History, as commonly defined today, began with the written word—a vast achievement that allowed information to be passed between generations, long after the deaths of those who originally observed or discovered events and facts. Thanks to the written word, we can draw on knowledge built up across centuries and cultures on a scale unavailable to our distant forebears.
Nonetheless, Homo sapiens remains a storytelling species, and this has a bearing on our histories. For histories are more than dry recitations of facts. Cultural, social, religious, and political pressures have a bearing on which facts will be recorded and remembered and which will sink into legend, or be forgotten entirely. Some things are emphasized; others become historical footnotes, or lie neglected until the dust is blown from some journal, paper, or letter that brings them to light again. Individual historians, too, act as curators, for even in a tiny portion of history—say, the biography of one prominent person—there is simply too much information for every bit of data to be given equal prominence. Thus, the historian invariably becomes storyteller to lesser or greater degree, choosing—sometimes consciously, often unconsciously—which matters will be given emphasis, and filtering the emotional content that invariably becomes attached to facts through his or her own psyche, with all its experiences, shaping influences, emotional reactions, and biases. No matter how dedicated the attempt to be objective, the fingerprint of the individual historian inevitably becomes attached to the history he or she presents.
Like many another horse-crazy youngster, I first became acquainted with Black Gold’s story through Marguerite Henry’s Black Gold. Like several others of Henry’s fictional works for children, it followed the story of a real-life horse primarily through the fictional or semi-fictional point of view of a young character with whom her juvenile readers could identify—in this case, teenaged Jaydee Mooney, whose real-life model, J. D. Mooney, rode Black Gold to victory in the 1924 Kentucky Derby at the age of 22. Aided by the work of noted illustrator Wesley Dennis, she was able to fit both the basic facts of Black Gold’s life and some legendary elements into the theme of the success of an underdog (underhorse?) against the odds, aided by someone who saw him as special when few others did. That Henry took some liberties with the actual history does not detract from her writing. Her purpose was to produce a historical fiction story suitable for children, winning their sympathy for her hero horse and his special human, and she was obviously successful in doing so. Many years later, with the one-hundredth anniversary of his improbable Derby win approaching, Black Gold emerged from whatever corner of my memory I had kept him in and trotted out, demanding that I give his story another look. Dream Derby: The Myth and Legend of Black Gold is the result, representing five years of planning, research, and late nights spent bending over a computer keyboard.
Dream Derby is history, not historical fiction, and so the constraints on telling this story have been those of history: to remain true to the available facts recorded close to a century ago, supplemented by later records of the recollections of those who lived through or witnessed those events. I was and am not interested in recounting “history as it should have been,” which is generally no more than dressing up the presenter’s personal beliefs and biases about the present in period guise. That approach may reveal a great deal about the historian, but little about the era and people supposedly under review. For good or ill, they are what they were, not what we might wish them to be. Where I become storyteller as much as historian is in trying to discern the real, breathing human beings and horses whose lives made the history so that the reader can see the world they lived in and the events they were part of through them. Their story is now mine and, through me (I hope), yours, bringing back a world that was very different than our own, yet (because of our shared humanity) very much the same.