Hobby Horse

A perennial loser becomes one of horse racing’s biggest legends.

Award-winning humourist William Thomas has written ten books featuring his dogs, his mother, his brother-in-law and/or his cats. The Legend of Zippy Chippy: Life Lessons from the World’s Most Lovable Loser is his first book about horses, but as the subtitle suggests, it is not so much a horse story as a philosophy of life wound around a tale of two characters. One is a man, trainer Felix Monserrate. The other character happens to be a horse.

The horse in question is a thoroughbred racehorse named Zippy Chippy, who began his career at prestigious Belmont Park but was raced mostly at the Finger Lakes Racetrack in upstate New York. He was a cantankerous troublemaker who was expected to live up to his stellar lineage—Northern Dancer, Buckpasser, Nearctic, Native Dancer, Nearco, Man O’War, War Admiral—and leave his competition in the dust. Instead, as losses piled up with head-shaking regularity, he became the holder of the world record for losing races.

In this sweet, meandering story, Thomas creates an old-fashioned, comfortable world of homey wisdom and praiseworthy parables. This is a sitting-back-relaxing look at life at the track and its denizens, with the story of Zippy Chippy tucked between nonchalant observations about the meaning of life and random sports analogies.

Thomas writes with sympathy and admiration about the relationship between this unproductive horse and his eccentric trainer, who came from Puerto Rico at the age of 20 to become an exercise rider. By the time he was 52, his stable had accumulated five working thoroughbred racehorses.

Enter Zippy Chippy. The horse had already lost his 20th race and had gone through three owners and several trainers. When his latest owner finally gave up on him and planned to send the horse to the glue factory, Felix intervened. He had become attached to Zippy because of their shared fondness for hanging out with a beer, so he traded his beat-up 1988 Ford van for him. Zippy was saved. He showed his gratitude by biting Felix in the back, leaving permanent scars.

In spite of Zippy’s bad temper and lack of speed, Felix never lost hope that one day his horse would win a race. He defends Zippy with passion and doggedness, like a parent. “Say you have three children. One is a lawyer, doing well. The other a doctor, very, very successful. But the third one is not so smart, so he’s working at McDonald’s. What do you do? Ignore him? … That’s the one you gotta help the most! That’s Zippy Chippy.”

His wife and partner, Emily Schoeneman, did not share his optimism and saw no point in continuing to race him, but Felix maintained that he could turn Zippy Chippy into a star. One day, he would break his maiden and turn his losing streak upside down.

Zippy Chippy never lost faith in himself, either.

This horse held people prisoner in his stall and bit them for fun. He struck fear into seasoned horsemen with his unpredictable antics, like picking them up by their collars and not letting them down. Conversely, he played hide-and-seek with Felix’s eight-year-old daughter Melissa, and loved to eat doughnuts, Doritos and pizza with his beer.

Zippy thought he was a tough guy, but really he was the Charlie Chaplin of the track. He puffed himself up before each race, strutting his stuff for all to see like a champion. He would get into the starting gate with much fanfare, but then decide to wait a bit, “to see how the horses were running,” according to Felix. Or he would fight his jockey and take the long way around the track. One way or another he would lose the race, time after time after time.

After each loss, he left the track as if he had won the Triple Crown, head high and snorting. One hundred races, one hundred losses. And with each loss, Felix believed that next time would be the big pay-off.

Felix’s devotion was validated in a surprising way, but not in the way he had imagined. By the end of the book Zippy has become a folk legend, drawing thousands of visitors and filling the coffers of Old Friends farm for retired thoroughbreds with sales of Zippy Chippy memorabilia, including hats and belts and t-shirts, and a coffee mug captioned with “Winners Don’t Always Finish First.” Zippy Chippy was a star.

Thomas understands the horse-human dynamic very well and writes about horses in a most enjoyable way. I confess that, as a horse lover and author of horse books, I found myself searching for more about the story of Zippy and less about the meaning of life illustrated by assorted sports stories.

This author certainly knows his trivia. He peppers the book with unusual facts about golf and baseball and flying lawn chairs. He writes about fun-loving catcher Dave Bresnahan, who threw a potato to third while touching home base with the ball. And how Sammy Snead faked out an impressionable rookie by boasting that he placed a ball over the trees when he was his age, not mentioning that those trees had been growing for 30 years. Not to forget Eddie the Eagle, who became an Olympic hero because of his shocking incompetence and stubborn persistence.

Different people find different things funny, which makes humour the most difficult art form of all. Hats off to William Thomas for taking up the challenge. He does not shrink from puns and groaners (e.g., Zippy Chippy, the poet in motion. Okay, then: slow motion), and shows no fear of overused punch lines (e.g., Seriously? and One of these days, Alice). He repeats himself until he thinks he must finally have gotten through to his readers, then tries one more time.

As heavily underlined in the final chapters, the story of Zippy Chippy is a philosophical treatise. It is the journey, not the destination. Winning is not important; it is how you enjoy the game. Fame comes from unexpected places. In the end, if you lose well enough, you are a winner.

Not a bad way to live your life.

Zippy Chippy, the horse who lost one hundred races, is the archetype for smelling the roses along the way. He loved his job so much that he did not want the finish line to come too soon.

In the writing of The Legend of Zippy Chippy, William Thomas shares this ideology with the horse. He loved writing this book so much he did not want it to end.