Seabiscuit: An American Legend by Laura Hillenbrand


  The Bay Meadows operators got the point: Seabiscuit was far too good for anything at their track. The message was underscored when the West Coast’s most prominent “future book” wagering operator, who was based in San Francisco, rated Seabiscuit above Rosemont for the hundred-grander. Hoping to keep Seabiscuit around for another race, the Bay Meadows racing secretary made an emergency trip out of town, hoping to scare up some of the Handicap favorites to face him at Bay Meadows.

  Rosemont and the other big boys weren’t coming. Seabiscuit was going to have to go get them.

  On December 18, Seabiscuit stepped onto the russet soil of Santa Anita for the first time. In Barn 38 Smith kicked down the wall between two stalls to create a palatial home for Seabiscuit and Pumpkin. The stable boys dubbed it the Kaiser Suite.

  The locals at Santa Anita and the press outside the Bay Area greeted the raving headlines from San Francisco with incredulity. A prominent eastern handicapper called him “the most overrated horse in California.”7 The phrase “who did he beat?” appeared over and over in the press. “It is difficult to give him a rating above a $5,000 plater,” wrote one journalist, using the synonym for claimer. Seabiscuit was a horse who had to be seen to be believed.

  Trouble dogged him from the moment he was vanned into Santa Anita. Smith had initially planned on running him Christmas Day, but the trainer thought the horse seemed slightly weary and decided to back off for a while. He found a replacement race in the New Year’s Stakes, but the track came up muddy. Smith didn’t want to risk Seabiscuit’s soundness by running on a slippery track, so he scratched him and moved his scheduled Santa Anita debut to January 16, 1937. On the appointed day, an ominous hive of an inch or so square popped up on the colt’s coat. Smith withdrew him again.

  One hive became two, then three, then an army of angry lumps. Driven mad by itching, Seabiscuit began to lose his newfound calm. Unable to train, he began pacing in the stall again. Smith tried every remedy he knew, but the rash kept marching onward.8 Finally, after more than a week, the rash began to retreat. “Don’t tell me about bad breaks,” Howard grumbled.9 “Seabiscuit certainly gets them.”

  The long layoff from racing, culminating in a week stuck itching in the barn, took its toll. Seabiscuit, already inclined toward portliness, was turning into one thousand pounds of flab. Smith looked the horse over and frowned. “Butterball,” he called him. Idleness wasn’t the only reason for the added weight. Seabiscuit’s groom, Ollie, had been feeding the horse enough rations to fatten up an elephant.10 Smith had asked him to limit the horse to dry mash, but Ollie had begun sneaking in warm oat-mash snacks when he thought Smith wasn’t looking. Smith considered firing Ollie, but the horse was so enamored of the groom that Smith decided otherwise. It was the beginning of a chronic problem for Seabiscuit, who loved eating so much that he often followed up his regular meals by consuming his own bedding.

  Burning the flab off was going to be difficult. Smith was concerned that he’d have to work the horse to death to get the weight off. To get as much weight off as he could with each workout, he took a cue from the jockeys’ room and began zipping the horse into rubber-lined sweating hoods during the gallops, then wrapping him in hot blankets afterward. He strapped him into a muzzle to stop his snacking. But the biggest problem was Ollie. The groom simply wouldn’t do as asked.

  Smith appealed to the highest court: Marcela Howard. She was the kind of woman who had a certain unspoken authority. She never had to raise her voice; she had a certain expression that communicated things well enough. Smith had seen it himself. She had once come into his barn and discovered jockey Farrell Jones lying on a cot in the cold, drafty tack room, desperately ill with an infection. Smith, who never missed a pimple on a horse but tended to be oblivious to the plight of his fellow man, hadn’t taken the slightest notice of the boy and whatever ominous hacking noises must have been coming from the tack room. Marcela was appalled. She fired that look around, Farrell got his medicine and blankets, and everyone felt ashamed of themselves. No one ever forgot it.

  Smith asked Marcela to see what she could do about Seabiscuit’s clandestine munching. Marcela called on Ollie, and they had a talk. The gift snacks disappeared. Smith started conditioning his horse all over again.

