Seabiscuit: An American Legend by Laura Hillenbrand


  Perhaps he couldn’t. He had a secret to keep, a gamble he had made years earlier and remade with each race. But he could no longer think that its risks affected only himself.

  Perhaps Pollard didn’t see Rosemont coming because of the blindness of his right eye.

  It is unlikely that he could have heard Rosemont over the din from the crowd. Rosemont’s surge, unexpected and sudden, may have eluded Pollard until very late in the race. Pollard did not begin urging Seabiscuit in earnest until Rosemont was alongside him, just forward enough for Pollard to see him with his left eye, upon turning his head. One good eye offers little depth perception, so he may not have been able to judge whether Rosemont was far enough to his right to allow Seabiscuit to move outward.

  If this explanation is correct, then Pollard was trapped. He was publicly accused of inexcusable failure in the most important race of his career, but he could not defend himself. Had he let on that he was blind in one eye, his career would have been over. Like most jockeys in the 1930s, he had nowhere else to go, nothing else to live on, nothing else he loved. For Red Pollard, there was no road back to Edmonton. If his blindness was the cause of the loss, his frustration and guilt must have been consuming.

  Howard accepted Pollard’s explanation without criticism. Neither he nor Smith blamed him.20

  Almost everyone else did.

  ———

  (AP/WIDE WORLD PHOTOS)

  1 This thought, like all others recorded in this book, is expressed exactly as the subject later described it.

  2 An age-old, widely-followed formula holds that one-fifth of a second equals one length. But this formula is obviously flawed; a sprinter travels many more feet per second than a distance runner. The above figure and all others in this book are calculated separately for each race, using the horses’ actual feet-per-second speed. In this case, it took the track record holder 1:38 (98 seconds) to travel 5,280 feet, one mile. That’s 53.87 feet per second. He was two seconds slower than Seabiscuit, which translates into 107.75 feet. The average Thoroughbred is 8.5 feet long. 107.75 divided by 8.5 is 12.67 lengths.

  Chapter 9

  GRAVITY

  For six months Tom Smith had been holding Seabiscuit in his closed fist. He had inched him up through back alleys and smaller races, bypassing the nationally spotlighted races in favor of slow cultivation and parochial seclusion. It wasn’t until the Santa Anita Handicap, with the whole world watching, that Smith had opened his hand.

  The world had been waiting for him. In the winter of 1937, America was in the seventh year of the most catastrophic decade in its history. The economy had come crashing down, and millions upon millions of people had been torn loose from their jobs, their savings, their homes. A nation that drew its audacity from the quintessentially American belief that success is open to anyone willing to work for it was disillusioned by seemingly intractable poverty. The most brash of peoples was seized by despair, fatalism, and fear.

  The sweeping devastation was giving rise to powerful new social forces. The first was a burgeoning industry of escapism. America was desperate to lose itself in anything that offered affirmation. The nation’s corner theaters hosted 85 million people a week for 25-cent viewings of an endless array of cheery musicals and screwball comedies.1 On the radio, the idealized world of One Man’s Family and the just and reassuring tales of The Lone Ranger were runaway hits. Downtrodden Americans gravitated strongly toward the Horatio Alger protagonist, the lowly bred Everyman who rises from anonymity and hopelessness. They looked for him in spectator sports, which were enjoying explosive growth. With the relegalization of wagering, no sport was growing faster than Thoroughbred racing.

  Necessity spurred technological innovations that offered the public unprecedented access to its heroes. People accustomed to reading comparatively dry rehashes of events were now enthralled by vivid scenes rolling across the new Movietone newsreels. A public that had grown up with news illustrations and hazy photo layouts was now treated to breathtaking action shots facilitated by vastly improved photographic equipment. These images were now rapidly available thanks to wirephoto services, which had debuted in Life in the month that Pollard, Howard, and Smith formed their partnership.

