As recounted in Laura Hillenbrand’s Seabiscuit: An American Hero (2001, Ballantine Publishing Group), Seabiscuit was the idol of his time in the United States. L’Escargot (“the snail” in French), though popular, never achieved the same level of acclaim, often seeming damned with faint praise for having toppled horses still dearer to the public’s heart. Yet these two champions share a common theme to their careers: the story of a quest achieved late in their racing lives. For Seabiscuit, it was the rich Santa Anita Handicap, a race that had eluded him by the narrowest of margins twice before and which he won on a comeback from potentially career-ending injury as well as disappointment. For L’Escargot, it was the Grand National Steeplechase at Aintree, perhaps the steeplechase world’s most brutal test and one he had essayed three times before coming home in triumph at the expense of the legendary Red Rum. This is the tale behind David Owen’s No Snail: The Story of L’Escargot, the Horse that Foiled Red Rum (2023, Fairfield Books).
I will confess right here that I am probably not the best reviewer for Owen’s work, being only loosely acquainted with European racing and scarcely acquainted at all with the world of steeplechasing. Although he has done a good job with the placement of notes to provide extra information, there are undoubtedly nuances in Owen’s narrative that someone familiar with English and Irish steeplechasing would catch and savor but that are lost on me. Nonetheless, there is plenty here to provide a portal to the world of jumps racing, so that the reader can sense something of the minds of those engaged in this demanding yet strangely unhurried sport. As an example, to someone familiar with American flat racing, a tenth-place finish in a major stakes race in a horse’s second or third season of competition would hardly seem encouraging; Owen shows that to a steeplechase trainer “across the pond,” the same finish might represent a good learning experience for the horse or even a triumph of sorts, depending on the experience and condition of the horse and the severity of the test. The narrative also brings home how much the life of an English or Irish jumps racer is at the mercy of the elements of winter and early spring, far more so than is generally the case here in the milder climates and more manicured tracks of Southern California and Florida; small wonder that the atmosphere of jumps racing seems pervaded with more patience and flexibility than often seems part of the flat-racing scene.
Owen does an excellent job of bringing the reader into the process of bringing a top hurdling or ‘chasing prospect along to championship level, and the story of L’Escargot’s rise to the top of his sport is nicely counterpointed by the story of owner Raymond Guest’s long-running campaign to capture a prize that had held his imagination for decades. Another compelling story within the narrative is that of Dan Moore in finally winning steeplechasing’s ultimate race as trainer after being narrowly denied the honors as jockey thirty-seven years earlier. If there is any disappointment to be found in the work, it is that L’Escargot himself does not emerge as a character in his own right to the extent that Seabiscuit did with Hillenbrand, though perhaps this reflects cultural differences in how animals’ personalities and mentalities are viewed as much as it does personal differences between the two writers. Still, that is a small fault (if fault it is) compared to the overall quality of the work. Overall, I found No Snail to be an interesting and well-paced read and one well worth adding to the library of any racing enthusiast.