Seabiscuit: An American Legend by Laura Hillenbrand


  It didn’t do any good.

  A pall hung over Barn 38. Ollie, the groom, was openly miserable. Howard’s usual cheer was forced. Smith was even less friendly than usual. Mulling over the loss to Rosemont, he took out Seabiscuit’s blinkers and a pocketknife and cut small holes in the back of each eye cup, giving the horse two rearview windows. No horse was going to sneak up on him again.

  Only Seabiscuit was buoyant. He came out of the race full of fight. Pollard took him out for a spin two days after the race, and the horse pulled so hard that the jockey returned with angry blisters on his hands. Seabiscuit was screaming to run, and the $10,000 San Juan Capistrano, the stakes finale of the Santa Anita winter meeting, was the perfect spot.22

  On March 6, 1937, Pollard and Seabiscuit walked onto the course for the race. Smith and the Howards looked out over the crowd and saw for the first time how famous Seabiscuit had become. Forty-five thousand rowdy fans had packed the track to see him run, and they had made him the heavy favorite. Though Rosemont had passed on the race in favor of a journey east, it was still a formidable field. Indian Broom, who had been running beyond his ideal distance when he finished third in the mile-and-a-quarter Santa Anita Handicap, was the world record holder at the San Juan Capistrano distance of a mile and an eighth. Special Agent, who like Indian Broom was owned by the A.C.T. Stock Farm, was the track record holder at a mile and a sixteenth.

  The A.C.T. riders were in cahoots to beat Seabiscuit. Special Agent’s rider planned to slip away to an insurmountable lead early in the race, while George Woolf, on Indian Broom, would lay behind Seabiscuit, hoping that Pollard’s colt would wear himself out chasing Special Agent and leave him free to pounce on him late, as Rosemont had. Pollard was in a tricky spot. Hot pursuit would be Seabiscuit’s downfall, but holding back might hand the race to Special Agent.

  Pollard wrapped the reins in loops around his fingers and waited in the gate. At the break, Special Agent bolted out ahead of him, while Woolf dropped Indian Broom behind. Pollard could feel that the pace Special Agent was setting was too fast, so he held Seabiscuit right behind him, just close enough to keep him from stealing away but just far enough behind to keep Seabiscuit’s speed in reserve. Special Agent’s rider hustled him furiously; Pollard tracked him like a tiger. Rounding into the bend for home, Pollard let a loop of the reins slip through his fingers. Seabiscuit ate up the length of rein, bounding past Special Agent and leaving Woolf and Indian Broom flat-footed. The race caller yelled, “Here comes Seabiscuit!” and a joyful shout rose over the track. Seabiscuit buried the field. With Pollard standing on his back, pulling him in, he flew down the lane to win by seven lengths, smashing the track record.

  Cheering swept down in waves from the stands. A spontaneous call was echoing over the sea of heads: “Bring on Rosemont!”

  Rosemont had returned east. Smith wanted to go get him, but Howard wasn’t ready yet. He was working out a glory tour in his head, and he wanted his hometown of San Francisco to see his horse once more. Rosemont could wait. They returned north, to Tanforan.

  Smith was getting wound up. He had tucked Seabiscuit into a steel-doored stall and cordoned off the barn area, but the reporters were driving him to distraction. And he was worried about the weight assignments his horse’s success would bring. On April 3, he swung Pollard onto Seabiscuit and secured enough lead pads under the saddle to bring the horse’s impost to a whopping 130 pounds. As dusk fell, he led the two out onto the emptiness of Tanforan. Smith stood at the finish line as Pollard turned Seabiscuit loose for a nine-furlong workout. Seabiscuit inhaled the track. As he flashed under the wire in the darkness, Smith waved him down.

  Smith thought he had pulled off the workout in secret. But somewhere on the oval’s apron, a San Francisco Examiner photographer had stepped out of the darkness and snapped the horse’s picture. Worse, an owner who happened to be passing by saw the horse working and pulled out his stopwatch. Seabiscuit had worked faster than any horse had raced the entire season. The story was all over the sports pages.

