Wild Ride

The Book of the Week is “Wild Ride” by Ann Hagedorn Auerbach, published in 1994. This is a long story largely similar to many others in which one person acquires and abuses too much power in an organization that eventually comes to a bad end.

The horse racing industry is largely a playground for the wealthy, as it costs big bucks to purchase, stable and train horses for racing. There is only a tiny probability of profiting, considering all the different risks, and the factors required to produce a winning horse.

Major racing sites are located in Louisville and Lexington, Kentucky; New York City, Saratoga Springs in New York State, and Hialeah in Florida.

Calumet Farm was the site of the training and spawning of racehorses. It was owned by the Wright family, whose patriarch’s goal in the 1980’s was to turn it “… into a bustling assembly-line style breeding operation, hellbent on producing winner after winner.”

In the early 1980’s, J.T. Lundy wed a Calumet heiress with the aim of inheriting the large horse farm. He inherited it at 41 years old.  He  immediately engaged in excessive spending on farm renovations, the purchase of a corporate jet and additional horses, and paying more workers. In the industry in general, new systems were created by financiers to cash in on the horse-racing boom.

Lundy spent other people’s money (namely the Wright family’s) to fund his wheeling and dealing, while also commingling personal and business funds. The family (who knew nothing about horse racing) trusted him and his colleagues (who had numerous conflicts) to run the business and do what was in the family’s best interest.

The chief financial officer of Calumet attempted to duly inform Lundy of the farm’s mounting debt service, the unpaid insurance premiums and dwindling resources, etc. at the end of the 1980’s.

By November 1990, Calumet had approximately two hundred thoroughbreds and one hundred employees. Its fifteen-year-old stud Alydar, accounted for a large part of its revenue.

Sadly, the industry would reach its saturation point within a decade of Calumet’s soaring reputation as the premier place to breed winning horses. Read the book to learn the details of how the farm had gone from owing not a cent with the death of an heir prior to Lundy’s takeover, to the largest instance of debt explosion in the history of bluegrass.

Koop

The Book of the Week is “Koop, The Memoirs of America’s Family Doctor” by C. Everett Koop, M.D., published in 1991.

Koop grew up in Brooklyn, New York. In the late 1920’s, when he was in his teens, the operating rooms at Columbia Presbyterian Hospital had no security, so he pretended to be a medical student in order to watch surgeries. He snuck in, thanks to his next door neighbor, who worked there. In the late 1930’s, he began to realize that he was attending the medical school that had the right environment for him– the friendly and cooperative Cornell, rather than the arrogant and competitive Columbia.

Koop’s medical training was abbreviated due to a shortage of personnel during WWII, so that he was performing advanced procedures before he was truly ready to do so. Nevertheless, he had a tough, take-charge personality which stood him in good stead in the face of medical generalists who resented being crowded out when medicine underwent more and more specialization.

For decades, Koop was a pediatric surgeon at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. In 1980, newly-elected President Reagan tapped him to be Surgeon General of the United States. The nomination and confirmation processes were rigorous, as Koop’s personal life-and-death beliefs were clearly favored by conservative Republicans but opposed by liberal Democrats.

Nevertheless, Koop became famous for his anti-smoking crusade. As might be recalled, he educated the American public on the dangers of, and influenced legislation on, smoking. He explicitly wrote: “Smoking is not only dangerous for the smoker, but also dangerous for the nonsmoker who inhales environmental tobacco smoke… [Such] passive smoking causes many diseases, including cancer.” He reported that more than 50% of adults in the United States smoked in 1964; in 1981, 33%. When he resigned as Surgeon General in 1989, that figure was just over 26%.

Read the book to learn of Koop’s adventures in college, in medicine, and as a political appointee.

Havel, A Life

The  Book of the Week is “Havel, A Life” by Michael Zantovsky, published in 2014. This is a biographical tome of the late president of the Czech Republic, Vaclav Havel.

Born in 1936, Havel’s family was wealthy prior to the Soviet Communist takeover of 1948. Fortunately, Havel parlayed his talent for writing plays, essays and articles into a lucrative career. His literary works were performed and read internationally, affording him compensation in stable, valuable foreign currencies.

The Soviets could not summarily execute him for his seditious activities, fearing an angry outcry from the international community. So instead, they arrested and jailed him a few times, and had the secret service on his tail, 24/7.

In the early 1970’s, Havel wrote a play in which he commented on the unsurprising but inevitable result of “Prague Spring” of 1968; the Soviets weren’t ready to concede their power to the Czechoslovakians, “In the finale, all the conspirators, after crossing and double-crossing each other, execute the piece de resistance, bringing in the only person who can effectively suppress all the threats, prevent chaos and restore stability: the dictator himself.”

In 1977, Havel and his fellow activists wrote a Charter detailing a democratic system they hoped would be implemented in the future. However, the then-government crushed the opposition with “…harassment, bullying, beatings, blackmail intended to make them leave the country, kidnappings, illegal house raids and searches along with other forms of abuse.”

In 1989, dissatisfaction with Soviet Communist oppression was reaching critical mass. The methods by which thousands of street demonstrators were quelled, was through head-bashing and water cannons. Havel was pushed into becoming a leader for the dissidents because he was one himself and was a talented peacemaker who could bridge the gap between his own artistic crowd and other persecuted citizens of his homeland.

For four decades, Czechoslovakians forced to live under Communism had been told everything was great. In January 1990, Havel truthfully told his countrymen that the nation was in an economically, infrastructurally, environmentally and ethically horrible state. The younger generation who had been born into the Soviet mentality– unless they were dissidents– were obedient robots. So converting people to a capitalist, liberated, honest way of thinking was very difficult.

Sidenote: The author spent an entire chapter on the newly elected Czech president Havel’s visit to the United States (via invitation by President George H.W. Bush) but failed to specify even once, the year in which that occurred, and described events and incidents topically rather than chronologically, making the storyline difficult to follow.

Numerous political parties jockeying for power during Havel’s reelection campaign in 1991(?) included:  the Civic Democratic Alliance, People’s Party, Christian Democratic Party, Social Democrats, and Liberal Democrats.

It took approximately six years to build, from the ground up– a legal system, economy and “…countless institutions that make a free society work and flourish”– the new (democratic) nation of Czech Republic (after its split from Slovakia).

Read the book to learn more about the hardships suffered by the Czechoslovakians including Havel, his and his wife’s marital infidelities, and how he was instrumental in helping build a new nation.