  ———

  By the time Smith was able to get Seabiscuit in racing shape, two months had passed since the World’s Fair Handicap. It was already the second week of February, the Santa Anita Handicap was a little more than two weeks away, and Seabiscuit was far behind in his preparation. If Smith could get the horse into a race on the weekend of February 9, he would have time enough to run him once more before the hundred-grander. The only suitable race that weekend was the seven-furlong Huntington Beach Handicap, in which Rosemont was set to run. Smith had avoided Rosemont earlier in the season not because he feared Seabiscuit would lose, but because he feared his horse would win, prompting the racing secretary to assign him heavy weight for the hundred-grander. That problem no longer existed; weights had finally been posted. Seabiscuit would carry 114 pounds, probably not as few as Smith had hoped for, but no backbreaker either. On February 9, Smith sent his horse out for the Huntington.

  Without any urging from Pollard, Seabiscuit shot from the gate as he had in the World’s Fair, but this time there was a horse to go with him, Cloud D’Or. Pollard clucked once in Seabiscuit’s ear, and his colt hooked up with his rival on a dizzying pace, with Seabiscuit down on the deep, slow rail and Cloud D’Or on the outside. After half a mile, they were two and two-fifths seconds below the track record. At three quarters of a mile, they were just one second off the world record. They left the field far behind them, never to catch up.

  In the homestretch, with a sixteenth of a mile to go, Seabiscuit had had enough fooling around and abruptly burst away from Cloud D’Or. Once safely in the lead, Pollard slowed him down, and Seabiscuit galloped in ahead by four and a half lengths. Rosemont labored in far behind. After they passed the wire, Pollard let Seabiscuit keep running to get more of a workout from the race. The horse galloped until he had completed a mile in 1:36, more than a second faster than any horse would run that distance at Santa Anita in the entire year. Again, Seabiscuit wasn’t even breathing hard in the winner’s circle.

  “Heck, I’ve never let Seabiscuit out yet,” Pollard boasted after the race. “You’ll really see Seabiscuit do some running when I cut him loose in the big race.”

  Smith knew he had the best horse in America.11

  Horsemen in the East didn’t know it yet. In the eastern race books, the horse was still a long shot for the hundred-grander. Seabiscuit’s final prep race, the San Antonio Handicap, seemed to confirm the easterners’ wisdom. Hung out in post position eleven—eleven positions out from the rail—Seabiscuit was bumped at the break, dropped back to fourteenth, then drifted extremely wide down the backstretch as Rosemont cruised ahead of him. Seabiscuit ran up on the heels of a group of horses and was forced to check sharply, then ran hopelessly wide again on the final turn. Finally loose in the stretch, Seabiscuit cut Rosemont’s eight-length lead in half but couldn’t catch him, finishing fifth. Rosemont won.

  Quiet trepidation settled over the Howard barn in the week before the Santa Anita Handicap. Late in the week, a long, soaking shower doused the racing oval. When the rain stopped, asphalt-baking machines droned over the course, licking flames over the surface to dry the soil. Rosemont emerged from the barn three days before the race and scorched the track in his final workout. Reporters waited for Smith to give his horse a similar workout, but they never saw Seabiscuit doing anything more than stretching his legs. Rumors swirled around the track that Seabiscuit was lame. Rosemont’s stock rose; Seabiscuit’s dropped.

  Smith had fooled them. At three o’clock one morning shortly before the race, he led Seabiscuit out to the track and gave him one last workout in peace and isolation. The horse ran beautifully.

  On February 27, 1937, Charles and Marcela Howard arrived at Santa Anita to watch their pride
and joy go for the hundred-grander. They were giddy with anticipation. “If Seabiscuit loses,” mused a friend, “Mrs. Howard is going to be so heartbroken that I’ll have to carry her out.12 If he wins, Charley’ll be so excited that I’ll have to carry him.” Howard couldn’t keep still. He trotted up to the press box and made the wildly popular announcement that if his horse won, he’d send up a barrel of champagne for the reporters. He went down to the betting area, and seeing that the line was too long to wait, he grabbed a bettor and jammed five $1,000 bills into his hand.13 “Put it all on Seabiscuit’s nose, please,” he told the bewildered wagerer before trotting off again.

  At a little past 4:00 P.M. Pollard and Seabiscuit parted from Smith at the paddock gate and walked out onto the track for the Santa Anita Handicap. A record crowd of sixty thousand fans had come to see eighteen horses try for the richest purse in the world. Millions more listened on radio.

