seabiscuitSeabiscuit 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.

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19 Responses to Seabiscuit

  1. Leah says:

    I haven’t read this book in about a decade, but I remember loving how it was about so much more than horse racing; it paints such a vivid picture of an entire world.

    • Jenny says:

      I certainly would agree that it expands horse racing to be an entire world — entertainment, athletism, passion, travel, finances, media, and so forth.

  2. Sly Wit says:

    I remember wanting a bit more background for certain topics, but I listened to it as an audiobook, which really made the story come alive, especially during the races.

  3. litlove says:

    I have often wondered what this book was like so am delighted to read your insightful and detailed review. Laura Hillenbrand is inevitably one of my heroines, given she writes despite CFS, but I’m glad to know it’s not perfect. Somehow, that would be too much! :)

    • Jenny says:

      I don’t want to leave the impression that it was bad! It was fine! And many people seem to adore it. I agree that Hillenbrand’s impressive bestseller status makes me a bit jealous, considering that I do not have CFS and have yet to write a bestseller.

  4. Alex says:

    I haven’t read the book, but I loved the film. My father was a great horse racing fan and it brought back so many memories of afternoons shared with him. In the UK we have our own equivalent in the film ‘Champions’ about a horse and jockey who both literally came back almost from the dead to win the Grand National. I choke up just thinking about it.

    • Jenny says:

      Oh gracious yes. Everyone loves a story like that. Are there cultures where the underdog is despised and everyone loves only the winner?

  5. Ed says:

    I have to admit I really liked this book, but then I also like horse racing. I am not a fanatical follower, but my father was, and some of my friends are. As Leah mentions like all great sporting stories such as the movie Chariots of Fire it is about more than the sport.

    • Jenny says:

      It certainly is, and the surrounding story was very vivid and enjoyable. Have you read any of the Dick Francis mysteries? I’ve loved those for many years, and they all have to do with horse racing in Britain.

  6. mumble says:

    Yes, you nailed it.

    Hillenbrand was led to her 2010 book, “Unbroken” (Angelina Jolie directed the movie last year), because, when she was researching “Seabiscuit”, she kept coming across references to Louis Zamperini in the sporting press.

    The long gap between the two books is because she has Chronic Fatigue Syndrome.

    • Jenny says:

      I would never have made the connection — thanks for this. I find I’m not very interested in reading Unbroken. Should I be?

      • mumble says:

        I’m not that interested in reading Unbroken either, and, no, I wouldn’t imagine it’s particularly your thing.

        As you pointed out about Seabiscuit, and I guess it’d be the same for, say, the also-bestselling The Boys in the Boat, about the 1936 U.S. Olympic rowing team (and, in my case, Chariots of Fire), one has to be interested in the sport to love-love-love the books.

        The books are all fine; it’s just that, with so much good reading about, other things are a better match for one’s TBR,

      • Jenny says:

        I’ve had The Boys in the Boat recommended to me by several different people now. Given my cousin’s involvement in Olympic rowing, I might tip over into the interested-enough category. Though I don’t have to love-love a book in order to read it. I liked Seabiscuit fine and wasn’t at all sorry I’d read it.

  7. Laura J. Bloxham says:

    I don’t care one bit about horse racing, but I loved this book and Unbroken as well. It’s the writing, the storytelling and the finesse with language, that fills me to bursting. The author of Boys in the Boat says he learned to write narrative fiction by studying Seabiscuit. These are three of my favorite books.

    • Jenny says:

      The storytelling was good, I agree, but I don’t see the finesse with language that you do, Laura. I did enjoy the book, but I didn’t think the prose was much above middling. There were some thrilling descriptions of races, though, and some very funny anecdotes!

  8. Christy says:

    I read this when I was a college student and still exploring narrative non-fiction. I remember loving this book and marveling at how she managed to make the race scenes so gripping on the page. I haven’t re-read it again but I wonder what I would make of it now. I have a copy of Unbroken that I plan to read this year sometimes – it’s been highly recommended to me by a number of people.

    • Jenny says:

      Yes, I’ve got a lot of students who’ve been reading it as well, probably because the movie came out. I’ll look forward to seeing what you think of it!

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