We read Mildred Mastin Pace’s Old Bones the Wonder Horse as a read-aloud. I remember my mother reading it to me many years ago. It’s the true story of Exterminator, a racehorse dubbed Old Bones because of his ungainly appearance. Bought as a “work horse” to challenge Sun Briar, a more favored thoroughbred in training, Exterminator instead begins a long and illustrious racing career of his own when Sun Briar is unable to run the Kentucky Derby. Exterminator races in his place and wins.

This book follows his racing career until he retires at the age of 9; his adjustment to retirement and attachments to Peanuts and Peanuts II, two ponies bought as companions for him; and his lifelong friendships with Henry McDaniel (his trainer), Mike Terry (his groom, who meets him at his first Derby and never leaves him), and others. The book does justice to this remarkable animal, developing his intelligence, his steady personality so unusual in a thoroughbred, and his sociability. My 7-year-old (and I) laughed aloud at times over the characterization of this distinctive horse who embodies a combination of wisdom. playfulness, determination and physical giftedness. There’s more information about Exterminator here, here, and here.

My daughter has been listening to Black Beauty on cd alongside our reading of this book, and there’s a marked contrast between the two stories. Black Beauty is a tale I’d never survive as a read-aloud because it’s so desperately sad. Its arguments against vice and cruelty gain their momentum from the tremendous hardship Black Beauty and his fellow horses have to endure at the hands of their human handlers. But this story is poignant without being heart-breaking. Its reading level is 3rd-6th grade, but as an adult I enjoyed it every bit as much as my daughter did.

Interestingly enough, in reading about Exterminator I’ve discovered two interesting facts about him: first, that he was born on Almahurst Farm near Lexington, a few miles from my alma mater in the heart of bluegrass country; and second, that my daughters were born in a hospital located on property that was once part of the Kilmer farm at which he lived out his last years. He’s buried at a pet cemetery close by. When I talked this over with the librarian, he told me he visits the gravesite every year, because Exterminator was “one of the greats.” This book makes a convincing argument that he’s right.