  Foiled by the press once again, Smith was ready to crank things up another notch. A coincidence gave him a new way to thwart his pursuers. One afternoon in early April, Smith and Howard discovered Grog, Seabiscuit’s old stable pal in the Fitzsimmons barn, doddering along in a claiming race at Tanforan.23 He had changed hands as often as a dollar bill and was now running under the colors of a Hollywood screenwriter. Howard had become fiercely sentimental about all sons of Hard Tack. “Never sell a Hard Tack short” he liked to say. He had nearly achieved his goal of buying every single Hard Tack yearling on the market. He wanted to take Grog in. Smith agreed, and they claimed the horse and moved him in next to Seabiscuit. Within two weeks Smith had Grog and Pollard back in the winner’s circle.

  It is possible that Smith saw something promising in the $4,000 claimer. But the trainer’s interest probably had less to do with Grog’s speed than with his appearance. Grog and Seabiscuit were practically identical, as they had been as youngsters. Only Smith and his grooms could distinguish one from the other. Grog gave Smith another weapon in his war with the press.

  One morning shortly after buying Grog, Smith logged the colt’s name on the work tab, then sent Seabiscuit out to work in his place. With no one on the grounds the least bit interested in watching a claimer, the horse proceeded to work six furlongs in an unbelievably fast 1:11⅖. Someone told the reporters about the workout time, and they were puzzled. With a rocket in his saddle and wings on his sides Grog couldn’t possibly have clocked such a time, but the reporters weren’t sure of that, given what Smith had done for Seabiscuit. Someone suggested that the working horse was really Seabiscuit. Smith was, as usual, mum. “If that was Grog the boys took for Seabiscuit the other morning then let me caution you thus,” wrote the turf reporter known as Jolly Roger, who wrote for the San Francisco Chronicle. “Look out for Grog.”

  Smith had a field day. On some mornings, he sent Grog out to gallop in Seabiscuit’s name at standard morning workout periods, then snuck the real Seabiscuit out to exercise at night. On other days, just to mix things up, he worked Seabiscuit in the morning under his own name. The reporters were immediately and thoroughly confused, and some took to spying on Smith. Jolly Roger, for one, began climbing up to the attic window of the track cook’s house to try to catch Seabiscuit working at night.24

  Smith carried the deception to the stable area. When the newsmen asked him to produce Seabiscuit for photo shoots, he would turn to his new groom, Whitey Allison—so called because of his unnerving white eye—and ask him to “bring the old Biscuit out.”25 Whitey would trot out Grog, who was sometimes housed in Seabiscuit’s stall to make the ruse more convincing. Hoodwinked onlookers invariably asked to climb on the horse, and Smith, with hospitality that should have aroused suspicion, always agreed. Newsmen, bragging that they had ridden the great Seabiscuit, unwittingly printed images of the lowly Grog in countless magazines and newspapers. Even Howard became one of Smith’s victims. One unfortunate artist whom Howard sent to paint Seabiscuit’s portrait never learned that the horse he immortalized was actually Grog.26

  The stable hands got into the spirit of things. They found that as easy as it was to convince people that Grog was Seabiscuit, it was even easier to convince them that the real Seabiscuit was not Seabiscuit. The horse’s bad-legged, cow-pony appearance made fooling people a cinch. Once, while Whitey and exercise rider Keith Stucki were rubbing Seabiscuit down after a workout, Whitey noticed a man eyeing the horse.27 The man stepped up, looked the horse over without recognition, and frowned at his knees.

  “When a horse is broke down like that, what do you do with him?” he asked.

  “Well,” replied Whitey, “we usually sell him to somebody that comes along and wants to buy him.”

  “And what would a horse like this bring?”

  “Oh, five or six hundred dollars,” said Whitey. “He ought to be worth that.” At the time, Seabiscuit was insured for $100,000, more than any other ho
rse in America.28

  Intrigued at the cheap price, the man walked around to the other side of the horse. He saw the horse’s halter plate, engraved with Seabiscuit’s name.

  “Sure,” said the man dismissively, “with Seabiscuit’s halter on.”

