Seabiscuit: An American Legend by Laura Hillenbrand

  Charles Howard, Red Pollard, and Tom Smith


  For Borden



  Title Page





  1. The Day of the Horse Is Past

  2. The Lone Plainsman

  3. Mean, Restive, and Ragged

  4. The Cougar and the Iceman

  5. A Boot on One Foot, a Toe Tag on the Other

  6. Light and Shadow


  7. Learn Your Horse

  8. Fifteen Strides

  9. Gravity

  10. War Admiral

  11. No Pollard, No Seabiscuit

  12. All I Need Is Luck

  13. Hardball

  14. The Wise We Boys

  15. Fortune’s Fool

  16. I Know My Horse

  17. The Dingbustingest Contest You Ever Clapped an Eye On

  18. Deal

  19. The Second Civil War


  20. “All Four of His Legs Are Broken”

  21. A Long, Hard Pull

  22. Four Good Legs Between Us

  23. One Hundred Grand




  A Reader’s Guide

  About the Author

  Excerpt from Unbroken


  “Nobody ever lives their life all the way up except bullfighters.”



  In 1938, near the end of a decade of monumental turmoil, the year’s number-one newsmaker1 was not Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Hitler, or Mussolini. It wasn’t Pope Pius XI, nor was it Lou Gehrig, Howard Hughes, or Clark Gable. The subject of the most newspaper column inches in 1938 wasn’t even a person. It was an undersized, crooked-legged racehorse named Seabiscuit.

  In the latter half of the Depression, Seabiscuit was nothing short of a cultural icon in America, enjoying adulation so intense and broad-based that it transcended sport. When he raced, his fans choked local roads, poured out of special cross-country “Seabiscuit Limited” trains, packed the hotels, and cleaned out the restaurants. They tucked their Roosevelt dollars into Seabiscuit wallets, bought Seabiscuit hats on Fifth Avenue, played at least nine parlor games bearing his image. Tuning in to radio broadcasts of his races was a weekend ritual across the country, drawing as many as forty million listeners.2 His appearances smashed attendance records at nearly every major track and drew two of the three largest throngs ever to see a horse race in the United States. In an era when the United States’ population was less than half its current size,4 seventy-eight thousand people witnessed his last race,3 a crowd comparable to those at today’s Super Bowls.5 As many as forty thousand fans6 mobbed tracks just to watch his workouts, while thousands of others braved ice storms and murderous heat to catch a glimpse of his private eighty-foot Pullman railcar. He galloped over Manhattan on massive billboards and was featured week after week, year after year, in Time, Life, Newsweek, Look, Pic, and The New Yorker. His trainer, jockey, and owner became heroes in their own right. Their every move was painted by the glare of the flashbulb.

  They had come from nowhere. The horse, a smallish, mud-colored animal with forelegs that didn’t straighten all the way, spent nearly two seasons floundering in the lowest ranks of racing, misunderstood and mishandled. His jockey, Red Pollard, was a tragic-faced young man who had been abandoned as a boy at a makeshift racetrack cut through a Montana hay field. He came to his partnership with Seabiscuit after years as a part-time prizefighter and failing jockey, lugging his saddle through myriad places, getting punched bloody in cow-town boxing rings, sleeping on stall floors. Seabiscuit’s trainer, a mysterious, virtually mute mustang breaker named Tom Smith, was a refugee from the vanishing frontier, bearing with him generations of lost wisdom about the secrets of horses. Seabiscuit’s owner, a broad, beaming former cavalryman named Charles Howard, had begun his career as a bicycle mechanic before parlaying 21 cents into an automotive empire.

  In 1936, on a sultry August Sunday in Detroit, Pollard, Smith, and Howard formed an unlikely alliance. Recognizing the talent dormant in the horse and in one another, they began a rehabilitation of Seabiscuit that would lift him, and them, from obscurity.

