Interview with Milt Toby

Hello Readers : )

I come to you today with an interview with author Milt Toby plus a sneak peek from his award winning novel Dancer’s Image.

 

Dancer's Image front cover 3-17-11

 

On May 4, 1968, Dancer’s Image crossed the finish line at Churchill Downs to win the ninety-fourth Kentucky Derby. Yet the jubilation ended three days later for the owner, the jockey and the trainers who propelled the celebrated thoroughbred to victory. Amid a firestorm of controversy, Dancer’s Image was disqualified after blood tests revealed the presence of a widely used anti-inflammatory drug with a dubious legal status. Over forty years later, questions still linger over the origins of the substance and the turmoil it created. Veteran turfwriter and noted equine law expert Milt Toby gives the first in-depth look at the only disqualification in Derby history and how the Run for the Roses was changed forever.

 

Author Milt Toby was kind enough to sit and answer a few questions for me and here’s what he had to say,

1) Would you tell the readers a little bit about yourself?

I’m an author and attorney working out of my home in Georgetown, Kentucky, surrounded by a menagerie of dogs and cats.  I’ve been writing professionally about horses (mainly Thoroughbred racing and equine law) for 40 years, on the editorial staff of The Blood-Horse magazine from 1973-1984 and as a freelancer ever since.  I’m the author of seven books, all non-fiction; I had a weekly equine law blog (Horses and the Law) for three years at www.thehorse.com and contributed an equine law column to The Paint Horse Journal for two years; my freelance magazine credits include The Blood-Horse, The Horse, Equus, Western Horseman, Asiaweek, Insight, Kentucky Monthly, and Soldier of Fortune.  My book Dancer’s Image: The Forgotten Story of the 1968 Kentucky Derby, won the Dr. Tony Ryan Book Award for the best book about Thoroughbred racing published in 2011 and an American Horse Publications Editorial Award as the best equine book of the year. I also speak on copyright and publishing contracts at national and regional writers conferences.

2) Which project are you currently promoting?

Noor: A Champion Thoroughbred’s Unlikely Journey from California to Kentucky.  It was published by The History Press in September 2012.

3) Can you tell us what the book is about?

Noor is the best Thoroughbred no one remembers.  He was owned by Charles S. Howard, who is most famous as Seabiscuit’s owner, but in 1950 Noor was as good as any horse, anywhere.  He defeated Citation four times in California that year, set three world records in the process, and would have been Horse of the Year if the voting had taken place after the Hollywood Gold Cup rather than before the race. Noor died after a mediocre career at stud, and he was buried in an unmarked grave on a Northern California farm.  No one gave the horse another thought until a few years ago, when commercial development threatened the farm.  An avid race fan named Charlotte Farmer wanted Noor’s memory preserved and she spearheaded a campaign to locate the horse’s grave, exhume the remains, and ship them to Kentucky for reburial.  Noor now lies at Old Friends, a Thoroughbred retirement farm a few miles from my house.  The book is Noor’s story, and Charlotte’s.

4) How did you come up with the title for this book?

I didn’t.  My publisher wanted a title that would include the name of the horse plus California and Kentucky to highlight the book’s main marketing focus.  I think the title is a bit cumbersome, but I couldn’t come up anything I liked better.  Also, my contract gave the publisher the final decision about the title.

5) What inspired you to write this book?

Like almost everyone else, I never had heard of Noor.  When I was doing research for my previous book about the disqualification of 1968 Kentucky Derby winner Dancer’s Image, I wanted to write about the horse’s breeding.  Noor was the maternal grandsire of Dancer’s Image and I made a brief mention of the horse in the book.  Noor didn’t come to mind again until the horse’s move to Kentucky got some press.  I met Charlotte Farmer at Old Friends after the reburial ceremony and was fascinated by her energy and dedication to the horse’s memory.  It seemed like a good story that needed to be told.

6) Did you have the main character’s names already picked out before you began to write?

With non-fiction, the characters come pre-packaged for you.

7) What can you tell us about your main characters?

One of the really neat things about non-fiction is that real people sometimes can be as interesting as fictional characters.  Noor was an amazing horse, as were his trainer (Burley Parke) and jockey (legendary John Longden).  And you have to admire Charlotte Farmer’s persistence in the face of one obstacle after another as she fought for Noor’s memory.

8) Did you have to do any research in order to help you with the writing of this book?

My books are driven by the research.  Primary sources (interviews, documents, legal records) are best, but not always available.  Most of the principal people involved with Noor—owner, trainer, jockey—were dead, and there wasn’t a lot of paperwork to track down.  I had to rely on secondary sources such as newspapers, a few radio and newsreel broadcasts that survived over the years, and other books about racing in that era.  The library at Keeneland, a race track in Lexington, Kentucky, is a fantastic repository for just about everything that has to do with Thoroughbred racing, and I spent much of my time there.

9) What made you decide to become a writer?

Working as a journalist was my first job out of college, and writing is the only thing I’ve done consistently ever since.  It’s sort of a habit now.

