UPDATE: Local writer, teacher, and jockey Patrick Smithwick won last week the Tony Ryan Book Award for his memoir, Flying Change: A Year of Racing, Family and Steeplechasing. The $10,000 prize and a custom-designed Irish crystal trophy were presented to Smithwick on April 10 during an evening reception at Castleton Lyons farm in Lexington, Kentucky.
See our interview about the book and racing with Smithwick below. Congratulations Patrick!
Originally published on April 5, 2013 – Local writer Patrick Smithwick’s book, Flying Change: A Year of Racing, Family and Steeplechasing has been named a finalist for the seventh annual Dr. Tony Ryan Book Award, a prize for the best of racing literature. Flying Change, about Smithwick’s decision — and the impact on his family — to get ready in just nine months to ride in the Maryland Hunt Cup, followed Racing with My Father, which was also a finalist for the Tony Ryan Book Award, about growing up with his father Paddy Smithwick, a famous steeplechase jockey.
The $10,000 first-prize winner will be announced on April 10 at Castleton Lyons, a Thoroughbred facility near Lexington, Kentucky.
With My Lady’s Manor, the Grand National and The Hunt Cup a few weeks away, we thought we’d catch up with Smithwick, who heads the English department at Harford Day School in Bel Air, to learn more about the acclaimed book.
What compelled you to set the nine-month goal for yourself?
The book is structured around a nine-month period, from the conception of the idea while riding races in August at Saratoga, to riding in the Hunt Cup in April. That’s nine months. As a writer I decided to focus on those nine months of conception, “bearing” the child/idea, and then finally giving birth to it. That’s part of the structure of the book.
I had to find a place to begin and to end the memoir – to make it as much of an artistic whole as I could. (In actuality, two years after the ending in the book, I came back and rode Welterweight, winning the Grand National, and also rode in the Hunt Cup. Then, I got some horses of my own and rode them in races for another six years.)
I combined the nine-month idea with another to come up with the form of the book. Flying Change consists of mainly 22 chapters, plus a couple of extra. Each chapter begins with a tightly written paragraph or two in italics that describes walking the Hunt Cup course with my Uncle Mikey, who won the Hunt Cup six times. Each chapter number corresponds to the number of the fence Mikey is showing me. That’s how I came up with 22 chapters – and most readers really enjoy the sections. They learn about the race and about my very interesting Uncle Mikey.
In the context of the memoir – you remember, it was when I had passed the age of 46 and a half, the year of my father’s death, that I decided to go ahead, say to hell with any restraint, take a chance, and get a ride in the Hunt Cup.
What was the toughest part about training for the Hunt Cup during those nine months?
The toughest part was not the actual training – the riding and schooling horses, the running, the bicycling, the getting up at 5:00 to be at the barn to ride at 6:00 before rushing to get to the office at 8:30. The toughest part was keeping all the other parts of my life going in the right direction! My relationship with my children – I needed time to spend with them. My relationship with my wife – I sacrificed so much time that I would normally have spent with her. My job – at the time, was at a school undergoing some very tense times. As Director of Publications and Public Relations, I was in charge of attempting to handle how the school was portrayed in the press. In short, almost every single day I did not have enough time to do all that my job, family, and friends expected of me. Also, I needed to write! I like to write every day. So, what did I do? I got up an hour earlier than usual. Sometimes I wrote at 4:30 a.m. before going to gallop horses at 6:00. I wrote whenever I could. Sometimes, I wrote while eating lunch, eating breakfast.
What do you think readers find most interesting about the book?
What I like most about the book is that different types of readers like different aspects of Flying Change. One group definitely likes the portrayal of family relations – and the love I show for my family. Others tell me they like the way I put the reader on the horse, in the foxhunt, at the barn. They can smell the sweat. A third really likes the writing style and how it suits the subject matter. A fourth likes the way I show the tension, all the competing interests, the conflict in the central character.
Wow. So there’s something for everyone. The book is also about your father, Paddy Smithwick. What was your relationship with him like?
I had a wonderful relationship with my father. Flying Change is a sequel to the memoir, Racing My Father – which was much about my growing up alongside my father and my love and respect for him, and about all I learned about life from him. Flying Change dips into these themes again.
In fact, if Racing My Father is book about a boy’s love and admiration for his father and a way of life, then Flying Change is a book about a father’s love and admiration for his children. Flying Change is Racing My Father flipped over – Flying Change is very much about fatherhood. There are few if any books out that depict fatherhood in a positive manner. Most are about “Oh, poor me, my father never paid any attention to me, etc.” I very much wanted Flying Change to be a book that questions what fatherhood in America is about, and gives a positive answer. As you can tell, being a good father is one of the most important, if not the most important, theme in my life.
You’ve written two books about steeplechase racing. Do you have another book about the racing life in you?
I’m working on two or three writing projects right now – when I have time! – and I’ll have to see where they take me.
How do you think steeplechasing has changed since your father’s heyday?
Steeplechasing has changed a great deal since Pop was riding. This change is a theme that comes up in both books. It seeps in. It’s difficult to summarize and I don’t even like to attempt to do so.
Do you think the amateur steeplechase racing is dying? How do you think the sport can attract more young people?
Amateur steeplechase racing is doing very well in Maryland. Outside the state, many point-to-points and hunt meets that used to be either for amateur riders, or used to host several amateur-only races, do not do so any more. So, the professionals are doing most of the riding. And, the fact is many of these professionals are from outside the United States – especially Ireland. They are very good riders. But what is lost is the camaraderie of my father’s day – when the riders knew each other well, knew the trainers, when many of them had grown up together, gone fox hunting together, competed against one another in shows. They helped one another out. It was a very special world.
To attract young people: Get those young boys and girls out fox hunting – that will make them think of riding steeplechase races. Get some more males back riding in the show ring. This is hard to do. The National Steeplechase Association could set up programs that help young riders, boys and girls, find work galloping and schooling horses for established trainers.
Who do you identify with the most: Patrick Smithwick, the teacher; Patrick Smithwick, the writer; or Patrick Smithwick the steeplechase jockey?
Patrick Smithwick the writer! That is who I am. I am Patrick Smithwick the writer, the father, and the husband.