I recently had the pleasure of reading a new racing novel by equestrian author Mara Dabrishus’s Stay The Distance. This is the story of July Carter, her racing family, and one tough summer in Saratoga.
It’s a coming of age story, but not the one you’re used to. July is in that pivotal summer between high school and college, and she isn’t sure just what’s next. She’s been riding for her father, a successful trainer on the New York circuit, for so long, it’s become the path of least resistance, even while her best friend is encouraging July to move to into the city, go to college, and live a real life for a little while.
But who can turn down a summer in Saratoga, even for a taste of real life? Or even to get away from a pain-in-the-arse two-year-old and his equally pain-in-the-arse (maturity-wise) young owner?
I wouldn’t be able to say no either, July.
Author Mara Dabrishus was lovely enough to answer a few of my questions about the inspiration and writing behind Stay The Distance, along with her own equestrian background. Here’s my interview with Mara:
Stay The Distance is filled with tension, not just at the races, but inside the main character, July’s head. She isn’t quite sure that she wants to devote her life to horses, but it seems like the decision has been made for her. Did you draw on personal experience to create July and her mental crossroads?
Sometimes I think the only thing July and I have in common is hair color. Her life and her personality are so very different from my own, which I think was why it was so much fun to write about her. That said, I think a lot of people go through that What am I doing?! stage, especially after high school. I experienced that after I graduated college. I really still wasn’t sure what I wanted to do and ultimately I chose what I knew – libraries, books, writing. For July, the horses are such a constant part of her life that deciding anything other than horses is so huge it’s paralyzing. As for me, I just went to grad school.
You set this book on the New York racing circuit, and the sections set at Belmont Park are particularly detailed. Tell us about your background in racing – did any of it take place in New York?
My background in racing has always been that of obsessive spectator. Growing up, the closest major track was Oaklawn Park in Hot Springs, Arkansas, and getting there required nauseatingly twisty driving out of the Ozark Mountains on a road called the Pig Trail. So that happened exactly once in order to see Behrens win the Oaklawn Handicap. (I’m dating myself. I’m dated now.)
Much later, nothing was going to stop me from getting to Belmont Park to see Curlin narrowly lose to Rags to Riches in the Belmont Stakes. For someone who grew up with the Thoroughbred Series, it was like living fiction. What I think struck me so much about Belmont is how awesomely huge it is. It takes up so much space where space is at a premium, and you have to love how grandiose that is.
Then there’s Saratoga. Last year I spent a week leading up to the Travers Stakes sitting in a lawn chair by Saratoga’s saddling paddock and was thoroughly thrilled the entire time. It’s such a gem of a track, and one of those places where you can feel totally comfortable asking Jerry Bailey which of his mounts was his favorite when he randomly shows up next to you. (Cigar, of course, is his favorite.) That’s just the sort of thing that routinely happens there.
It’s refreshing to read a racing story that can easily weave horsemanship and post-race training into the narrative. Do you ride now? What discipline? Any OTTBs in your life?
I’ve been riding dressage when I get the chance, and have been for about seven years. Currently I primarily ride a little Quarter Horse mare who has this adorable, big personality. Coincidentally, we both started to learn dressage at about the same time, so we’ve improved together. (If my riding instructor is reading this, she is probably snickering herself sick right now.)
When I was just starting dressage, I rode this big, black, permanently fluffy OTTB called Diablo. In his earlier days he lived up to his name, scaring the basics into students. By the time I came along, he was the barn’s grand old man. He was such a character. Unfortunately he passed away a few months ago, but he was well-loved.
Books tend to come in threes nowadays. Will we see more of July and Beck?
Stay the Distance was initially designed and written to stand on its own. That said, bringing July and Beck back for more shenanigans with Lighter and Kali is definitely in the cards. If not for a trilogy, then definitely for a sequel. I don’t think Lighter’s character will allow anything less!
Aside from her Texas beginning, Mara Dabrishus spent the first two decades of her life in the Arkansas Ozarks. She pined for a horse and never received one, so she settled on writing about them. The Black Stallion, the Thoroughbred Series, every horse book you can imagine was dutifully consumed. For the past several years she’s ridden dressage, learning how to spiral in, half halt, and perform the perfect figure eight.
Stay the Distance is her first novel. Its prequel short story, Whirlaway, was published by the Thoroughbred Times.