My Racing Heart: The Passionate World of Thoroughbreds and the Track by Nan Mooney ‘92

Nan Mooney’s grandmother, May-May, sat her in front of a TV at the age of seven to watch the running of the Kentucky Derby. It was love at first sight.

Now, years later, Mooney has written My Racing Heart, a beautifully researched and written non-fiction account of her life-long passion with thoroughbred horse racing, instilled and nurtured by May-May, a woman who joyously flouted feminine traditions in her various occupations—from fur trapper in Alaska to horse breeder in Seattle.

While filled with fascinating detail about the world of high-stakes horse racing, Mooney’s book is as much about her relationship with her role-model grandmother as it is with the action at the track. As such, it was a risk for Mooney: would she be taken seriously as a sportswriter if she brought in the emotional ties that made her relationship to racing unique? No surprise, given her upbringing (and a Scripps education), she went forward with her own story and voice.

It was the right decision. My Racing Heart has received good reviews in publications as widespread as The New York Times, O, and Sports Illustrated. Readers of Elle rated My Racing Heart their second-favorite nonfiction book of the month, giving it high marks for spirit and style (a harrowing tale about Alzheimer’s beat out Mooney’s book by a nose). The Times reviewer noted: “Her book serves as an excellent reminder that the track is only slightly less patriarchal and hard on a woman than it was in May-May’s day.”

In the midst of a whirlwind seven-city nationwide book tour this spring, Mooney dropped by Scripps for a booksigning session with students in Seal Court during afternoon tea. Flush with the success of her literary achievement and positive media attention, she shared her career path and passions and the challenges of being a woman writing about a male-dominated sport.

Raised in the Pacific Northwest and an avid rider, Mooney had hoped to be a jockey-until she grew too tall. She studied theater at Scripps and dreamed of being a movie star. “At Scripps, I learned to think,” she said. “All this comes into play with what I eventually did.” After working in the script department of a small film company, she moved to New York where she leaped into literary sports writing.

“In the still mostly male bastion of the racetrack, I was embraced, ignored, praised, and propositioned,” she alluded to in conversations at Scripps and wrote in a recent essay. “I wound up drawing on parts of myself I’d never expected, swinging from a patient confidant to investigative reporter to passionate ten-year- old child. I took a few stands, made a few compromises, and ruined a closet full of shoes wading through the mud on the backstretch. In the end, the most important thing I got was my story, a story whose shape and significance deepened along the way. I realized how much this sport I love has shaped the woman I’ve become.”

When one talks to Mooney, it is obvious that the woman she’s become is one of intelligence and passion. Strongly influenced by writers such as Susan Orleans, whose in depth reporting produced last year’s best-selling tome, The Orchid Thief, Mooney plans to continue creating fascinating worlds for her readers. Her next book won’t be about horse racing, however. “I feel like I have said all I need to say about horses—at least for now,” she emphasized. “I want to be considered a writer, not a horse-racing writer.”

She also clearly wants to be recognized for her integrity and authenticity—in her writing and all aspects of her life. “Being a woman with integrity is at the core of who I am. I got that from Scripps. I carry that with me all the time,” she said.

“For me,” Mooney writes, “…being female is an intrinsic part of the athletic connection. It’s an explosive age for women and sports. There’s a new sort of voice emerging. We women are ready to go public with our risk-craving, rule-breaking, blood-lusting selves. We’re speaking out, upending the old order, and ushering in a fresh point of view. Listen closely. That’s the sound of walls coming down.”