  As Pollard felt Seabiscuit’s hooves sink into the russet soil, he had reason to worry. The baking machines had not completely dried the surface. Rain and dirt had blended into a heavy goo along the rail; breaking from the three post, Seabiscuit would be right down in it. Far behind him in the post parade, jockey Harry Richards was contemplating a different set of obstacles for Rosemont. He had drawn the seventeenth post position. He was going to have the luxury of a hard, fast track, but his problem would be traffic. As a late runner, Rosemont would have to pick his way through the cluttered field.

  The two jockeys virtually bookended the field as they moved to the post. Pollard feared nothing but Richards and Rosemont. Richards feared nothing but Pollard and Seabiscuit. The two horses stood motionless while the field was loaded around them.

  At the sound of the bell, Seabiscuit bounded forward. To his outside, a crowd of horses rushed inward to gain optimal position. The field doubled over on itself, and the hinge was Seabiscuit, who was pinched back to ninth. In a cloud of horses, Pollard spotted daylight five feet or so off the rail. He banked Seabiscuit out into it, holding him out of the deep part of the track. He slipped up to fourth position, just off of front-running Special Agent. On the first turn Seabiscuit was crowded back down to the rail. As the field straightened into the backstretch, Pollard found another avenue and eased him outward again, to firmer ground. Ahead, Special Agent was setting a suicidal pace, but Pollard sensed how fast it was and was not going to be lured into it. He sat back and waited. Behind him, Rosemont was tugging along toward the back of the field, waiting for the speed horses to crumble.

  With a half mile to go, Pollard positioned Seabiscuit in the clear and readied for his move. Behind him, Richards sensed that the moment had come to shoot for Seabiscuit. He began threading Rosemont through the field, cutting in and out, picking off horses one by one, talking in his horse’s ear as clumps of dirt cracked into his face. His luck was holding; every hole toward which he guided his horse held open just long enough for him to gallop through. On the far turn he reached Seabiscuit’s heels and began looking for a way around him. Ahead of him, Pollard crouched and watched Special Agent’s churning hindquarters, waiting for him to fold.

  At the top of the stretch Special Agent faltered. Pollard pulled Seabiscuit’s nose to the outside and slapped him on the rump. Seabiscuit pounced. Richards saw him go and gunned Rosemont through the hole after him, but Seabiscuit had stolen a three-length advantage. Special Agent gave way grudgingly along the inside as Indian Broom rallied up the outside, not quite quick enough to keep up.14

  Lengthening stride for the long run to the wire, Seabiscuit was alone on the lead in the dry, hard center of the track. Pollard had delivered a masterpiece of reinsmanship, avoiding the traps and saving ground while minimizing his run along the boggy rail. He had won the tactical battle with Richards. He was coming into the homestretch of the richest race in the world with a strong horse beneath him. Behind them were seventeen of the best horses in the nation. To the left and right, sixty thousand voices roared. Ahead was nothing but a long strip of red soil.

  The rest of the field peeled away, scattered across thirty-two lengths of track behind them. It was down to Rosemont and Seabiscuit.

  Seabiscuit was moving fastest. He charged down the stretch in front with Pollard up over his neck, moving with him, driving him on. Rosemont was obscured behind him. He was gaining only by increments. Seabiscuit sailed through midstretch a full length ahead of Rosemont. Up in the stands, the Howards and Smith were thinking the same thing: Rosemont is too far behind. Seabiscuit is going to win.

  Without warning, horse and rider lost focus. Abruptly, inexplicably, Pollard wavered. He lay his whip down on Seabiscuit’s shoulder and left it there.

  Seabiscuit paused. Perhaps he slowed in hopes of finding an opponent to toy with. Or maybe he sensed Pollard’s hesitation. His composure, which Smith had patiently schooled into him over six months, began to unravel. Seabiscuit suddenly took a sharp left turn, veering ten feet across the track and back down into the deep going, straightening himself out just before hitting the rail. He had given away several feet of his lead. The cadence of his stride dropped. What had been a seamless union was now only a man and a horse, jangling against each other.

