say Die in the 1954 Epsom Derby. Mona won the bet at odds of 33-1, and with the winnings she put a down payment on a large Victorian house in Liverpool. She built the Casbah Coffee Club in its basement and opened it to local teenagers. The Quarrymen—John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, and Ken Brown—were the first act to play in her club and played a regular gig there. They needed a drummer and asked Mona’s son Pete to join the band. He was a Beatle for two years before being ousted in favor of Ringo Starr on the brink of the band’s superstardom.
Dad was familiar with Never Say Die because his father-in-law (my maternal grandfather) John A. Bell III raised the horse on his Lexington farm and helped the colt survive a difficult birth by administering some bourbon whiskey to the woozy foal minutes after his birth. Never Say Die’s name was an acknowledgment of his fighting spirit in the first moments of his life.
Dad got in touch with Pete, who happened to be scheduled to play in Lexington with his band later that month. When Pete was in town, Dad gave him a tour of the farm where Never Say Die was born. I met Pete at his show and was intrigued by the story. I started doing some research and found out that there was much more to Never Say Die’s story than just the fascinating Beatles connection.
UPK: The book ties together a string of seemingly unrelated characters all linked to the horse in unique ways. How did you find these connections?
JCN: I had a vague understanding that Robert Sterling Clark had some connection to the Singer Sewing Machine Corporation from stories I’d heard my grandfather tell when he was alive. I started with an investigation of that company, which I discovered was the first American multinational corporation. From there, I discovered that Clark himself had a fascinating story that included an alleged plot to overthrow President Franklin D. Roosevelt during the Great Depression. Research into Never Say Die’s equine genealogy revealed a series of horses owned and bred by the Aga Khan. Each stone I turned over seemed to yield another clue. Eventually I realized that, taken as a whole, these stories encapsulate and illustrate the rise of America’s economic clout in the twentieth century, both in a general sense and more specifically within the Thoroughbred industry.
UPK: How did the English racing industry react to Never Say Die’s victory of the famed 1954 Epsom Derby?
JCN: The English racing community (and American horsemen, for that matter) were shocked that an American horse won England’s greatest race for an American owner. It was widely believed in Europe that American Thoroughbreds did not have the class or the stamina necessary to win England’s greatest race.
UPK: What effect did it have on the industry?
JCN: Never Say Die’s victory in the 1954 Epsom Derby was a “shot heard ’round the world,” putting Europeans on notice that the Kentucky breeding industry was a force to be reckoned with. His Epsom Derby win convinced other American owners, who had been slowly acquiring top European broodmares and stallions since the early 1900s, to take on the Europeans in their best races. They were able to do so because American industrialists had become wealthier than the European aristocrats who had dominated the sport for centuries. Europe had been destroyed by two World Wars and the United States was left as the world’s economic superpower. Once the pattern of American success in Europe became apparent, international buyers flocked to the Bluegrass to buy American racehorses. Within two decades, Kentucky would become the unquestioned center of the Thoroughbred universe.
Enter to win a copy of Nicholson’s book, Never Say Die, by 1:00pm on Friday, April 26, 2013.