By Dave Briggs for woodbine.com
TORONTO, November 15 – Alex Brown said the two years he spent as an exercise rider at Woodbine Racetrack was an essential education for the fictional setting of his racing novel Missionville — though the writer, academic, horse lover and equine welfare advocate is clear the racetrack depicted in his novel is not Woodbine.
“Whilst Missionville is not Woodbine, I learned the culture of the backside from Woodbine that I then mapped onto Missionville,” said Brown, reached via Skype in Cornwall where he now lives in his native England. “It is the one backside that really helped me understand how the culture of the backside works. Because of that, anybody at Woodbine that reads the book will get a sense of how Woodbine works.”
Brown worked at Woodbine for trainer Steve Asmussen from 2008 to 2009 and is remembered for being not your ordinary exercise rider. Brown has an MBA from the University of Delaware and was an early pioneer of getting horse racing on the Internet before many of today’s most popular social media platforms existed. In 2006, Brown began something of a marketing experiment by starting a discussion board during Barbaro’s Kentucky Derby run.
“Facebook was only getting going,” Brown said. “(Horse racing wasn’t) really on Facebook or any of these social platforms. At that time, I set up a discussion board and that discussion board got very, very active – especially during Barbaro’s time at New Bolton Center (recovering from a broken leg suffered in the Preakness). We would get 2,000-3,000 messages a day during some really business periods. I ran a blog and a discussion board, basically.”
That discussion board led Brown to write the authorized story of Barbaro — Greatness and Goodness: The Barbaro Story — released in 2011.
Barbaro’s story also led Brown to become a horse welfare advocate.
“I went through a complete transformation myself,” he said.
“I do think the whole Barbaro effort, which I was a part of, helped shift the needle a little bit in terms of people being more aware and conscious of horse welfare issues as it relates to horse racing… We certainly didn’t resolve any issues, but we got people talking about them more so and more people conscious of needing to retire these horses and what happens to these horses. That’s what I’m most proud of, for sure. That, I feel really good about.”
Missionville is Brown’s first novel. It was released in September and is result of a creative writing course he took at a local college in England. His goal was to write an entertaining book that is a realistic portrayal of horse racing.
“I’m basically trying to use a different medium, fiction, to advocate the same issues that I have been advocating since 2007,” he said.
Brown said the track that is the setting for Missionville, “isn’t how Woodbine works. It’s not how Fort Erie works, either, quite honestly, but it is how a low-level track works in America.”
Though, he admits at least one of the characters was taken directly from Woodbine.
“I had a great time at Woodbine in two seasons. Great people. There is one character, Shawn Kennedy, the chaplain. He’s in Missionville. He’s actually one of two characters that I didn’t even bother changing his name. I just called him Chaplain Shawn.”
The cover of the book is an illustration taken from a win photo of Brown’s favourite horse at Woodbine — Salty Langfuhn.
“He made about $700,000 (at Woodbine),” Brown said. “He rated a 91, 92 Beyer race in and race out. He was so super consistent… I have a win picture of him and the horse on the cover of Missionville is from that win picture.”
Today, Brown works as a consultant for a U.S. company on the topic of MBA admissions and writes when he has time. Though currently recovering from a broken leg suffered from riding, he is still active with horses despite the nearest thoroughbred track being nearly three hours away in Bath.