Seabiscuit: An American Legend by Laura Hillenbrand


  The ceremonies began. On the winner’s stand, which was swathed in a huge American flag and crammed with suited dignitaries, Marcela smiled demurely for the lieutenant governor, who extended a huge silver loving cup. Pollard, his skullcap off, his hair dark with sweat and his head tilted so his good eye focused on the camera, stood behind her, dwarfed by the cup. Smith, grim and spectral, stood alongside him. His mouth was set in its habitual glower, the corners bent downward in perfect convexity, and his ashen head blended seamlessly into the white clouds overhead. Howard, giddy and grinning, was nearly crowded right off the stand. The photo opportunity over, they smoothed a new blanket, emblazoned with the words GOVERNOR’S HANDICAP DETROIT, over Seabiscuit’s back, and Howard held Seabiscuit’s nose in his hands as a new set of photographs was snapped. Smith stood with them, ignoring the popping flashbulbs to let his eyes comb over his horse. Seabiscuit stood square under his head-to-toe blanket, posed in the stance of the conqueror, head high, ears pricked, eyes roaming the horizon, nostrils flexing with each breath, jaw rolling the bit around with cool confidence.

  He was a new horse.

  In the fiftieth start of his life, Seabiscuit finally understood the game. Smith and Pollard had unearthed in him, in Smith’s words, “more natural inclination to run than any horse I have ever seen.”18 Behind his frown, Smith was pleased.

  The colt was transformed. In the barn he became a disarmingly affectionate glutton, “as gentlemanly a horse,” marveled Smith, “as I ever handled.”19 On the track, once the forum for rebellion, he displayed blistering speed and bulldog tenacity. Smith wasn’t ready to put the screws to him just yet. He was beginning to think that Pollard was right about the horse’s chances in the Santa Anita Handicap.

  The prospect of running Seabiscuit in the hundred-grander, and in similar races, gave Smith a new issue to consider: weight. For racetracks, survival depends upon attracting bettors. For bettors, the least attractive race is one in which the favorites finish in the top positions, producing low payoffs for winning bets. To make races more competitive, tracks schedule “handicap” races, in which a racing secretary, also called a track handicapper, assigns more accomplished horses higher weights, or imposts, than less accomplished horses. This gives long shots a better chance, and thus encourages more wagering. Not all races are handicaps—in the Triple Crown, for example, all male horses carry 126 pounds—but most top races for older horses, including the Santa Anita Handicap, are handicaps. Though Seabiscuit was now amply good enough for the Triple Crown, and probably would have swept it, he had missed his chance; the series is only open to three-year-olds, and he was about to turn four. Smith was aiming him for the handicap division and the hundred-grander. The imposts for the big race were not yet assigned, and Smith wanted to keep his horse’s talent a secret for as long as he could so that the racing secretary would assign him low weights. Smith kept the horse in the small pond of Detroit, where Seabiscuit followed the Governor’s Handicap win with an impressive score in the Hendrie Handicap. Smith then shipped him down to Cincinnati’s River Downs, where the horse narrowly missed winning two more minor stakes.

  It was at Cincinnati that Seabiscuit’s handlers first realized how fanatically competitive the horse was. Those unfamiliar with horses might scoff at the notion of equine pride as a silly anthropomorphism, but the behavior is unmistakable. Those who make their lives among horses see it every day. Horses who lose their riders during races almost always try to win anyway, charging to the lead and sometimes bucking with pleasure as they pass the last opponent. Weanling herds stampede around their paddocks several times a day, running all-out to beat one another. Even old stallions, decades away from the track, still duel with one another up and down the fences of breeding farms. As George Woolf noted, losers show clear signs of dejection and frustration, even shame; winners prick their ears and swagger. “You don’t have to tell good horses when they win or lose,” he said.20 “They know. I guess they come by it kinda natural.” Humans aren’t the only creatures to seek mastery and rebel at being mastered. The fire that had kept Seabiscuit frustrated and unruly now fueled a bounding will to win.

  It first surfaced in the midst of a scorching workout alongside Howard’s excellent sprinter, Exhibit.21 Seabiscuit had him beaten, but instead of pulling away, he eased himself up and galloped alongside, going just fast enough to keep Exhibit a notch behind. Exhibit tried his hardest, but Seabiscuit kept adjusting his speed to maintain the short advantage. He appeared to be taunting Exhibit. The two kept it up for a few furlongs before Exhibit abruptly pulled himself up. From that day forward, he refused to work with Seabiscuit.

