Seabiscuit: An American Legend by Laura Hillenbrand

  As he did with every new horse, Smith pored over Seabiscuit when he was with him and mulled him over when he was not.2 The first thing he had to try to do, the trainer decided, was defuse the horse. Ignoring the snapping jaws and pinned ears, he showered him with affection and carrots. He then tried one of the oldest remedies for unhappy horses: animal companionship. Motley collections of stray animals have always populated racetracks, and being the social creatures they are, horses usually befriend them. All sorts of animals, from German shepherds to chickens, have become the stable companions of racehorses. A three-legged cat lived with Fitzsimmons’s horses; the trainer dismantled a piece of harness and crafted a tiny wooden leg for him, then watched as the cat learned to snare mice with one paw and “blackjack” them with the other.3 At a track in Arizona a monkey was a popular mascot until he began turning on all the shed-row faucets and tearing the shingles off the roof.

  Smith took the goat route.4 He dug up a nanny named Whiskers and parked her in Seabiscuit’s stall. Shortly after dinnertime, the grooms found Seabiscuit walking in circles, clutching the distraught goat in his teeth and shaking her back and forth. He heaved her over his half door and plopped her down in the barn aisle. The grooms ran to her rescue.

  Smith opted for a companion who could take a little more punishment. Down the shed row he kept a lead horse he called Pumpkin. As broad as a Sherman tank and yellow as a daisy, Pumpkin—or “Punkins,” as the hands called him—had once been a Montana cow pony. Out on the range, the horse had experienced everything, including a bull goring that had left a gouge in his rump. He was a veteran, meeting every calamity with a cheerful steadiness. He was, in the parlance of horsemen, “bombproof.” Smith recognized the value of a horse like this and brought him along with his racing string to work as a lead pony, Smith’s track mount, and general stable calmer-downer. Pumpkin was amiable to every horse he met and became a surrogate parent to the flighty ones. He worked a sedative effect on the whole barn. After Seabiscuit evicted the goat, Smith hauled in Pumpkin. A brief mutual nose-sniffing produced no ill-will, so Smith decided to make Seabiscuit Pumpkin’s new assignment. He housed Pumpkin in one stall, Seabiscuit in the next, and tore down the wall between. The horses conversed and developed a fast friendship. They would live and work together for the rest of their lives.

  The experiment with Pumpkin worked so well that Smith began collecting other stable companions for Seabiscuit. Somewhere along the way, a little spotted stray dog fell in with the Howard barn and began to travel with it. Named Pocatell, the dog had curiously upright ears that were round as platters and roughly three times normal size. Pocatell took a liking to Seabiscuit and began sleeping in his stall at night. Jo Jo, a small spider monkey of undetermined origin, had the same preference for Seabiscuit’s company.5 Sleeping with Pumpkin a few feet away, Jo Jo in the crook of his neck, and Pocatell on his belly, Seabiscuit began to relax.

  The next hurdle was the horse’s sore and underweight body. Smith mixed up a homemade liniment and painted it on Seabiscuit’s legs. To keep the mixture from rubbing off when the horse lay in his straw and to protect his dinged-up legs from additional bumps and bruises, the trainer instituted a routine of keeping the horse in knee-high, inches-thick cotton bandages, once compared to World War I puttees. Smith also paid very close attention to Seabiscuit’s fuel. He fed the colt a high-quality strain of timothy hay, cultivated in Northern California, which he had come across during his first days as a trainer. For oats, he ladled out carefully measured portions of a fine white variety grown in the Sacramento Valley. After reading an article describing the nutritional intake of the University of Washington crew team, Smith made sure the horse received feed with a high calcium content.6 For bedding, he spread out a thick mattress of dust-free rice straw.

  Once Seabiscuit was settled in at Detroit, Smith took the colt to the track to stretch his legs. It was a disaster. Seabiscuit didn’t run, he rampaged. When the rider asked him for speed, the horse slowed down. When he tried to rein him in, the horse bolted, thrashing around like a hooked marlin. Asked to go left, he’d dodge right; tugged right, he’d dart left. The beleaguered rider could do no better than cling to the horse’s neck for dear life. Smith watched, his eyes following the colt as he careened across the track, running as a moth flies.

