Seabiscuit: An American Legend by Laura Hillenbrand


  As a result, jockeys never, ever spoke about danger, pain, or fear, even among themselves. In conversation they papered over the grim realities of their jobs with cheery euphemisms. Hideous wrecks were referred to as “spills”; jockeys hurled into the ground were “unseated.” In their autobiographies, they recounted great races in intimate detail, but falls and injuries were glossed over with the most perfunctory language. Even in the grip of agonizing pain or complete debilitation, most jockeys clung to their illusion of invulnerability.

  For some, fear had a way of breaking through the illusion. “You didn’t talk about it,” remembered Farrell Jones, a jockey tough enough to earn the nickname “Wild Horse.”28 “I thought about it. I don’t know if any of them other guys did. But I did. It was spooky.” Even Arcaro, one of the most daring riders, admitted that the memory of his first spill, in which a horse stepped on his back and another kicked his skull, leaving him with a concussion, two fractured ribs, and a punctured lung, was seared into his memory and burned there for the rest of his career. It was, he wrote, “a terrifying experience that somehow cannot be blotted out.”29

  ———

  For riders’ families, the danger and injuries took their toll. In dreams, Helen Luther saw her husband’s death play itself out countless times. In murky images, his horse would spiral into the ground, carrying Tommy under him, and Helen would wake into a life striated with fear.

  Helen watched Tommy ride every day. She was a rarity in the sport. The vast majority of jockeys’ wives couldn’t stand to watch their husbands’ races and rarely, if ever, came to the track. Helen missed only one ride. On that day, a horse named Brick Top speared Tommy’s head into the steel overhead beam of the starting gate. He lay on the ground, his skullcap split, refusing to let the attendants take him to the hospital. “My wife will be here,” he kept repeating, sure that Helen was up in the stands. Helen didn’t come, and though Tommy recovered, she never ceased regretting it.

  Forever after, Helen was there, her eyes trained on every move of her husband’s horses. She was frightened for every minute of his career. Sometime early in her marriage, Helen began a ritual: Each time his mount left the paddock and set his first forehoof onto the track, she would pray that the horse would see him home safely.

  Helen’s prayers failed Tommy on a rain-drenched July afternoon at Empire City.30 He was a sixteenth of a mile away from winning a race when the filly he was riding abruptly tripped over her own legs and plunged headfirst into the track. Helen saw her husband ride the arc of the filly’s back down into the mud and disappear under her tumbling body and the bodies of the three horses who struck her from behind. Their hooves cracked into Tommy’s head as they fell.

  Helen never knew how she got from the grandstand to the track. Her mind drummed: He is under all those horses. The next thing she recalled, she was standing over her husband. She was sure he was dead.

  They carried Tommy into the first-aid room on a stretcher. His ancient valet, Johnny Mitchell, bent over him, his tears falling onto Tommy’s cheeks as he gently sponged the mud and blood away. Helen stood back and stared at her husband. He didn’t move. Helen was seized in violent tremors, and her teeth chattered uncontrollably. She heard someone say, “This woman is in shock” and felt someone slip a brandy into her hand. She refused it. The man who fetched it, badly shaken, drank it himself.

  They loaded Tommy into an ambulance and drove him toward St. John’s Hospital. Helen was left alone to find her own way there. She got into Tommy’s car and drove around New York, confused by the unfamiliar streets. The fuel gauge read empty, so she pulled over at a gas station. The attendant hooked up her car to the pump and came over to chat with her.

  “Isn’t it too bad?” he said. “Tommy Luther was killed.”

  Helen whirled in panic. She didn’t know what to do or where to go. She briefly thought she should go back to the track. She changed her mind and went toward the hospital. Somehow, she found it. She ran in. Tommy was still alive. Helen nearly collapsed.

  Tommy survived. He would have no short-term memory for several days and no depth perception for six months. He staggered like a drunk for a good while. But he would ride for twenty more years, bearing only a single scar from a hoof.