  For the Seabiscuit crew and for America, it was the beginning of five uproarious years of anguish and exultation. From 1936 to 1940, Seabiscuit endured a remarkable run of bad fortune, conspiracy, and injury to establish himself as one of history’s most extraordinary athletes. Graced with blistering speed, tactical versatility, and indomitable will, he shipped more than fifty thousand exhausting railroad miles,7 carried staggering weight to victory against the best horses in the country, and shattered more than a dozen track records. His controversial rivalry with Triple Crown winner War Admiral culminated in a spectacular match race that is still widely regarded as the greatest horse race ever run. His epic, trouble-plagued four-year quest to conquer the world’s richest race became one of the most celebrated and widely followed struggles in sports. And in 1940 after suffering severe injuries that were thought to have ended their careers, the aging horse and his jockey returned to the track together in an attempt to claim the one prize that had escaped them.

  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.

  It began with a young man on a train, pushing west.


  Howard at the wheel of his Buick race car, San Francisco, 1906


  Chapter 1


  Charles Howard had the feel of a gigantic onrushing machine: You had to either climb on or leap out of the way. He would sweep into a room, working a cigarette in his fingers, and people would trail him like pilot fish. They couldn’t help themselves. Fifty-eight years old in 1935, Howard was a tall, glowing man in a big suit and a very big Buick. But it wasn’t his physical bearing that did it. He lived on a California ranch so huge that a man could take a wrong turn on it and be lost forever, but it wasn’t his circumstances either. Nor was it that he spoke loud or long; the surprise of the man was his understatement, the quiet and kindly intimacy of his acquaintance. What drew people to him was something intangible, an air about him. There was a certain inevitability to Charles Howard, an urgency radiating from him that made people believe that the world was always going to bend to his wishes.

  On an afternoon in 1903, long before the big cars and the ranch and all the money, Howard began his adulthood with only that air of destiny and 21 cents in his pocket.1 He sat in the swaying belly of a transcontinental train, snaking west from New York. He was twenty-six, handsome, gentlemanly, with a bounding imagination. Back then he had a lot more hair than anyone who knew him later would have guessed. Years in the saddles of military-school horses had taught him to carry his six-foot-one-inch frame straight up.

  He was eastern born and bred, but he had a westerner’s restlessness. He had tried to satisfy it by enlisting in the cavalry for the Spanish-American War, and though he became a skilled horseman, thanks to bad timing and dysentery he never got out of Camp Wheeler in Alabama.2 After his discharge, he got a job in New York as a bicycle mechanic, took up competitive bicycle racing, got married, and had two sons.3 It seems to have been a good life, but the East stifled Howard. His mind never seemed to settle down. His ambitions had fixed upon the vast new America on the other side of the Rockies. That day in 1903 he couldn’t resist the impulse anymore. He lef
t everything he’d ever known behind, promised his wife Fannie May he’d send for her soon, and got on the train.

  He got off in San Francisco. His two dimes and a penny couldn’t carry him far, but somehow he begged and borrowed enough money to open a little bicycle-repair shop on Van Ness Avenue downtown. He tinkered with the bikes and waited for something interesting to come his way.

  It came in the form of a string of distressed-looking men who began appearing at his door. Eccentric souls with too much money in their pockets and far too much time on their hands, they had blown thick wads of cash on preposterous machines called automobiles. Some of them were feeling terribly sorry about it.

  The horseless carriage was just arriving in San Francisco, and its debut was turning into one of those colorfully unmitigated disasters that bring misery to everyone but historians. Consumers were staying away from the “devilish contraptions” in droves.4 The men who had invested in them were the subjects of cautionary tales, derision, and a fair measure of public loathing. In San Francisco in 1903, the horse and buggy was not going the way of the horse and buggy.