  ———

  San Francisco was overjoyed to see Seabiscuit again. Responding to banner headlines that read, SEABISCUIT GOES TODAY!, the largest crowd in the history of Northern California racing packed into Tanforan to witness the Marchbank Handicap, Seabiscuit’s rematch with Indian Broom and Special Agent. Pollard was again spectacular. Instructed by Smith to wait behind Special Agent’s lead, he quickly saw that the pacesetter was blocked and was not going to be able to get to the front. Pollard dove for it himself, took control of the race, then eased Seabiscuit back. Hauling a load of 124 pounds, Seabiscuit clipped past the quarter-mile mark in 22⅘ seconds, six furlongs in a breathtaking 1:10 ⅗, then a mile in 1:36, each fraction well below the track record for those distances. Then he slowed down dramatically. The crowd gasped. When the field caught him, Seabiscuit bounced away again, winning by three lengths under a stranglehold. As the newsmen wondered aloud if Man o’ War himself could have beaten Seabiscuit, Howard clattered in. Everyone looked up.

  “Say!” Howard panted, winded from bounding up the stairs. “Who finished second and third?”

  Trouble surfaced at Bay Meadows a few weeks later. Seabiscuit was entered in the prestigious Bay Meadows Handicap, but the track handicapper delivered bad news: Seabiscuit received a 127-pound impost. Smith dug his heels in.29 Knowing that they would soon be off to the East, he didn’t want to demonstrate to handicappers that his horse was a terrific weight carrier.30 But Howard insisted, and prevailed.

  Race day dawned with gale force winds. With the gusts swirling around him, Pollard arrived at the track. He was in shocking condition. He had been reducing drastically to make weight for another horse, and was barely able to stand. Once in the jockeys’ room, he collapsed.31 He was unconscious through most of the afternoon. When he was still out cold half an hour before the race, the stewards debated whether or not to call Howard in and get him to choose another rider. A few minutes before post time, Pollard finally rose. He insisted, adamantly, that he was strong enough to ride. The stewards reluctantly let him go.

  Seabiscuit seemed to sense Pollard’s weakness. At the starting gate he broke through over and over again, delaying the start for three minutes. He raced tentatively, and with the winds buffeting him through the homestretch, won by a modest margin over his stablemate Exhibit. In the final sixteenth of a mile Pollard seemed as if he was about to pass out again, but he hung on for the win.

  Pollard rode back to the winner’s circle and somehow managed to complete the ceremonies. Since the Santa Anita Handicap, his riding on Seabiscuit had been impeccable. But he had not gotten past the loss in the hundred-grander. The public condemnation was corrosive. The press would not let go of it.

  At Bay Meadows his anger boiled over. While walking on the track, Pollard saw Oscar Otis making his way across the parking lot. Otis had praised Pollard in print since his initial condemnation of his ride in the Santa Anita Handicap, even suggesting that he may have been wrong in attributing the loss to the jockey. But Pollard’s animosity still burned. He turned off the track and into the parking lot, where he stopped Otis and confronted him. They traded angry words.

  Pollard, surely overwrought from the reducing, lost control. He picked up a newspaper, folded it into a rigid baton, and clubbed Otis once across the face.32 Otis, a much larger man, dropped to the ground under the tremendous force of Pollard’s arm. His face injured, he lay on the pavement, stunned. Pollard turned and walked away.

  Seabiscuit may have been a public and media darling in the West, but in the prestigious eastern racing circles he still wasn’t taken seriously. Smith was itching to go east and teach the old guard a thing or two. Howard conceded that now was the time. There wasn’t anything left to beat in California anyway. Pollard, too, needed a change of scenery and a chance to redeem himself. A week after the Bay Meadows Handicap, Seabiscuit and Pumpkin walked up the ramp of the Pullman car and settled into the straw to sleep. Smith stocked a rear car with all the oats, hay, and straw Seabiscuit would need—he didn’t trust eastern feed—then climbed in with his horse, unfolding a cot at Seabiscuit’s feet.

  There were giants to slay in the East that summer. Rosemont was there, waiting to meet Seabiscuit in the venerable Brooklyn Handicap. So was Aneroid, rawhide-tough king of the eastern handicap ranks. And there was someone else, a horse greater than the others.

  His name was War Admiral.

  War Admiral and jockey Charley Kurtsinger

  (© BETTMANN/CORBIS)

  Chapter 10

  WAR ADMIRAL

  Samuel Riddle bore a startling resemblance to the illustrated figure on a Monopoly board. He had all the appurtenances—the black hat, the white moustache, heaps of old eastern money. Everything but the smile. Riddle was a dyspeptic man. In the summer of 1937 he was seventy-five years old, and his unsmiling face was arguably the most famous in racing. Riddle was the eastern racing establishment.