  Helen went back to their lodgings alone. It was a rental house in Yonkers, one of countless, faceless rental places she lived in for decades, like nearly all jockeys’ wives. You never stayed long enough to get a pet or a houseplant or hang any paintings. The neighbors sneered at you, knowing that you were “racetrack people.” Helen once found a burglar hiding beneath her bed in a rental place, but the neighbors didn’t respond to her screams because they assumed that screaming was the normal mode of discourse for racetrackers. Always, on nights returning alone, there were worries about practical matters. A jockey’s pay couldn’t begin to cover the sky-high insurance rates his job warranted, much less the doctor’s bills. Track officials viewed any effort to create funds for injured riders as unionizing, and they were ready to ban any jockey who took steps in that direction. So jockeys went without insurance and made do with what they had, passing the hat when one of their colleagues went down. Women like Helen could only hope there would be enough.

  Helen ran to the front door, jammed the key in, and rushed inside. The empty house frightened her, and she nearly fainted when the landlord’s parrot spoke to her in the dark. She went upstairs and locked herself in the bathroom.

  “If I didn’t have him,” she said as her mind rolled back over that night, “I was alone.”

  Red Pollard and George Woolf had signed on to a life that used men up. But for all its miseries, there was an unmistakable allure to the jockey’s craft, one that both found irresistible. Man is preoccupied with freedom yet laden with handicaps. The breadth of his activity and experience is narrowed by the limitations of his relatively weak, sluggish body. The racehorse, by virtue of his awesome physical gifts, freed the jockey from himself. When a horse and a jockey flew over the track together, there were moments in which the man’s mind wedded itself to the animal’s body to form something greater than the sum of both parts. The horse partook of the jockey’s cunning; the jockey partook of the horse’s supreme power. For the jockey, the saddle was a place of unparalleled exhilaration, of transcendence. “The horse,” recalled one rider, “he takes you.”31 Aboard a racehorse in full stride, wrote Steve Donoghue, “I am so completely in the race that I forget the crowds. My horse and I talk together. We don’t hear anyone else.” At the bottom of the Depression, when wrenching need narrowed the parameters of experience as never before, the liberation offered by the racehorse was, to young men like Pollard and Woolf, a siren song.

  On the ground, the jockey was fettered and muted, moving in slow motion, the world a sensory vacuum after the tenfold high of racing speed. In the saddle, emancipated from their bodies, Pollard, Woolf, and all other reinsmen sailed eight feet over the world, emphatically free, emphatically alive. They were Hemingway’s bullfighters, living “all the way up.”32

  Red Pollard’s Mexican visa, 1932

  (NORAH POLLARD CHRISTIANSON)

  George Woolf

  (CHEERS MAGAZINE)

  Chapter 6

  LIGHT AND SHADOW

  Sooner or later, just about all the bug boys went up the hill. When they began the journey the first time, following the narrow dirt road that turned up from the racetrack, they probably looked very young and somewhat breathless. When they came back, they were half a dollar poorer, twenty minutes older, and decidedly more swaggering at the walk. And the stories they could tell!

  At the top of the hill, as everyone knew, stood the big cinder-block building that stared down on the track at Tijuana, or “Tee-a Joo-ana,” as they called it. The building was the home of the Molino Rojo, or “red mill,” a shag-carpeted shrine to the world’s oldest profession.1 It was by far the largest house of prostitution in the world, and probably the most successful. Hovering right over the old Tijuana track, consuming
half a city block, topped by an immense spinning windmill and decked out in flashing red lights that were visible clear across the border, the Molino Rojo must have been to the racetrackers what the North Star was to the magi. It took effort for the riders to avoid looking right at it every time they rode in morning workouts or circled the barn walking hots. The jockeys called it “the house of the wilted pigeons.”2

  The Molino Rojo had no madam. The girls ran the place themselves, and they did so with the cunning of robber barons. It was no surprise to them that half the people at the racetrack were unsupervised hellraisers gripped in the ferocious throes of puberty. Surely it was more than happy coincidence that the price of admission—“fifty cents, straight up,” remembers one former bug boy—was precisely equal to the pay for galloping a horse. Any rider who made it up the hill had his beer paid for, compliments of the house. And in the unlikely event that a lad wasn’t quite in the mood, he would be ushered into the house theater to be inspired by an exotic blue movie. There were so many girls to choose from, every conceivable nationality, that a kid would have to gallop three hundred horses to afford them all. He could walk down the long, narrow halls, off of which were countless fabulously appointed bedrooms, listen to the girls beckoning in soft Spanish, and simply take his pick. “You went through there,” remembers one client, “like you were going through a grocery store.”