  The scene would be reenacted countless times on the racetrack in the next few years, and it would become Seabiscuit’s trademark. The horse seemed to take sadistic pleasure in harassing and humiliating his rivals, slowing down to mock them as he passed, snorting in their faces, and pulling up when in front so other horses could draw alongside, then dashing their hopes with a killing burst of speed. Where other horses relied solely on speed to win, Seabiscuit used intimidation.

  Finding workmates was immediately problematic. One by one, Seabiscuit disposed of the Howard horses in morning workouts, merrily abusing them as he ran. Horses all over the barn became his mortal enemies. Others were heartbroken; Seabiscuit could suck the joy out of any good racehorse’s career. A typical example was a fine Argentine import named Sabueso.22 He managed to beat Seabiscuit in a short blowout one morning and returned to the barn cocky and full of himself. Pollard vowed revenge. In another meeting a short while later, he boasted, “I poured Seabiscuit at him.” Seabiscuit humiliated Sabueso.

  Sabueso refused to eat and didn’t sleep for several days. “We had a terrible time straightening him out,” Pollard remembered. “He sulked and pouted as if to say, ‘I wish I was back in the Argentine.’” Smith finally resorted to convincing Sabueso that Seabiscuit had left the string. He housed the two horses as far apart as possible, and whenever Seabiscuit was led down Sabueso’s shed row, Pollard or Smith would shut the stall doors so Sabueso wouldn’t see him. “I guess the Argentine must think the big horse has gone away,” said Pollard. “At any rate, he’s all right now. A good horse, too. A little chunk of granite. But make no mistakes—he ain’t no Seabiscuit.”

  Seabiscuit’s psychological warfare raised more problems than simple wounded pride. If he became too absorbed in rubbing a particular horse’s nose in his defeat, he risked being unable to regain his momentum when the closers came after him. Fortunately, though taunting was one of Seabiscuit’s greatest pleasures, once he was challenged, the games ended. In a fight he was all business. As Smith watched him in racing combat, images from his mustang days assembled in his head. “Did you ever see two stallions fight?” he would later ask.23 “They look about evenly matched—most times they are—but one of ’em has that last reserve of courage and energy which licks the other. Seabiscuit has it.”

  After the performance against Exhibit, Smith thought Seabiscuit was ready to move up a notch. The upstart West had the new Santa Anita Handicap, but the East, seat of racing’s elite governing bodies and home to all of America’s venerable old races and stables, had prestige. In October 1936 Seabiscuit climbed down from a railcar and stepped onto Empire City Racetrack in New York. He was not yet good enough to shoot for the East’s great races, so Smith entered him in the Scarsdale Handicap, a midlevel stakes race. Few spectators cared that Seabiscuit, the second-longest shot on the board, was in the field.

  The horse needed just a minute and forty-four seconds to change their minds. Fighting his way through one of the wildest contests of the season, Pollard swung Seabiscuit clear of a set of chain-reaction collisions on the far turn, circled the field, and sent his mount running in a frantic effort to catch the leaders. In a hub-scraping finish Seabiscuit dropped his head and won by inches. The finish photo captured the scene: a dense cluster of horses stretched out for the wire, ears flat and lips peeled back in extreme effort. Ahead of them all
, ears tipped forward with a jaunty expression, was Seabiscuit’s heavy, homely head. Easy.

  One week later, Howard met with Smith. “Let’s head for California,” he said.24 “A little wind off San Francisco Bay would do us good.” Smith agreed, thinking Seabiscuit could use a rest.

  The trick was getting the horse there. In the 1930s, long-distance horse-shipping could only be done via railcar. A cross-country journey was a harrowing ordeal, five days of clanging, rocking, and bumping in a confined space. Train travel was so exhausting and upsetting to most Thoroughbreds that few could be taken outside their region. With Seabiscuit, Smith had reason to worry. Back at Saratoga, when he caught sight of the train to Detroit, the colt had panicked so badly that sweat had streamed from his belly.

  While the other Howard horses filed onto standard horse-class cars, Seabiscuit had earned himself a luxury berth: a full end of a specially modified private Pullman railcar. Half of the car was knee-deep in straw, half was left unbedded so he could stretch his legs. Smith watched to see how Seabiscuit would behave. The horse stepped in and lay down. He would sleep during most of the journey.25 Smith climbed into the rear car, coming forward at each stop to check on his horse.