  Smith knew what he was seeing. Seabiscuit’s competitive instincts had been turned backward. Instead of directing his efforts against his opponents, he was directing them against the handlers who tried to force him to run. He habitually met every command with resistance. He was feeding off the fight, gaining satisfaction from the distress and rage of the man on his back. Smith knew how to stop it. He had to take coercion out of the equation and let the horse discover the pleasure of speed. He called out to the rider: Let him go.7

  The rider did as told, and Seabiscuit took off with him, trying once to hurdle the infield fence but meeting with no resistance from the reins. He made a complete circuit at top speed, but Smith issued no orders to stop him, so around he went again, dipping and swerving.

  After galloping all-out for two miles, weaving all over the track, Seabiscuit was exhausted. He stopped himself and stood on the track, panting. The rider simply sat there, letting him choose what to do. There was nowhere to go but home. Seabiscuit turned and walked back to the barn of his own volition. Smith greeted him with a carrot. Neither Smith nor his exercise rider had raised a hand to him, but the colt had learned the lesson that would transform him from a rogue to a pliant, happy horse: He would never again be forced to do what he didn’t want to do. He never again fought a rider.

  After that wild ride, Smith put Pollard up on Seabiscuit for the first time to see how he would handle the horse. Pollard rode the horse around, studying him. Seabiscuit wouldn’t try much for him. Pollard turned him and brought him back to the barn. Trainer and jockey conferred. Pollard told Smith that the whip, used so liberally by Fitzsimmons, had to be put away. It should be used, he said, only in times of great urgency. Pollard saw that if this horse was pushed around, all he would do was push back. Smith knew he had found the right jockey.

  Smith and Pollard made a point of allowing Seabiscuit to do as he pleased.9 Smith issued orders that the horse never be disturbed while sleeping, for any reason. Riders and grooms would sometimes stand around for hours, waiting for the horse to wake up before they could get to work. Seabiscuit milked it for all it was worth. “He wakes up in the morning like a sly old codger,” said Pollard. “Y’know, the Biscuit is like an old gentleman, and he hates to get up with the rising sun. When you go to his stall, he lays over like a limp, old rag and peeks out at you with one eye to see whether you get what he’s trying to drive over—that he’s sick as a dog. He’d get away with it if he could, but wise old Tom Smith knows him like a book.”

  Pollard and the other exercise riders were given instructions to simply lean on his neck, sitting still and leaving the reins loose, so that the horse could choose his own pace. By making sure that all workouts ended at the finish line, Smith taught Seabiscuit that he needed to be ahead of other horses by the time he crossed the wire. Racetracks are ringed with poles that tell riders what fraction of a mile remains before the finish wire. Pollard found that with every pole he passed, the horse would run harder. Pollard didn’t need to hold him back, or “rate” him, in the early part of workouts; the horse knew that the homestretch was where the real running was done. “Why rate him?” Pollard would later say.8 “He knows the poles better than I do.”

  Over the next weeks, Pollard and Smith discovered that obstreperousness was only one of Seabiscuit’s bad traits. He amused himself by propping in mid-workout, decelerating rapidly and vaulting his jockey up onto his neck. He also harbored a peculiar ardor for the inner rail. He refused to run at all unless he was practically on top of it, a consequence, Smith believed, of Fitzsimmons’s practice of invariably working the horse along the inside. When he was guided away from the rail, Seabiscuit would slow down and do just about anything
to get back over to it, including abruptly ducking inside. This created two problems. First, the area by the inner rail was the lowest part of the slightly banked oval, so it tended to hold the most water, making it the slowest, most tiring part of the track during and after rainstorms. Second, he was most likely to get caught in traffic jams on the rail. Any horse who refused to swing wide could get into serious trouble.

  Hoping to focus the horse’s mind on his job and reduce the distractions of the rail, Smith fitted Seabiscuit with a set of blinkers that restricted his vision to the track straight ahead of him. He took the horse out to gallop on a morning when track officials, trying to protect the overused inside of the course, had put out “dogs,” sawhorses lining the rail path to keep exercising horses to the outside. By galloping the horse to the outside of the dogs, Smith hoped to wean him from the rail. Seabiscuit thwarted his efforts, ducking into the rail in the gaps between dogs, swerving out to avoid them, then cutting in again.10 Smith kept at it, eventually making progress. Unable to eliminate the rail obsession completely, the trainer made use of it. As Seabiscuit was apt to fight any direct attempts to rate him, Smith told his riders to adjust the horse’s speed with steering.11 When a rider wanted Seabiscuit to speed up, he would swing him toward the rail; when he wanted him to ease off, he’d nudge him to the outside.

