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Horse biography The Legend of Zippy Chippy a subversive celebration of failure


‘He was neither a speedster nor a steeplechaser, not a long-haul closer or a railside racer. He was Zippy Chippy, a free spirit at large and far from the grind of greatness, not sweating but celebrating the small stuff of life. He was at all times a professional racehorse, thriving, indeed rejoicing, in a quirky little world of his own.”

So begins William Thomas’ The Legend of Zippy Chippy: Life Lessons from Horse Racing’s Most Lovable Loser. The unusual biography takes us through the life of America’s most unsuccessful thoroughbred racehorse who, over the course of his 100-race career, lost every single professional race he entered.

In a culture whose mythology is saturated with formulaic tales of greatness and achievement, The Legend of Zippy Chippy is a subversive celebration of failure. Thomas revels in his subject’s absolute lack of interest when it comes to living up to his potential. The author includes family trees showing Zippy’s bred-for-perfection pedigree—he was related to Secretariat, Seabiscuit and a dozen other all-time great racehorses—which make Zippy seem like the wayward, layabout son of a high-achieving family.

Thomas describes Zippy Chippy’s laid-back attitude towards life and sport in glowing terms, and uses the horse’s story to rail against a winning-obsessed culture that drives athletes to cheat and dope in order to get ahead.

“Trying and striving and persevering—those are the elements that spell true success in the field of sports and in the game of living,” Thomas writes. “Winning is a welcome reward, but losing ought not to be a life-or-death consequence.”

Writing a biography of a horse reveals some interesting limitations of the life-narrative genre itself. Thomas frequently gets inside Zippy Chippy’s head, describing how his subject feels about racing, eating and taking it easy in a high-stakes world. Either Thomas is a telepathic horse whisperer and Zippy Chippy is the smartest horse in the world, or else the author has used a lot of creative licence. It makes you reflect on the fact that all biographers are probably just as imaginative with their subjects.

Thomas writes in a very relaxed and conversational tone, like a granddad telling tales to the family after dinner. His book is therefore accessible to people who know absolutely nothing about horse racing, and it includes mini chapters between each narrative chapter that touch on questions like why horses all have such strange names.

The Legend of Zippy Chippy is the perfect antithesis of all the bullshit self-help books and rags-to-riches stories that are lionized everywhere else. In a world where everyone on Instagram is having a better life than you, it’s a refreshing reminder to just keep on marching—or, in this case, trotting at a leisurely pace—to the beat of your own drummer.

“If Zippy had quit at fifty losses, or even sixty-five, his record would have been described as awful and no one would remember his name to this day,” he writes. “But instead he pushed on, he raced every chance they gave him, he honed his skills at not winning, and therein lies the beauty of his record: upside-down excellence in the face of recurring defeat.”

Now available
by William Thomas
McClelland & Stewart,
304 pp, $30

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