  But it was radio that had the greatest impact.2 In the 1920s the cost of a radio had been prohibitive—$120 or more—and all that bought was a box of unassembled parts. In unelectrified rural areas, radios ran on pricey, short-lived batteries. But with the 1930s came the advent of factory-built console, tabletop, and automobile radio sets, available for as little as $5. Thanks to President Roosevelt’s Rural Electrification Administration, begun in 1936, electricity came to the quarter of the population that lived on farmlands.3 Rural families typically made the radio their second electric purchase, after the clothes iron. By 1935, when Seabiscuit began racing, two thirds of the nation’s homes had radio. At the pinnacle of his career, that figure had jumped to 90 percent, plus eight million sets in cars. Enabling virtually all citizens to experience noteworthy events simultaneously and in entertaining form, radio created a vast common culture in America, arguably the first true mass culture the world had ever seen. Racing, a sport whose sustained dramatic action was ideally suited to narration, became a staple of the airwave. The Santa Anita Handicap, with its giant purse and world-class athletes, competing in what was rapidly becoming the nation’s most heavily attended sport, became one of the premier radio events of the year.

  In February 1937, all of these new social and technological forces were converging. The modern age of celebrity was dawning. The new machine of fame stood waiting. All it needed was the subject himself.

  At that singular hour, Seabiscuit, the Cinderella horse, flew over the line in the Santa Anita Handicap. Something clicked: Here he was.

  Immediately, the reporters infested everything. Smith swatted at them. They staked out the barn, constantly asking Smith to pull the horse out of his stall for photo sessions and even to let them sit on his back, as if he were a carnival pony. They stood by the rail in noisy clumps during morning workouts, snapping pictures and buzzing in Smith’s ear. They photographed the Howards everywhere they went, at the betting windows, at dinner, getting in and out of their Buick. One paper ran a large shot of Marcela in the act of blowing her nose. Smith, Pollard, and the Howards were soon intimately familiar with the strange gravity of celebrity. The earth seemed to dip under Seabiscuit’s hoof-falls, pulling the world in toward him and everyone around him.

  The paradox of all this attention was that many of the turf writers who covered Seabiscuit knew next to nothing about horses and racing. Pari-mutuel racing was spanking new in California and many other places, so there were few established racing writers. Much of the coverage was left to complete novices on loan from other beats. Because Seabiscuit’s popularity was so broad-based, reporters from publications that had nothing whatsoever to do with sports covered him. Many newsmen were completely ignorant of standard training practices. Some were in so far over their heads that they resorted to invention, fabricating preposterous stories or quotations out of thin air. One columnist wrote that Tom Smith fed Seabiscuit two quarts of Golden Rod beer before each race; if the horse doesn’t get his beer, he wrote, he “whinnies and stomps to indicate displeasure.”4 Worse, there were more than a few conspiracy theorists in the bunch. Racing had recently emerged from an era of corruption, and though incidents of foul play were now extremely rare, reporters tended to be overly suspicious of horsemen, accepted rumors of wrongdoing with credulity, and adopted a studied cynicism.

  Pair an intrusive, usually ignorant, and often suspicious press corps with an intensely private trainer, and you have a volatile mix. Smith viewed the press as parasitic. To foil it, he elevated obstruction to an art form. His first line of defense was frowning terseness.5 Once, when asked to describe Seabiscuit at length, he replied, “He’s a horse,” and walked away.6 It was typical of Smith to stroll off in silence while reporters were in mid-question. At other times he would respond
to a question by staring straight at a reporter with a blank expression for as long as three minutes, saying nothing. “Tom Smith,” lamented a reporter, “is by no means a long distance conversationalist.7 Ten words in a row for him would constitute a course record.” Talking to Smith, remembered one racetracker, “was like talking to a post.” His stable agent, Sonny Greenberg, compared him to a mummy. The smart ones learned to keep quiet and let Smith initiate a conversation, which he did every once in a while. The dumb ones pecked at him and got nothing but ulcers.

  Smith also went to great lengths to keep Seabiscuit’s training private. To mollify reporters, he would take Seabiscuit out onto the track during the heavily attended morning hours, but only for slow workouts or jogs. In the afternoons, when the reporters were watching the races, he would sneak the horse out for his real workouts on the training track or another track altogether.8 If anyone happened to be standing around, he’d do his best to keep them from learning anything interesting. Once, when a man wandered up to the rail of the otherwise deserted track and pulled out a stopwatch to time the horse’s workout, Smith asked to borrow the watch, held it while the horse galloped, reset it, and handed it back.