  The most difficult quirk was Seabiscuit’s behavior in the starting gate.12 Within its metal confines he raised holy hell, throwing himself around, exhausting the assistant starters, and reminding everyone of Hard Tack. To stop the colt’s gate rages, Smith used a daring method. He led him out to the gate each morning, walked him inside it, and asked him to halt. Risking life and limb, Smith positioned himself directly in front of the horse, facing him. When Seabiscuit began banging around to get out, Smith held his ground, raised his hand, and tapped the horse firmly on the chest and shoulders until he stood still. When the horse stopped, so did Smith. When the horse moved, Smith tapped him again. Morning after morning, he was out at the gate with the horse, repeating the lesson. “You got to go at a horse slowly teaching him most anything,” Smith explained later.13 “Easy, firm repetition does it.” The effect was mesmerizing. The horse began to relax in the gate. “He caught on quick enough,” said Smith. “He’s wise as an old owl.” Eventually, Smith was able to leave Seabiscuit standing in there for as long as ten minutes without the horse turning a hair.

  Smith also made a point of giving Seabiscuit a structured life. The horse got breakfast when he woke up, usually at four-thirty, followed by stall mucking and grooming at five, and a lengthy gallop with Pumpkin at eight. For horses, “downshifting” from strenuous exercise is risky. If they are brought to idleness too soon after running all-out—in old cowboy parlance, being “rid hard and put away wet”—their major muscle groups can seize up in an agonizing spasm called “tying up.” In addition, they can develop colic, a potentially fatal digestive crisis. Because of this, horses must be brought down from exercise gradually, slowly decelerating over about a half mile after a race and then undergoing a long walk. For Seabiscuit, this meant that after each workout he was covered in a blanket and hotwalked for about half an hour, until he was cool and dry. Then he was given a warm bath, dried, and led back into his stall, where his legs were painted in liniment and wrapped in protective bandages. He had lunch at eleven, hay snacks all afternoon, dinner at five. After that, the horse went to sleep, with his groom, Ollie, on a pallet in the stall with him. Seabiscuit fell into the schedule completely. Rain or shine, Smith was there to check on him at about eight every night before turning in.

  Smith gave Seabiscuit time to learn to trust him and Pollard. Seabiscuit learned.14 When he heard Pollard’s deep voice coming down the shed row, he would poke his head over the half door to greet him. When Pollard, who called the horse Pops, sat outside the stall, reading the paper while Seabiscuit was cooled out, the horse would tug his hot walker off course to snuffle his jockey’s hands. When Smith led him out of the stall, he didn’t even need a lead rope; the horse would follow his trainer wherever he went, nuzzling his pockets. Smith spoke to the horse in nearly inaudible tones, calling him Son and touching him lightly when he needed him to turn. Seabiscuit understood him and always did as asked. In moments of uncertainty, the horse would pause and look for Smith. When he found his trainer, the horse would relax. Smith taught him that he could trust his trainer and rider, and this became the foundation for the trials the three would share over the next five years. “[Smith] let horses get confidence in him,” remembered Keith Stucki, one of the horse’s exercise riders. “He was the best horseman I’ve ever seen.”15

  With long, careful schooling, Seabiscuit began to figure things out. Once he was no longer being coerced, his instincts bubbled back to the surface. His innate love of running returned. Pollard used the whip not as an implement of force, but as a signal: one glancing swat on the rump at the eighth pole, another a few feet from home, a cue that it was time to hustle. Seabiscuit began to wait for it and respond with lightning quickness. “So long as you treat him like a gentleman,” said Pollard, “he’ll run his heart out for you.” Though the horse was still goofing off and pulling tricks in his workouts, his speed was excellent.

  After two weeks, Smith was ready to send him to the races. Howard agreed.

  In late August they tried him in a good stakes race in Detroit. He had the bad luck of drawing into an event that featured the best filly in the country, Myrtlewood.16 Green to the core, Seabiscuit was all over the track, streaking out with the early leaders as they tried to keep up with Myrtlewood. On the backstretch, he was going along smoothly when, without warning, he threw his forelegs forward and propped, decelerating rapidly and dropping back through the field. Ahead of him, Myrtlewood drove to an insurmountable lead, with local star Professor Paul rallying in vain to catch her.