  From between Rosemont’s ears, Richards saw Seabiscuit’s form disintegrate. He looked toward the wire. It seemed close enough to touch, but Rosemont still wasn’t past Seabiscuit’s saddlecloth.15 He had been riding on instinct, reflex, but now his heart caught in his throat: I am too late. Desperate, he flung himself over Rosemont’s neck, booting and whipping and screaming, “Faster, baby, faster!” Striding high in the center of the track, Rosemont was suddenly animated by Richards’s raging desire.16 He dropped his head and dug in. Seabiscuit’s lead, stride by stride, slipped away.

  For a few seconds at the most critical moment of their careers, Pollard and Seabiscuit faltered. For fifteen strides, more than the length of a football field, Pollard remained virtually motionless. Rosemont was some ten feet to his outside, leaving plenty of room for Pollard to swing Seabiscuit out of the rail-path’s slow going, but Pollard didn’t take the opportunity. From behind his half-moon blinker cups, Seabiscuit could see nothing but an empty track ahead of him, nor is it likely that he could hear Rosemont over the roar from the grandstand. Or perhaps he was waiting for him. His left ear swung around lazily, as if he were paying attention to something in the infield. His stride slowed. His mind seemed scattered. The lead was vanishing. A length. Six feet. A neck. The wire was rushing at them. The crowd was shrieking.

  With just a few yards to go, Pollard broke out of his limbo. He burst into frenzied motion. Seabiscuit’s ears snapped back and he dived forward. But Rosemont had momentum. The lead shrank to nothing. Rosemont caught Seabiscuit, then took a lead of inches. Seabiscuit was accelerating, his rhythm building, his mind narrowed down to his task at the urgent call of his rider. But Richards was driving harder, scratching and yelling and pleading for Rosemont to run. Seabiscuit cut the advantage away. They drew even again.

  Rosemont and Seabiscuit flew under the wire together.

  Up in their box, the Howards leapt up. Charles ran to the Turf Club bar, calling for champagne for everyone. Voices sang out and corks popped and a wild celebration began.17

  Gradually, the revelers went silent. The crowd had stopped cheering. The stewards posted no winner. They were waiting for the photo. The exhausted horses returned to be unsaddled, and the fans sat in agonized anticipation. Two minutes passed. In the hush, a sibilant sound attended the finish photo as it slid down to the stewards. There was a terrible pause. The numbers blinked up on the board.

  Rosemont had won.

  A howl went up from the grandstand. Thousands of spectators were certain that the stewards had it wrong, that Seabiscuit had been robbed. But the photo was unequivocal: Rosemont’s long bay muzzle hung there in the picture, just a wink ahead of Seabiscuit’s. “Dame Fortune,” wrote announcer Joe Hernandez, “made a mistake and kissed the wrong horse—Rosemont—in the glorious end of the Santa Anita Hand
icap.”18

  Charles and Marcela collected themselves. The length of Rosemont’s nose had cost them $70,700. They continued passing out the champagne, brave smiles on their faces.

  Pollard didn’t need to look at the tote board. He knew he had lost from the instant the noses hit the line. Wrung to exhaustion and deathly pale, he slid from Seabiscuit’s back. He walked over to Richards, who was being smothered in kisses by his tearful wife. Pollard’s face was blank, his voice barely above a whisper. All around him, people regarded him with expressions of cool accusation.

  “Congratulations, Harry, you rode a swell race,” Pollard said.

  “Thanks,” said Richards, his face covered in lipstick and his voice breaking; he had shouted it away urging Rosemont on. “But it was very close.”

  “Close, yes,” said Pollard almost inaudibly, “but you won.”19

  Pollard saw Howard hovering nearby, waiting for him. The jockey went to him.

  “What happened?” Howard asked gently. Ashen and spent, Pollard said that the rail had been slow, and that he had been unable to get outside without fouling Rosemont. If he and Rosemont had switched positions, he was sure Seabiscuit would have won.

  It was a thin excuse. Pollard must have known that to save his professional standing, he would have to offer more than that, say something that would explain how he had allowed Rosemont to come to him without fighting back until the last moment. Already, harsh words were being hung on him: arrogant, inept, overconfident. He could not have mistaken the reproach on the faces of those around him. His reputation was tumbling. But Pollard gave the public nothing to make them reconsider.

 
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