Seabiscuit was the biggest newsmaker in the world in 1938, getting more coverage than FDR, Hitler, or Mussolini. But no one would have been able to predict it. He had short, crooked legs, a “sad tail,” and a pedigree that predicted he’d be completely ungovernable. His trainer, Tom Smith, was a taciturn unknown from Colorado who had never had any significant successes. His jockey, Red Pollard, was blind in one eye, half-crippled from falls, and a heavy drinker. With this unlikely trio — and a history of injury, conspiracy, and bad luck along the way — some of the most scorching, thrilling, unbeatable races of the twentieth century played to tens of thousands of race fans cheering Seabiscuit home.
His owner, Charles Howard, had started off in the brand-new automobile business, and bought Seabiscuit for a bargain-basement price because no one could get the bone-lazy horse to run. All Seabiscuit wanted to do was sleep and eat his head off. It took all Tom Smith’s tricks to get him interested in the race, give him a heart for winning, and turn him into the athlete he had the potential to become. Once that happened, however, Seabiscuit ate up the track in times no one had ever seen bested. Smith kept Seabiscuit’s workouts hidden from the press in a hopeless effort to keep his impost weights down, but the stewards consistently made the horse carry 130 pounds or more. It didn’t matter. He beat one horse after another that had been considered unbeatable. After a long rivalry with Triple Crown winner War Admiral, he finally beat him in a match race that is still widely regarded as the greatest horse race ever run.
This story has so much to love about it. As Laura Hillenbrand puts it in her prologue,
For the Seabiscuit crew and for America, it was the beginning of five uproarious years of anguish and exultation…. Graced with blistering speed, tactical versatility, and indomitable will, he shipped more than fifty thousand exhausting railroad miles, carried staggering weight to victory against the best horses in the country, and shattered more than a dozen track records….Along the way, the little horse and the men who rehabilitated him captured the American imagination. It wasn’t just greatness that drew the people to them. It was their story.
Hillenbrand gives the background and the personality of each of the figures in the story, from the wealthy and optimistic Howard to the mysterious, nearly-wordless Smith (a horse whisperer if I’ve ever read about one) to the mischievous Pollard. The historical context is equally important — the danger to the jockeys, the entertainment for fans during the Great Depression — and Hillenbrand is good at making it vivid.
Still, this book wasn’t as gripping as I’d hoped it would be. I was talking to Teresa the other night, and she said that it was interesting information, presented in an orderly way, and that’s about what I thought of it, too. (Bless Teresa, she has a marvelous way of talking about books.) The prose is workmanlike, as you can see above. A lot of the book is one workout after another — testing the track to see if it’s too muddy to use (Seabiscuit didn’t work well in mud), or making sure the horse is healthy enough to race. I am absolutely certain that this represents real racing life, but I did find myself wishing on guilty occasion that I was reading a Dick Francis mystery instead.
I would recommend this book if you have any interest at all in the subject. It might not have swept me away, but it was certainly interesting, and it’s a quirky piece of American history within living memory: passion and money and desire, all in a little crooked horse.