  For good reason. The automobile, so sleekly efficient on paper, was in practice a civic menace, belching out exhaust, kicking up storms of dust, becoming hopelessly mired in the most innocuous-looking puddles, tying up horse traffic, and raising an earsplitting cacophony that sent buggy horses fleeing. Incensed local lawmakers responded with monuments to legislative creativity.5 The laws of at least one town required automobile drivers to stop, get out, and fire off Roman candles every time horse-drawn vehicles came into view. Massachusetts tried and, fortunately, failed to mandate that cars be equipped with bells that would ring with each revolution of the wheels. In some towns police were authorized to disable passing cars with ropes, chains, wires, and even bullets, so long as they took reasonable care to avoid gunning down the drivers. San Francisco didn’t escape the legislative wave. Bitter local officials pushed through an ordinance banning automobiles from the Stanford campus and all tourist areas, effectively exiling them from the city.6

  Nor were these the only obstacles. The asking price for the cheapest automobile amounted to twice the $500 annual salary of the average citizen—some cost three times that much—and all that bought you was four wheels, a body, and an engine. “Accessories” like bumpers, carburetors, and headlights had to be purchased separately.7 Just starting the thing, through hand cranking, could land a man in traction. With no gas stations, owners had to lug five-gallon fuel cans to local drugstores, filling them for 60 cents a gallon and hoping the pharmacist wouldn’t substitute benzene for gasoline.8 Doctors warned women away from automobiles, fearing slow suffocation in noxious fumes. A few adventurous members of the gentler sex took to wearing ridiculous “windshield hats,” watermelon-sized fabric balloons, equipped with little glass windows, that fit over the entire head, leaving ample room for corpulent Victorian coiffures.9 Navigation was another nightmare. The first of San Francisco’s road signs were only just being erected, hammered up by an enterprising insurance underwriter who hoped to win clients by posting directions into the countryside, where drivers retreated for automobile “picnic parties” held out of the view of angry townsfolk.10, 11

  Finally, driving itself was something of a touch-and-go pursuit. The first automobiles imported to San Francisco had so little power that they rarely made it up the hills. The grade of Nineteenth Avenue was so daunting for the engines of the day that watching automobiles straining for the top became a local pastime. The automobiles’ delicate constitutions and general faintheartedness soon became a source of scorn. One cartoon from the era depicted a wealthy couple standing on a roadside next to its dearly departed vehicle. The caption read, “The Idle Rich.”

  Where San Franciscans saw an urban nuisance, Charles Howard saw opportunity. Automobile-repair shops hadn’t been created yet—and would have made little sense anyway as few were fool enough to buy a car.12 Owners had no place to go when their cars expired. A bicycle repairman was the closest thing to an auto mechanic available, and Howard’s shop was conveniently close to the neighborhoods of wealthy car owners. Howard hadn’t been in town long before the owners began showing up on his doorstep.

  Howard had a weakness for lost causes. He accepted the challenge, poked around in the cars, and figured out how to fix them. Soon he was showing up at the primitive automobile races held around the city. Before long, he was driving in them. The first American race, run around Evanston, Illinois, had been held only eight years before, with the winning car ripping along at the dizzying average speed of seven and a half miles per hour.13 But by 1903, automotive horsepower had greatly improved—one car averaged 65.3 mph in a cross-European race that season—making the races a good spectacle. It also made for astronomical casualty rates. The European race, for one, turned into such a godawful bloodletting that it was ultimately halted due to “too many fatalities.”14

  Howard was beginning to see these contraptions as the instrument of his ambition. Taking an audacious step, he booked a train east, got off in Detroit, and somehow talked his way into a meeting with Will Durant, chief of Buick Automobiles and future founder of General Motors. Howard told Durant that he wanted to be a part of the industry, troubled though it was. Durant liked what he saw and hired him to set up dealerships and recruit dealers. Howard returned to San Francisco, opened the Pioneer Motor Company on Buick’s behalf, and hired a local man to manage it. But on a checkup visit, he was dismayed to find that the manager was focusing his sales effort not on Buicks but on ponderous Thomas Flyers. Howard went back to Detroit and told Durant that he could do better. Durant was sold. Howard walked away with the Buick franchise for all of San Francisco.15 It was 1905, and he was just twenty-eight years old.

  Howard returned to San Francisco by train with three Buicks in tow.16 By some accounts, he first housed his automobiles in the parlor of his old bicycle-repair shop on Van Ness Avenue before moving to a modest building on Golden Gate Avenue, half a block from Van Ness.17 He brought Fannie May out to join him. With two young boys to feed, and two more soon to follow, Fannie May must have been alarmed by her husband’s career choice. Two years had done little to pacify the San Franciscan hostility for the automobile. Howard failed to sell a single car.