  “How did it go?” asked the man.

  “Looked all right to me—it seems to be a nice watch,” said Smith.

  “Not the watch,” said the man, “Seabiscuit’s work. How fast did he go?”

  “Damned if I know.”9

  The secret workouts had three purposes. First, they concealed the horse’s superb form from track racing secretaries, who assigned imposts. Second, through an ingenious method devised by Smith, they helped the horse stay in racing trim. Seabiscuit was more prone to weight gain than any horse Smith had ever handled. Because he believed that the quickest way to ruin a horse was to overwork him, Smith resorted to creative solutions to overcome Seabiscuit’s weight problem. On mornings when an afternoon workout was planned, he would set the horse’s bridle and saddle out where he could see them, withhold breakfast, skip his normal morning workout, and do everything else that was typical of a race day.10 Seeing the tack and thinking he was racing that day, Seabiscuit would become keyed up, lose interest in eating, and fret weight off. Smith would then take him out to work in the afternoon, just as if he were racing. The method worked, and Seabiscuit kept his weight down.

  The final benefit of the secret workouts was sadistic pleasure. Smith took immense satisfaction in making reporters and clockers miserable. The old man had an offbeat sense of humor. He once electrified a park bench with wires and tacks, ran a trigger wire down the shed row, hid himself in a stall, and spent the day shocking the hell out of every weary hot-walker who tried to sit down and rest.11 Once he became a major subject for the press, nothing was more amusing to him than creating situations that left his pursuers confused and frustrated. They gave him limitless opportunity; Seabiscuit was one of the biggest stories in the country, so they just kept coming back for more punishment. For people trying to make a living covering him, Smith was thoroughly maddening. “Turf writers and clockers swear by Tom Smith,” moaned a reporter, “and very often they just swear.”12

  The secret workouts worked for Seabiscuit, but because Smith refused to explain himself to the press, they created a serious misapprehension. The rarity of Seabiscuit’s public appearances fueled rumors that the horse was unsound, rumors that were reinforced by the horse’s choppy gait. Smith did little to correct them. “That horse of yours can’t walk,” said one spectator as Seabiscuit bumped past. “Runs, though,” Smith replied.13 Though the horse was dollar sound at this stage of his career, reporters given to hyperbole began regularly referring to him as a “cripple.” The stories were accepted as fact, and soon the word attached to Seabiscuit for good. It was a misconception that would create serious headaches for Smith later.

  And Smith couldn’t fool everyone. Los Angeles Times and San Francisco Chronicle columnist Oscar Otis was one of the few truly knowledgeable turf scribes and dean of the western racing writers. Almost immediately, Otis was onto Smith. Shortly before the Santa Anita Handicap, Otis discovered Smith working Seabiscuit at three o’clock in the morning. “Seabiscuit and Greta Garbo can be coupled in the betting from now on,” he wrote in the Times.14 “Both want to be let alone.” The reporters and clockers now knew Smith was up to something. Most of them didn’t like Smith any better than he liked them, and they resolved to catch him in the act. Smith was determined to thwart them. The battle was joined.

  Unlike Smith, Howard relished the attention. Celebrity was his natural habitat. He was not content with mere greatness for his horse. For Seabiscuit, he wanted superstardom, in his own age and in history. He understood that this could not be achieved through racing exploits alone. He had to win over the public. After the 1937 Santa Anita Handicap, Howard began a conquest of the popular imagination.

  His first effort was to maximize his horse’s exposure, plotting an exhaustive cross-country racing campaign that was probably unprecedented in scope, adopting a take-all-comers attitude in choosing Seabiscuit’s races and opponents, and even running full-page ads celebrating Seabiscuit’s wins. Understanding that the press, as the public’s proxy, was the most important agent in his campaign, Howard wouldn’t leave the reporters alone. He practically lived with them, bounding up the press-box stairs before and after races to make himself available for questions and photo ops, dashing down to the press pool when the horse’s train pulled into a station.15 He made sure that every journalist was aware of Seabiscuit’s itinerary.16 He and his wife indulged every photographer and cheerfully fielded calls from reporters at any time, day or night. Howard went to great lengths to manipulate those covering his horse. He read every word written about Seabiscuit and wrote long letters to reporters. He kept all their phone numbers on hand and called them personally to sway their opinions and make each one feel like a privileged insider with a sensational scoop. He used them to put pressure on racing officials and owners he couldn’t influence with charm alone. He offered Seabiscuit mementoes for newspaper raffles and sent oversized Seabiscuit Christmas cards to scores of reporters. He even presented members of the press with valuable gifts, including Seabiscuit’s shoes cast in silver.17 It became a little unclear who was stalking whom.