10) What genre do you generally write?

Primarily non-fiction.

11) Are you interested in writing other genres?

I also have a couple of novels that I’m shopping around, and I write short stories from time to time.  I had my first short story published a few months ago in Hardboiled, a detective/mystery/noir magazine.

12) Do you follow a routine when you begin to write a scene or chapter?

I generally spend quite a bit of time thinking, often on walks with the dogs, before I actually sit down to write.  My preliminary research gives me an idea about how the book is going to flow, and I start with a very rough outline.  The outline leads to more research, often a significant amount of research, which leads to a better idea of what I need to include in each chapter.  When I actually sit down at the computer, most of the heavy lifting has been done, and the writing generally goes quickly—except when it doesn’t.

13) How long does it usually take for you to write a book?

The last two (Dancer’s Image and Noor) took about a year each, from drafting a proposal to my publisher to submitting the final manuscript.

14) Do you have a general idea of what direction you want the plot to take ahead of time or does it come to you once you’ve started writing?

History already has written the conclusion for me.  The hard part is deciding how to get there. Noor actually is two separate stories—Noor as conqueror of Triple Crown winner Citation and, years later, Charlotte Farmer’s efforts to preserve his remains and memory. When I started writing, I still wasn’t sure whether to tell the story chronologically (my eventual choice) or to start with the reburial ceremony and flashback to the races.

15) What character out of your most recent work do you admire the most and why?

I wish I could share the energy and “never say never’ attitude that Charlotte Farmer demonstrated when she was working against long odds to locate Noor’s grave and get the remains moved to a safe location before the developers moved in and paved over the site.

16) Have you ever had second doubts about a story you’ve written? If so, have you wanted to rewrite some parts of it?

I try and set a high standard for my writing, and there always are parts of a book or magazine article that I’d like to rewrite.  For me, the real value of a deadline is that it forces me to stop.  What’s most frustrating, though, are factual errors that manage to creep in no matter how much research and proofreading you put into a project.

17) Are there any authors you admire?

For non-fiction, I like Mark Bowden, David McCollough, Laura Hillenbrand.

For fiction, some of my favorites are Cormac McCarthy, Jeffrey Deaver, Scott Turow, Robert Ludlum, Ken Follett, the early Dick Francis, Ernest Hemingway.

18) What are your favorite titles from this or other authors?

Anything, by any of the above.

19) Have you written any series? If not, are you planning to write any in the future?

Non-fiction books, by their nature, tend to be standalones.

20) What other projects are you currently working on?

I’m always looking for an exciting book topic.

21) When you begin a new MS, does it start with an idea, concept, or both?

It’s a combination of the two.  An idea is the genesis, but if I can’t come up with a way to expand the idea into a more complete concept it goes on the shelf for a while.  Sometimes, an idea works better as a magazine article than as a book, sometimes the other way around.

22) Once you begin to work on a new MS, do you have the ending already mapped out or do you envision it as the story progresses?

With non-fiction, you already know how things are going to turn out.  The challenge with the books I write is making a string of facts that you can’t change interesting for a reader.  I try to construct a non-fiction book with the same sort of story arc that you’d find in a novel.

23) Are there any writing styles you prefer?

I think of myself as writing creative non-fiction, using techniques from fiction to mold a set of facts into an interesting story.

24) Did you self-publish? If not, is that something you will be willing to consider in the future?

I’ve always worked with traditional publishers, and I may be too set in my ways to take on self-publishing.  That said, I know quite a few people who self-publish and are very pleased with the results.

25) What is your least favorite part about getting published?

Convincing an agent or publisher that an idea I think is exciting really is a good one.

26) Was the road to publication a long one for you?

“Long” is a relative term.  I’ve been writing and getting paid for it since 1972, and I still agonize over coming up with ideas, doing the research, and crafting a book or article that satisfies me.  I’ve never been completely successful with the last part!

27) Do you use a pen name? If so, why?

No.  I want credit for what I write, and I’m willing to accept the responsibility when things don’t work out.

28) Where do you see yourself in five years?

Still writing.

29) What is the best advice you can give to a new author?

Learn the basic rules of grammar, punctuation, and sentence structure, then break them only for a good reason, not just because you can.  Read good writing so you can recognize it in your own work. Keep writing, and writing, and writing.  Persistence may be more important than talent.

30) Where can the readers find more information about you?

My website is www.miltonctoby.com.

 

About the author:

Milton C. Toby

 

Milt Toby is an author and attorney who has been writing about Thoroughbred racing and equine law for almost four decades. The 1968 Kentucky Derby was the first of many visits he has made to Churchill Downs as a writer, photographer, and fan. The supposed “drugging” of Dancer’s Image was a puzzle when it was announced and the years of subsequent litigation have held his interest ever since. Milt has been to the races on six continents and has a foggy memory of actually cashing a winning ticket or two. He is Chair of the Kentucky Bar Association’s Equine Law Section.

 

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