  The girls took customer service seriously. Velvet-Tongued Velma and Chi Chi Grande needed no introduction. A girl the riders called One Wing Annie did a brisk business despite missing one arm. One girl told a bug boy that if he could track down $5, she’d show him something he’d never forget. Five dollars was the kind of money you could live on for a week back then, but practical considerations were unlikely to occur to a bug boy in such a situation. Within moments, a herd of jockeys packed into a room at the mill and showered $5 worth of nickels and dimes on the girl in question. She promptly stripped naked, lit up a cigarette, and blew smoke rings from a place into which only a creative-minded and supple-bodied prostitute would think of placing a cigarette. It was the greatest day of the bug boys’ lives. “What talent!” recalled a witness. “Of course, I had to change my brand of cigarettes after that.”

  The Molino Rojo set the standard for Tijuana. The jockeys lived high and hard, riding by day, roaming the town in dense, noisy scrums by night, pouring into the Molino Rojo, then the Turf Club saloon, then on to wild exploits in town, chasing giggling girls buck naked down motel corridors, stealing all the room keys to the town’s biggest hotel. Among the riders were Red Pollard and George Woolf. It was to this strangely bountiful place that they came each winter, and they thought of it as home. Riding there from fall to spring every year, they defined themselves as athletes and as men.

  ———

  In 1928, their first full season together, they took the racing world by storm. Settling into his niche as a miracle worker for tough and neurotic horses, Pollard earned assignments on nearly three hundred mounts and guided them to more than $20,000 in total purse earnings. His fifty-three winners placed him in a tie for twentieth in winning percentage among fully employed riders in North America (those with one hundred or more mounts). He was a complete success. But Woolf was supernatural. Though in the big leagues only a few months, Woolf was signed on to ride more than 550 mounts, many of whom were stakes horses of the highest quality, and won with more than 100 of them for total purse earnings of $100,000. His winning average of 19 percent ranked him in a tie for sixteenth among fully employed riders. As the weekday wonder and the money man, Pollard and Woolf established themselves in the uppermost tier of North American racing.

  They also carved out their own respective roles in the social world. Pollard, with his books, his stories, and his offbeat sense of humor, earned the bewildered affection of everyone at the track. A small cadre of racetrack eccentrics gathered around him. In the jockeys’ room he orchestrated a string of clever practical jokes, sequestered himself in corners to pore over literature, and mystified his fellow jocks with aphorisms from Omar Khayyám and “Old Waldo” Emerson. A passing incident might inspire him to gallop through huge sections of Shakespeare, committed to memory, leaving the bug boys furrowing their brows.3 His language was a patchwork of cultivated speech and blue-streak profanity. He was loved for his wicked humor, delivered with a Buster Keaton straight face, and boundless generosity. He was feared and admired for his fistfighting skills, drop-of-a-hat volatility, thundering bass voice, and daring.

  He was a prolific yarn spinner. One tale featured Pollard riding racehorses for Czar Nicholas. He could slip this one past the bug boys, who hadn’t gone to school long enough to know that the Bolsheviks had put an end to poor Nicholas when Pollard was only nine. Another favorite described how he inadvertently bedded down beside five hibernating bears in a Canadian cave. Hair grew on this story until the bears were wide awake and the ex-boxer was using his deadly left hook to knock all five unconscious. When he wasn’t telling stories, he was smartassing racing officials. He once attended a racing banquet at which a racing starter was the keynote speaker. The starter was notorious for his profanity, specifically his trademark phrase “Put a twitch on that son of a bitch!” referring to a restraint device that was pulled over horses’ upper lips to distract them while they were being loaded into the gate. As the host droned through the starter’s introduction, Pollard fidgeted in the crowd, slurping up champagne and, like everyone else, stagnating in boredom. As the starter rose to speak, clearing his throat for effect, Pollard abruptly stood up. “Put a twitch on that son of a bitch!” he boomed.4