  They were retracing Charles Howard’s youthful journey, thirty years later.

  “We’re coming back,” the old bicycle man told his friends. “And when we do, hang on to your hats.”26

  Seabiscuit and Rosemont drive toward the wire together in the 1937 hundred-grander.

  (© BETTMANN/CORBIS)

  Chapter 8

  FIFTEEN STRIDES

  The train sighed into Tanforan on a cool Wednesday morning in November 1936. Seabiscuit clopped onto the unloading ramp and paused halfway down, looking over his new home state. There wasn’t much to see. The California sunlight had the pewter cast of a declining season. One or two stable hands crisscrossed the tamped-down earth before the siding. Horses murmured over the grounds.

  A couple of reporters stood around, looking indifferently at Howard’s new horse. They knew that the colt was aiming for the February 27 Santa Anita Handicap, but he hadn’t done enough to merit serious consideration. Their thoughts were occupied by weightier names: world-record holder Indian Broom; speed demon Special Agent; and above them all, the magnificent Rosemont, king of the East and conqueror of 1935 Triple Crown winner Omaha. Eastern horses rarely came to the West in those days, but the size of the purse had brought Rosemont over the Rockies. With Rosemont in the race, no one had any reason to believe that the horse Tom Smith was leading down the platform would be anything more than an also-ran.

  The reporters jotted down a word or two on Seabiscuit’s arrival and moved off. Smith settled the horse in a comfortable stall and retired to his own little room right above it.

  Smith liked the anonymity. The New York trip had told him that he had a very good horse in his barn, and until the weights were assigned for the hundred-grander, he intended to keep him hidden. So the trainer tucked Seabiscuit away on the Tanforan backstretch. He didn’t even let his stable hands know how good he thought the horse was. Quietly, slowly, he schooled the horse, fed him well, built his trust. Seabiscuit’s ribs filled out—he had put on two hundred pounds in the three months since he had joined Smith—and his manners had improved.1 When he came out on the track, he bounced up and down in eagerness to get going. Smith knew Seabiscuit was improving rapidly, but when he sent him out for workouts before the track clockers, he gave him only easy gallops that veiled his speed. No one took much notice of him.

  One afternoon when the track was deserted, Smith snuck him out. Smith and Pollard had stripped away the temperamental barriers. It was time to see how fast the colt could go. Smith loaded weight onto his back, boosted an exercise rider aboard, and turned him loose.

  He watched as Seabiscuit’s body flattened down, his speed building, humming over the rail. Smith ticked off the seconds in his head. Something is happening. Lacking competition, racehorses in workouts rarely approach the speeds they achieve in races. But Smith had never seen a horse—any horse—flash this kind of speed, not in a workout, not in a race. Perhaps Smith thought his eyes were failing him, the clock in his head winding out of time. Coming up, a mile to go. He pulled his stopwatch out and pumped the trigger as the horse ripped past the marker. Seabiscuit kept rolling, faster and faster, covering more than fifty feet per second. His trainer watched intently, the surprise of it pushing up through him. Seabiscuit’s speed was not flagging. A thought drummed in Smith’s mind: He’s burning the top right off the racetrack.1, 2 Seabiscuit banked into the turn. There was a supple geometry to his arc, a fish bending through a current. Where virtually all horses decelerate and often drift out as they try to negotiate corners, Seabiscuit was capable of holding a tight line while accelerating dramatically. No horse has ever run a turn like this one.

  When the colt flashed under the wire, Smith looked down at his hand. Seabiscuit had worked a mile in 1:36. The track record was 1:38. At that speed, Seabiscuit would have trounced the track record holder by more than a dozen lengths.2

  Tom Smith was wide awake. In sixty years lived alongside thousands of horses, he had never seen anything like this. It was no fluke: in another clandestine workout not long after, the colt would tie a thirty-year-old world record for seven eighths of a mile, running it in 1:22.3

  Smith took Seabiscuit back to the barn, his secret seething in his head. For the first time, he grasped the awesome responsibility that lay in his hands.

