There are a multitude of songs about horses, but only those specifically related to horse racing – or at least making explicit reference to the sport – have been considered suitable for selection here.
It is not enough just to consider any old equine matters, thereby ruling out massive hits like America’s ‘Horse With No Name’, the Osmonds’ ‘Crazy Horses’ or ‘The Horses’ by Daryl Braithwaite (the song now synonymous with Cox Plate day).
The resulting list is very much a personal selection and by no means exhaustive – among those to have missed the cut are Tom Waits’ ‘Jockey Full Of Bourbon’, reggae star Dillinger’s ‘Race Day’, Elbow’s ‘The Fix’ (dodgy dealings at Epsom) and The Band’s ‘Up On Cripple Creek’, in which the narrator backs a 5/1 winner on a day at the track.
Mind you, that wager pales into insignificance compared to the $900 gambled on six-length winner eponymous ‘Chips Ahoy!’ in the second single by U.S. rock band The Hold Steady in 2006 ...
10. James - Sometimes (Lester Piggott)
Demands inclusion merely on the basis of the parenthesis, though admittedly the legendary jockey makes no appearance in the catchy song itself, the second track on the Mancunian popsters’ LP Laid, which made the Top 3 in the UK in 1993. The Long Fellow does, though, make an extended appearance in the closing section of the original version of the band’s biggest hit ‘Sit Down’ as his name is repeated several times in a variety of manic voices; it is said one of the band’s roadies used to repeat it during soundchecks.
9. Dan Fogelberg - Run For The Roses
The hugely successful U.S. singer-songwriter ladles on the schmaltz with a trowel in this one, written from the perspective of a racehorse on the road to Churchill Downs from his earliest days as a foal (“Born in the valley/And raised in the trees/Of Western Kentucky/On wobbly knees”). Included on the album The Innocent Age, the song – originally commissioned to accompany ABC’s Kentucky Derby coverage in 1980 – peaked at 18 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1981. (The title tune of Jerry Garcia’s 1982 LP Run For The Roses is a totally different song.)
8. Carly Simon - You’re So Vain
“Well, I hear you went up to Saratoga/And your horse naturally won.” Okay, so Ms Simon’s celebrated ode to her smugly narcissistic jet-setting inamorato (Warren Beatty? Mick Jagger?) may not have concerned itself with horse racing first and foremost, but this is surely the biggest hit record to mention the sport even tangentially via that famous oft-quoted line. Reached number one in the Billboard Hot 100 after its release in November 1972. (Jagger, incidentally, also recalls “making bets on Kentucky Derby day” in the Rolling Stones’ ‘Dead Flowers’).
7. The Hollies - Stewball
18th Century racehorse Skewball (also known as ‘Stu-Ball’) became the subject of a popular sporting folk ballad passed down the ages. It has been recorded by a multitude of artists, generally under the title ‘Stewball’ (“He never drank water/He always drank wine”) once it crossed the Atlantic and was performed by the likes of Woody Guthrie and Peter, Paul & Mary, who popularised the song with a hit single in 1963. Lonnie Donegan also had a go before British 60s popsters The Hollies included their version on the 1964 LP Would You Believe.
6. Chris de Burgh - The Ballad of Thunder Gulch
Callers on hold to various Coolmore phonelines after Thunder Gulch’s victories in the Kentucky Derby and Belmont Stakes in 1995 were for a short time greeted by this privately released paean to the colt – “Born in the USA/Found by Ireland’s Demi O’Byrne/And trained by D Wayne Lukas and owned by Michael Tabor from Monaco” – who became a champion sire at Ashford Stud. Only 100 copies were pressed, presumably on commission from the colt’s owners, and the song has never been re-released on album.
5. Rancid - GGF
Released as a single in 2000 from the self-titled LP from veteran California pop-punkers Rancid,‘GGF’ is blue-collar Golden Gate Fields, close to the Berkeley-based troupe’s neck of the woods in the San Francisco Bay Area. “This is not Churchill Downs/this is not Hollywood Park/when the field's wide open/I’ll pick the horse who's got the biggest heart,” shouts singer Tim Armstrong recalling days hanging out at the track with old pal ‘Big L’.
4. George Jones - The Race Is On
Best-known version of a country classic in which horse racing provides the metaphor for an up-and-down relationship: “Now the race is on/And here comes pride up the backstretch/Heartache’s going to the inside”. George Jones’ version reached number three on Billboard’s Hot 100 Country chart in 1965, while Jack Jones’ (no relation) easy-listening effort made 15 on the Hot 100. Waylon Jennings and uber-hippies the Grateful Dead also recorded the track; while a rockabilly version by Dave Edmunds and the Stray Cats made the Top 40 in the UK in 1993.
3. The Pogues - Bottle Of Smoke
Be warned: there’s more than the odd expletive in this frantic ditty as gap-toothed frontman Shane MacGowan imagines getting out of trouble by backing a “Twenty f***ing five-to-one” winner named Bottle Of Smoke because it was “the sort of weird impossible name that always wins a race”. The song is the third track on the group’s best-selling album If I Should Fall From Grace With God, released in 1988 in the wake of Christmas smash ‘Fairytale of New York’; the LP also features a medley with the Irish folk standard ‘The Galway Races’.
2. The Pioneers - Long Shot Kick De Bucket
No list of horse racing tunes could ever be complete without reggae classic from Jamaica about the death of a long-lived but unsuccessful racehorse based at Caymanas Park in Kingston. Note the bugled call to the post. A sequel to ‘Long Shot (Buss Me Bet)’ about the same horse, this was a big hit in 1969, while a cover by the Specials was part of their number one live EP in 1980 featuring ‘Too Much Too Young’.
1. Sonic Youth - Bull In The Heather
Released in 1994, this splendidly creepy indie-rock anthem was the only single taken from Experimental Jet Set, Trash And No Star, the eighth studio album by legendary New York arthouse punks Sonic Youth. Featuring vocals by alternative rock queen Kim Gordon, the song reached number 24 in the UK singles chart; as well as a few horsey shots, the video features senior riot grrrl Kathleen Hanna (of Bikini Kill) dancing around like a hyperactive toddler in need of her Ritalin.
The eponymous Bull Inthe (sic) Heather won the Florida Derby in 1993 under Wigberto Ramos; the group said they came up with the line “betting on the bull in the heather” thanks to a bumper sticker given them by Bob Nastanovich of Pavement, who themselves suggested that “Lasix love can’t be traced” on ‘Kentucky Cocktail’, recorded in a 1992 session for the BBC’s John Peel show. (Find it on the ‘Luxe and Reduxe’ version of their debut LP Slanted And Enchanted.)
Iowa-based Nastanovich, the band’s second drummer and chief backing screamer, has worked in a number of roles in racing, among them jockeys’ agent, Equibase chart caller and Daily Racing Form contributor. He is a longtime British racing enthusiast.