EBD: You aren’t a stranger to the horse racing world. What is your experience with horse racing?
SH: A roller coaster ride! Nothing compares to the deep valleys and high peaks of owning a race horse. In 1982, I bought a broodmare to keep my riding horse company and establish an agribusiness that would lower our property taxes. The idea was to breed the mare and sell the youngsters. But I’ve always been a speed demon – a fast driver and lover of racing across the fields on horseback. I got bit by the racing bug and kept a foal to race. His sire’s name was “Feel the Power.” His dam was called “Swimming Home.” I named him “Sea Surge.”
The night he was born, I delivered him. Later I broke him and trained him right on the farm. Surge ran fairly well in his first start, but came up lame after the race. He’d sustained a slight crack in his shin bone. I was devastated. The vet said to give the horse several months off. I did and then began riding him on the farm again. When he was almost ready to start serious training, I made the mistake of putting a less experienced rider on him. Surge tossed this rider, took off down the driveway, galloped onto the county road, and hung a left onto Route 301. He ran on the paved shoulder, heading south in the north bound lane for over two miles.
By some miracle, he did not run into an oncoming eighteen wheeler and I got him safely home. I expected him to be dead lame. He wasn’t. He continued training and a few months later came flying down the stretch on the lead at Pimlico racetrack and won both his and my first race. It was one of the best moments of my life. Seeing that colt win was a high that had to be experienced to believed.
EBD: Give us the hook of Racing from Death.
SH: Racing at Virginia’s beautiful Colonial Downs twists into a nightmare for jockey Nikki Latrelle. A sociopath is selling diet cocktails – killing jockeys who struggle to make racing weight. A hidden meth lab, an old family secret, a body buried years ago in the woods, and a friend’s disappearance pull Nicky into a race against death.
EBD: Is weight a big issue for jockeys?
SH: Yes, for many, it is a huge issue. Consider a young apprentice jockey who is allowed/assigned a lower weight. The lighter weight gives his horse an advantage and racehorse trainers a reason to hire the apprentice. If this jockey is not blessed with a tiny frame and a rocket metabolism how does he make weight restrictions as low as 108 pounds?
There are jockeys who sit in sweat boxes, toss up their last meal like a bulimic, or take diet drugs. The idea for Racing from Death came from a news article about the young apprentice jockey, Emanuel Jose Sanchez, who died at Colonial Downs in 2005 because he had a solid build, and abused his body and starved himself to make the weight.
EBD: Are illegal drugs at the track a bigger problem for horses or humans?
SH: Horses, because there are some low life trainers who will administer almost anything to a horse to get the win. Thank God these people are in the minority, and more strict laws are being passed almost every month to put a stop to this nefarious behavior. One of the things I so enjoy about Nikki Latrelle is the horse comes first. Not the money, and those who do wrong suffer the consequences.
SH: Nikki has evolved on her own. I always knew exactly who she was, but learned who she’d become as I wrote the stories. It was clear to me she needed to “woman-up.” The battles she endures give her self confidence, but it doesn’t happen overnight. She really steps up to the plate in the third book in the series.
EBD: Nikki wins races in Racing from Death. (A bit of vicarious fun for the reader too!) Will she become a sought after jockey?
SH: From time to time, yes. But as we writers are only as good as our last book, a jockey is only as good as his/her last win. It’s hard to stay on top, and Nikki is at her best when struggling.
EBD: While Nikki seems unlucky in love, her relationship with her eccentric horse maybe growing. What are relationships like between horses and humans?
SH: They can be absolutely amazing. For me, horses have been far less disappointing than humans. For starters, they don’t lie and if they like and trust you, they will do almost anything for you. But if you do them wrong, they never forget.
EBD: What guides do you use to pace your books?
SH: The races in each story are perfect for pacing. They also provide little story arcs. Nikki either finds a race that fits one of the horses in her care, or is told by the boss or owner a horse is running in a specific race. She has to figure out what the horse needs, and train him for the upcoming race. Is the horse bold, or timid? Is he a plodder or a sprinter? Is it a long race, or a short race? Is it on the turf or the dirt? What other horses will be entered? What are their strengths and weaknesses? But as she does this, the main plot keeps unfolding around her, providing conflict. Events in a race may echo what happens in the plot, and the personalities of the horses often mirror those of the human characters. I like to think the horses and the races bring depth and imagery to the plot.
EBD: Does being nominated for an Agatha Award make a difference in your writing?
SH: Yes. It makes me more competitive with myself. It puts more pressure on me to write something even better than the book that got the nomination.
SH: I am terrible about being disciplined with my writing except for when I am. What I mean is, I will find any excuse not to write, then for no reason I can explain, I’ll write a lot every day, print it out before bedtime, read and edit it over morning coffee, then go back to the computer and keep going. I work very well under deadlines, unfortunately my small press never hands them out. I try to make my own drop dead dates. If there aren’t too many life suspending interruptions, this works pretty well.
EBD: What’s next for Nikki?
SH: Nikki is going to South Florida in the novel, “The Sea Horse Trade.” The manuscript is completed. Here’s the cover copy:
When Nikki works the January meet at Gulfstream Park near Miami, something about new racehorse owner, Currito Maldonista, worries her. Bad enough she’s expected to handle the evil-minded colt that reflects his owner’s personality, but Nikki discovers the Colombian is a drug lord, selling his product to the US. Even worse, she suspects he might be abducting young American girls into a network of overseas slave trade.
Friend Carla Ruben contacts Nikki, desperate to find the teenage daughter she gave up for adoption. The adoptive parents have died unexpectedly, and the exotically beautiful girl was last seen in Miami. Nikki’s ominous association with Maldonista will lead her down a dark road where she must search for Carla’s daughter.