  Even as he sought mastery over the press, Howard was its servant. He understood that his influence was not limitless, and if he made a move that failed to conform to journalistic expectations, the image that he had painstakingly cultivated could be ruined. In the years ahead, there would be critical moments in which his pursuit of image conflicted with his horse’s interests. For Howard, they would present some of the most difficult quandaries of his public life.

  Howard started marketing his horse in earnest on the morning after the hundred-grander. He made things easy for the reporters, posing questions out loud to himself, then answering them. “Are we downhearted over getting licked by Rosemont in that hundred-grander?” he asked. “No!” To underscore his point, he sent a gigantic barrel of ice-packed champagne to the press box, complete with a card.18 “To the good health of the press box,” it read. “We tried our best.—Seabiscuit.” He had promised to send up the champagne only if the horse won, but “it was so close,” he said, “I thought I’d send it up anyway.” The reporters had a grand afternoon sipping bubbly and raising enthusiastic toasts to Seabiscuit.

  The newsmen may have been drinking to the health of Howard and Seabiscuit, but no one was toasting Pollard. Up until the Santa Anita Handicap the redhead had been basking in the attention, boasting of his horse’s infallibility, and entertaining the reporters with his quick wit. He would later say, quoting Henry Austin Dobson, that “fame is a food that dead men eat/I have no stomach for such meat.” In truth, he was delighted with his newfound celebrity. The reporters returned his affection. In a discipline in which athletes bored newsmen to death with clichés and blandly politic statements, Pollard was a singularly fresh interview, articulate, irreverent, and self-deprecating. “He’ll
probably win if I don’t fall off,” he told them before a major race.19 “I fall off a lot of horses, though, you know.”

  But no one was ready to overlook Pollard’s ride, the biggest story to emerge from the hundred-grander. When Pollard returned to the jockeys’ room following the loss to Rosemont, he confronted the other side of fame. With Richards a few feet away, happily fielding his invitation to the Santa Anita Turf Club Ball, the traditional party held to honor hundred-grander winners, Pollard was bombarded with harsh questions. Why hadn’t he used the whip late in the race? Had he thought the race was won? He tried to defend his ride, protesting in vain that he had indeed used his whip and that he was stuck on the slow part of the track, but no one seemed to be listening.

  The next morning the excoriation continued. On the track there were whispers that Pollard had been drunk during the race. The papers hyped his seeming lapse of concentration. Grantland Rice, the preeminent sportswriter in the country, accused him of gross overconfidence. But it was Oscar Otis whose criticism cut the deepest.20 Though he praised Pollard’s riding early in the race and his courage in handling the defeat, Otis, who knew Pollard as Jack, was unequivocal in his assessment of blame. “Jockey Harry Richards outrode Jack Pollard at the wire, otherwise Seabiscuit, streaking along in midstretch with a length lead, must surely have won,” he wrote in the Los Angeles Times. “With riders reversed, Seabiscuit would have won by half a length. Jack Pollard did not go to the whip near the wire until too late. The defeat may be chalked up to Mr. Pollard.”

  The criticism infuriated Smith, who thought that the horse’s swerve down into the rail was the real reason for the loss, a factor unremarked in the press. Smith took Pollard aside and assured him that his critics were wrong. Few things could inspire Smith to actually speak at length. Unjust sniping at Pollard was one of them. He startled reporters with several complete sentences. “Pollard deserves at least half the credit for the brilliant showing of Seabiscuit in the Santa Anita Handicap.21 He is the only boy who knows his peculiarities, his idiosyncrasies, who knows how to get the best of him. Criticism of Pollard is unjust. He rode the horse perfectly.”

 
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