By Cynthia Grisolia
Updated April 23, 2004 at 04:00 AM EDT

Ever since Laura Hillenbrand’s Seabiscuit galloped onto the best-seller list, publishers have shown a newfound interest in racehorses. In Blood Horses, Sullivan creates a new crossbreed: a father-son-horse story. Dad was a sportswriter whose most memorable moment was ”Secretariat’s Derby in ’73. That was…just beauty, you know?” Indeed, Secretariat’s Triple Crown provides the DNA for the book. But Sullivan loses his stride with torpid meditations on equine imagery and symbolism in everything from cave paintings to Mein Kampf. While Sullivan’s prose can be effortless — as when he recounts a gonzo trip to the 2002 Kentucky Derby — he’s most successful when he poignantly reminisces about his father.

A breeder of thoroughbreds herself, novelist Smiley (Horse Heaven) imparts a different kind of horse sense as she follows a year in the life of her promising colt Hornblower and filly Waterwheel. As she proclaims, ”horses are more like people than they are like machines.” And so her animals are less creatures of mystery and majesty than individuals with compelling and sometimes goofy personalities (like neurotic filly Persey and blind-in-one-eye jumper Cheerful). Like a backstretch Freud, Smiley shares her deeper insights about the way horses learn, love, and communicate.