  Seabiscuit’s temperamental outburst had left him hopelessly beaten, but as Pollard angled him into the stretch and asked him to get his mind back on running, Smith witnessed something he would never forget. Seabiscuit began to rip over the track, cutting into Myrtlewood’s lead even as she flew through fractions faster than any ever run at the Detroit Fair Grounds. He was much too late to overtake the filly or Professor Paul, but his rally carried him to fourth place, just four lengths behind Myrtlewood, who had broken the track record. Even more encouraging, in the homestretch, Seabiscuit’s ears were up, a signal that the horse was running within himself. “He showed me two great qualifications that day,” Smith remembered later. “He showed me speed, and he showed me courage. He was in trouble, and the way he pricked his ears, I knew if I could get the true speed out of him, I would have a champion.”

  Pollard knew it too. Leaping off of Seabiscuit’s back, he ran over to Howard.

  “Mr. Howard,” he sang out, “that horse can win the Santa Anita!”17

  Howard laughed.

  In his next start, on September 2 in the Roamer Handicap, Seabiscuit had nothing but bad luck. He took the early lead, then swung very wide on the far turn, falling behind into fourth. Pollard tried to rally him, but he was blocked by traffic until deep in the stretch, when he shook loose and flew up, almost catching Professor Paul for the win. Smith was pleased. The horse, he thought, was ready for sterner stuff.

  On September 7 Smith led Seabiscuit out for the Governor’s Handicap. The race had no national importance, but in Detroit it was the big event of the racing season. Seabiscuit was sent off at long odds, for good reason: Also entered in the race were Professor Paul and Azucar, George Woolf’s Santa Anita Handicap winner, under a new rider and not quite his old self. Twenty-eight thousand fans, the biggest throng in Michigan racing history, showed up to see it, among them Charles and Marcela Howard.

  They were treated to a spellbinder. Just after the start, Pollard tucked Seabiscuit in behind early leader Biography, who cut a brisk pace. Around the first turn and down the long backstretch, Pollard held Seabiscuit just behind Biography. Leaning into the far turn, Pollard
saw a hole along the rail. He threaded Seabiscuit through, and in a few strides he had seized the lead. As Biography accelerated to stay with him, Professor Paul swept up on the grandstand side. In the center of the track, Azucar began to uncurl his long legs and accelerate, grinding away at the lead. In that position, the four horses bent around the turn and hit the homestretch. Pollard, in the lingo of jockeys, asked Seabiscuit the question.

  Seabiscuit, for the first time in his life, answered. Pollard dropped his belly down in the saddle and rode as hard as he could. The quartet of horses blazed down the stretch at a terrific clip, with Seabiscuit a half length in front. Biography was the first to crack. Professor Paul, carrying just ninety-nine pounds, ten fewer than Seabiscuit, was skipping along under the light load, inching in on the lead, while Azucar, on the far outside, was driving at them. In midstretch, Professor Paul’s blinkered head was at Pollard’s hip with Azucar just behind them. A few feet later, Professor Paul was past Pollard’s elbow and still gaining. Then Azucar gave way. It was down to Seabiscuit and Professor Paul. The latter was cutting the lead down with every lunge. With the crowd on its feet, Pollard spread himself flat over Seabiscuit’s withers, reins clutched in his left hand, right hand pressed flat to Seabiscuit’s neck, head turned and eyes fixed on Professor Paul’s broad blaze. A few feet from the wire, Professor Paul reached Seabiscuit’s throat. He was too late. Seabiscuit had won.

  Red Pollard had just won his fourth stakes race in eleven long years in the saddle. He was radiant. He galloped Seabiscuit out to the cheers from the crowd, then turned him back toward the grandstand. Beneath him, Seabiscuit bounced along with his tail fanned out high in the air. He played with the bit and wagged an ear at the photographers who stood by the rail, snapping his picture for the morning papers. Pollard steered him back to the winner’s stand, leapt off, and ran to Howard, who beamed like a schoolboy. It was only a good stakes race at a minor-league track, but it might as well have been the hundred-grander.

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