  At 5:12 A.M. on April 18, 1906, the earth beneath San Francisco heaved inward upon itself in a titanic, magnitude 7.8 convulsion. In sixty seconds the city shuddered down. Fires sprang up amid the ruined buildings, converged, and raced toward Howard’s dealership, consuming four city blocks per hour.18 With the water lines ruptured and the sewers bled dry, there was nothing to check its course. Wagon horses ran in a panic through the streets, snapped their legs in the rubble, and collapsed from exhaustion. The horse-drawn city was in desperate need of vehicles to carry firemen and bear the injured, 3,000 dead, and 225,000 homeless out of the fire’s path. Fleeing citizens offered thousands for horses, but there were none to be had. People were fashioning makeshift gurneys from baby carriages and trunks nailed to roller skates, pulling them themselves. There was only one transportation option left. “We suddenly appreciated that San Francisco was truly a city of magnificent distances,” wrote one witness. “The autos alone remained to conquer space.”

  Charles Howard, owner of three erstwhile unsaleable automobiles, was suddenly the richest man in town. He saved his cars from the flames and transformed them into ambulances.21 By one account, Howard himself served as a driver, speeding into the ruins to gather the stranded and rush them down to rescue ships on the bay. His cars were probably also employed to bear massive stacks of army explosives, which were used to create firebreaks.

  On April 19 the fire drove the soldiers and firemen west into Howard’s neighborhood. Van Ness Avenue, half a block from Howard’s dealership, was the broadest street in the city.20 The firefighters chose it as the site of their last stand. As the fire bore down on them, they unloaded dynamite from the automobiles, packed it into Howard’s dealership and the surrounding buildings, a
nd blew it all sky-high to widen the firebreak.19 That evening the fire roared over the rubble of Howard’s dealership and reached Van Ness. The exhausted firefighters refused to give. Though it burned for two more days, the fire did not jump the road.

  Howard lost everything but his cars, but he had been insured. The reimbursement check that arrived at his door offered him a painless way out of his automobile venture. But Howard was certain that he could coax his new city into the automotive age. The earthquake had already done half the work for him, proving the automobile’s superiority to the horse in utility. Two weeks after the quake, a day’s rental of a horse and buggy cost $5; a two-seated runabout cost $100 a day.22 All Howard needed to do was prove his automobiles’ durability.23 He put up one of the first temporary buildings in the quake’s aftermath, moved the cars in, and set out to craft a new image for Buick.


  Few men have demonstrated a better understanding of the importance of image than Howard. He could probably thank his father, Robert Stewart, for that. While accumulating a vast fortune in his native Canada, Stewart had become the focal point of a business scandal. Though his role in it remains unclear, his subsequent behavior suggests a spectacular fall from grace: He left the country, changed his last name to Howard, and spent the rest of his life in exclusive hotels and clubs all over the eastern United States. Listing his occupation as “traveler,” he never again owned a permanent home or stayed in one place for long. He married and divorced repeatedly, gaining notoriety among gossip columnists for slugging one of his wives and engaging in public shouting matches with the others.

  Charles Howard was never close to his father. Growing up in a Victorian upper-class America in which reputation was social currency, he must have felt the sting of the family’s ignominy. He made himself into his father’s antithesis. Whereas Robert Stewart Howard was wealthy, his son evidently refused to base his life on its advantages, embarking on his westward journey with virtually no money to his name.24 Whereas his father lacked the interest or discipline to save his reputation and that of his family, Charles measured himself by his image in the minds of others. It was a preoccupation, verging on obsession, that would inform his decisions, and guide his energies. By instinct or by study, he had an exceptionally firm grasp of the human imagination and how to appeal to it. Habitually putting himself in other people’s shoes, he was in his private life charming and engaging, generous and genuinely empathetic. In his public life, he demonstrated a prodigious talent for promotion and manipulation.

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