  The old cowpuncher was scared to death.4

  Smith wasn’t about to let anyone know what he had seen in that workout. Not yet. The weights weren’t out for the hundred-grander. He would keep Seabiscuit in San Francisco, where he could work in peace until he was ready for Santa Anita. Howard wanted to show his colt off to his hometown anyway.

  On November 28, 1936, after nearly a month of legging up at Tanforan, Seabiscuit was trucked ten miles down the pike to run in Bay Meadows’ mile-long Bay Bridge Handicap. The field was the best the track had to offer, including Velociter, the former track record holder for the race’s mile distance, and the terrific mare Uppermost, the only horse to better Velociter’s time. Though his two main rivals had established themselves over the Bay Meadows course, Seabiscuit, by virtue of his Scarsdale Handicap win, was given the high weight of 116 pounds, 2 more than Uppermost and 9 more than Velociter.

  Seabiscuit, a little stir-crazy after a full month on the sidelines, pushed off so hard at the starting bell’s ring that he shoveled a big hunk of ground right out from under his hind hooves, dropping nearly to his knees. At the same moment he was bumped hard by the horse to his left. Pollard somehow managed to stay aboard while his colt regained his footing. By then, the field was six lengths up the track.

  Starting his race all alone, Pollard tried to turn the incident to his advantage, cutting in to the rail for a ground-saving trip while far ahead of him, Velociter and Uppermost cruised to the lead. Pollard unleashed Seabiscuit’s rally immediately, rushing up behind the field in hopes of finding an avenue through the pack. As the first turn approached, the horses farther out from the rail hustled inward and cut Seabiscuit off. With nowhere to go, Pollard waited. They pulled toward the backstretch, and Pollard saw a narrow hole open between horses and tried to send Seabiscuit through it. He didn’t make it, and had to snatch up the reins and yank Seabiscuit back to prevent him from clipping the heels of the horses coming together in front of him. Trapped again, Pollard waited until the field straightened out. A hole opened. Pollard told Seabiscuit to take it, and the horse darted in.

  Seabiscuit shot through the pack, swung out, and drew ahead of Uppermost, claiming second on the outside. Only front-running Velociter remained to be caught. Tugging his right rein, Pollard fanned his colt out and hung on as Seabiscuit gunned Velociter down. All alone again, but this time in front, Pollard leaned back and slowed Seabiscuit for the last fifty yards. They cantered down the lane and hit the wire, winners by five lengths.

&
nbsp; A thrill went through the crowd. Seabiscuit had equaled his Tanforan workout time of 1:36 for the mile, officially breaking the track record. Two clockers who had started their watches when Seabiscuit actually left the gate stared at their watch hands in disbelief. They had caught Seabiscuit running the fifth-fastest mile ever run, just three fifths of a second off the world record.

  Back at the barn, the stable hands were shocked.5 They had no idea that the horse was so fast. Only Smith was unsurprised, but he was not happy that the news was out.

  On Sunday, December 12, Team Seabiscuit re-assembled in the Bay Meadows paddock for the mile-and-three-sixteenths World’s Fair Handicap, the crowning stakes race of the track meeting. The field, including two major stakes winners, was the most formidable Seabiscuit had ever faced. Just after Pollard swung aboard, a paddock official waved him back so another horse could precede him in the post parade. Howard yelled across the paddock to the horse’s owner, “This is your last chance to be in front!” The crowd gave Howard a hearty round of applause.

  Determined not to be left behind as they had been in the Bay Bridge Handicap, Pollard shot Seabiscuit from the starting gate and sent him blowing past the field. Seabiscuit streaked out to a twelve-length lead. The panicked jockeys behind him launched frantic rallies to catch him, but they could only cut the lead down to eight lengths. To wild cheering, Seabiscuit jogged down the homestretch all by himself. Pollard, laughing as he stood in the stirrups and leaned his full weight against the reins, did just about everything he could to slow Seabiscuit down. He wasn’t much of a match for his colt, who tugged away at the bridle, begging to run.

  When they returned to the scales, Seabiscuit wasn’t even breathing hard. He had eclipsed another track record, running less than a second off the world record. His time was so fast that in the following year, no horse at Bay Meadows would come within three seconds of it. Pollard suddenly found himself in a sea of reporters. If he met the same field again, he sang out, he’d have time to ride Seabiscuit right off the track, canter him down to San Mateo for some Christmas shopping, swing by the post office for their fan mail, and still trot back in time to win the race.6

 
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