  In the rough-and-tumble world of the track, Pollard was something of a sheriff. Farrell Jones, who rode alongside Pollard, recalled a fight he got into with a veteran jockey in a dispute over a checkers match.5 When Jones won the match, the older jockey flipped the board across the room and promptly tackled him. Jones, who was only thirteen and weighed little more than eighty pounds, quickly found himself on the losing end of the tussle. The older jockey pounded him mercilessly and tried to jam his thumbs into his eyes. Pollard swept up to them, grabbed the attacking jockey by the back of the neck, tossed him to the ground, and pinned him. Pressing the jockey to the floor, he pinched his nose between his fingers and twisted it. The jockey howled for mercy. After letting him squirm for a while, Pollard released the rider, who had blood running from his nose and tears streaming down his face. “Don’t you ever touch that kid again,” Pollard hissed. He stalked off, leaving the room in silence. Nobody ever messed with Red.

  If Pollard was the jester, Woolf was the king. The crowds adored him, shouting “Ride ’em, cowboy!” as he powered down the stretch on his good-luck piece, a battered kangaroo leather saddle once carried by Phar Lap, the greatest racehorse in Australian history.6, 8 The press doted on him. The lost boys of the racetrack worshiped him. Woolf took them under his wing, letting them copilot his roadster and teaching them the fine arts of horsemanship. After winning races, he’d drive over to the backstretch and stuff cash into the pockets of his mounts’ grooms. He chaperoned groups of riders on mornings of road work, but by the end of the run discipline always seemed to break down and he’d end up jogging them into a gin joint to refill their depleted systems with a tall one. To help some of them conceal their big feet—and their coming growth spurts—Woolf started up a black market in his shoes.7 Riders all over the backstretch balled up their toes, wadded them into Woolf’s hand-me-down silver inlaid boots (which, to their misery, were pointed), and limped around in them all day. A jockey’s feet might bleed, but donning Woolf’s shoes was an honor. Horseman Harold Washburn’s boyhood memory of his first sight of Woolf sums up the impression the Iceman left on the kids of the backstretch. “I walked out and see Georgie pull up with that big car with them superchargers on it, step out of that car with them boots with silver inlaid on it, white western hat, and I thought, ‘Oh my God! I am going to be a jockey!’”9

  Woolf could get away with anything. In the spring of
1932, when a solar eclipse occurred just as he was scheduled to ride to the post, he carried a shaded glass out onto the horse with him, pulled up, lay his head back on his horse’s rump, and sat there, gazing at the sun while the crowd stared at him. In winning another race, he rode with such supreme concentration that he didn’t notice that he had torn right out of his paper-thin pants.10 He didn’t have a stitch of clothing on underneath, nor did he have the good fortune to at least be trailing the field. By the time he was galloping out, everyone at the track knew what Woolf had not yet noticed. “Hey, Woolf!” came a laughing voice from behind. “You’re sticking out!” Woolf cantered the horse back to the cheering grandstand and calmly asked his valet for a saddle towel. The valet trotted up with the requisite fig leaf, and Woolf, smiling out of one side of his mouth, wrapped it around his waist, rode into the winner’s circle, and posed for the photo. He hopped down and glided back to the jocks’ room to a hearty round of applause.

  Off the track, Woolf steered clear of the town’s appeals to vice, preferring late-morning pit stops in Checks Sloan’s restaurant for a complimentary beer and a bowl of turtle soup. Not even the Molino Rojo tempted him. He had better things on his mind. In 1930, while cruising up over the border with Sonny Greenberg, he stopped at a San Ysidro train-car diner and fell head over heels in love with a gorgeous sixteen-year-old waitress named Genevieve.11 Woolf began coming in regularly, parking his Stetson on the table and pointing Greenberg’s nose in the Racing Form while he romanced her. In 1931, at age twenty-one, Woolf married her.

 
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