  In 1918 he had plunked down $5,000 at an auction and walked away with the most extraordinary creature the sport had ever seen, Man o’ War. The horse proceeded to run the legs off everything that came near him. To some observers, the only sour note in Man o’ War’s career was Riddle himself. In their view, the man had campaigned his horse too conservatively. When racing officials offered a fantastic pot of $50,000 for Riddle to pit his colt against Exterminator, the only horse who might have made Man o’ War work for his winnings, Riddle declined. He held his horse out of the Kentucky Derby, in part because of a disdain for “western” tracks and in part because he felt that early May was too soon to send a horse over a grueling mile-and-a-quarter. In 1920, Riddle retired the colt at only three years of age. Man o’ War had run just twenty-one races—winning twenty—and faced only forty-eight opponents. Riddle did not want to subject the horse to the extremely high imposts he was slated to carry.

  Man o’ War had made Riddle world famous, but the owner disliked the press as much as Charles Howard loved it. Some of the newsroom boys returned Riddle’s animosity, but the fact that he owned some of the fastest and most noteworthy horses on earth led to a certain uneasy détente. The owner didn’t help things when he stood up before a throng of people, reporters included, and told them that when it came to horses, the press knew just two things: “One end bites and the other end kicks.”1

  Man o’ War became a franchise of sorts for his owner, producing a long string of gifted runners whose winner’s circle visits made Riddle one of the most photographed men in sport. But while many of Man o’ War’s get were the best of their generations, none compared to their sire.2 Then, in the spring of 1934, horsemen started gathering by a fence at Riddle’s breeding farm, gazing into a paddock and making the kind of awed noises that people make when a flaming meteor plunges out of the heavens and plows into someone’s backyard. A regally bred mare named Brushup had foaled a near-black colt, a son of Man o’ War, and they couldn’t take their eyes off of him. It was just the look of him. Even at a standstill, he was a glittering thing. He was the picture of exquisite, streamlined elegance, light and fine and quick. He moved like a bird: flickering, darting, fluttering. The horsemen gaped. Someone mused that when this one was done with racing, no one would remember Man o’ War. It was the kind of statement horsemen usually snort at, but no one who looked in at this colt was laughing.

  The foal grew up and Riddle named him War Admiral. He had the same imperious, lordly way of his father. He would not tolerate stillness. He was so keyed to go that if a paddock official rang the saddling bell, he would lunge from his stall and drag his handlers toward the track. Once at the gate, he spun and fought, tossed the starters aside, lunged through false starts.

  But then the starter would set the field off, War Admiral would drop down and skim over
the track, and everyone would forgive him for his imperiousness. Function followed form. War Admiral had awesome, frightening speed. Once under way, he was too fast for his rivals, too fast even for strategy. He dashed his opponents against their limitations the instant they left the starting gate, leaving them to ebb out like spilling water behind him. In the spring of 1937, he displayed such overwhelming acceleration and stamina that he was never off the lead at any stage of any race. No horse could touch him.

  After War Admiral, fuming and frustrated, held up the start for eight minutes, victory in the Kentucky Derby came easily to him. The Preakness followed. The Belmont, the final conquest of the Triple Crown, set his name in stone. He repeatedly crashed through the gate, delaying the start for nearly nine minutes. When for one brief second the colt was motionless, the starter hit the bell. War Admiral burst out with such power that his hindquarters overran his forequarters. He couldn’t get his front hooves out of the way in time, and the toe of his hind shoe gouged into his right forehoof. He reared upward, yanking his hoof free. In doing so, he sheared off an inch-square hunk of his forehoof, leaving it lying on the track by the gate. His jockey, Charley Kurtsinger, had no idea what had happened; War Admiral gave no indication. He lunged forward on the bleeding leg, blew past the entire field in ten leaps, and charged on, a lurid spray of blood flying out behind him as he ran.

  No one could catch him. He took the victory, the Triple Crown, his father’s track record, and an American speed record. When Kurtsinger slid off in the winner’s circle and reached down to unlatch the girth, he was horrified to discover his colt’s belly and hoof dripping with blood. The onlookers shivered.

 
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