Seabiscuit: An American Legend by Laura Hillenbrand

  Tom Smith and Red Pollard, just in from the West with Seabiscuit, were in the Belmont stands to see War Admiral’s epic performance. Smith knew the immense import of what he was seeing. He returned to Seabiscuit’s barn at Aqueduct Racecourse that night and penned a letter to Charles Howard. “Saw War Admiral,” Tom wrote. “He can really run.”

  Samuel Riddle held lightning in his hands again. By the summer of 1937, as War Admiral sat on the sidelines waiting for his hoof to grow back, it was clear that nothing in his age group could stay with him. War Admiral, like Man o’ War, awaited a horse who would take the true measure of his greatness.

  It never would have occurred to anyone in the East that this horse would be Seabiscuit. When they had last seen him, he was a midlevel stakes winner in the hands of a trainer no one had heard of and a jockey no one remembered. The horse had spent most of his career in the claiming or cheap allowance ranks, and the most accomplished trainer in America had given up on him. His winter victories said little of his quality, as they had been achieved on the suspect terrain of the West. On the morning of June 26, 1937, the day Seabiscuit was to begin his assault on the East’s prestigious races by running in the Brooklyn Handicap, a New York columnist summed up eastern opinion of him with two words: “Glorified plater.”

  A record crowd of twenty thousand jammed in to see Seabiscuit meet Rosemont and local hero Aneroid in the Brooklyn. As Seabiscuit came to the paddock, Smith looked over the mass of noisy humanity and frowned. He called over to Seabiscuit’s exercise rider, Keith Stucki, and asked him to position Pumpkin between Seabiscuit and the fans. Stucki did as asked, and Pumpkin’s enormous frame sidled over to create an artificial paddock wall. Smith saddled the horse in peace and sent him off.

  At the bell, Seabiscuit shot straight to the front and set a blistering pace around the first turn and down the backstretch. As the far turn neared, Rosemont began to roll toward him, and the crowd shouted its approval. Entering the far turn, Rosemont caught him, and for a moment they ran together. After a few strides, Rosemont faltered. Seabiscuit bounded away, but the race wasn’t won yet. From the outside came Aneroid, swooping around the turn. He collared Seabiscuit with a quarter mile to go. Neither horse would give. Seabiscuit and Aneroid matched strides down the homestretch, with Aneroid whittling away at Seabiscuit’s lead, inch by inch. With a furlong to go, Aneroid’s head bobbed in front, just as Rosemont’s had done a few months before. Through the reins, Pollard felt Seabiscuit’s mouth harden down on the bit: resolution. With a second to go, Seabiscuit burst ahead and thrust his nose over the line. The wreckage of the field was strewn out behind them. Rosemont was among them, ten lengths back.

  Pollard cantered Seabiscuit back to the grandstand, posed for the win photos, then slid the saddle off and handed the horse to Stucki, who was up on Pumpkin. Smith asked Stucki to take Seabiscuit back to the barns, keeping him at a trot the whole way. Stucki led the horse past the shouting fans and up through the shed rows. The cheering died out, and they were alone, trotting past row after row of barns. They drew near the Fitzsimmons barn, Seabiscuit’s old home.3 A silent procession of stable hands came out and solemnly gazed at the horse they had let slip away. Regret was evident on every face. Stucki said nothing and kept going.

  In New York, the trees swayed. Seabiscuit’s eastern critics were, in the words of Jolly Roger, “numbed to quietude.” Their respect was grudging. Back in California, they had known it all along. The Western Union office in San Francisco was overwhelmed with hundreds of congratulatory telegrams for the Howards, including those from Bing Crosby, Al Jolson, and Fred Astaire. The papers were full of Seabiscuit, proclaimed on that coast to be the best horse in America. Back East, they weren’t ready to grant him that much. The easterners believed they still had one horse that could whip the Howards’ “plater.” Around the backstretch, the murmurs began. “A single steed rests between him and the full championship,” continued Jolly Roger.4 “War Admiral.”

  July arrived and on Seabiscuit went, back to Empire City, where he won the mile-and-three-sixteenths Butler Handicap while conceding between seven and twenty-two pounds to the rest of the field. Two weeks later, he humiliated his opponents down in the Yonkers Handicap under a staggering 129 pounds, breaking a mile-and-one-sixteenth track record that had stood for twenty-three years.

  In August, Seabiscuit went to Suffolk Downs to run in the prestigious Massachusetts Handicap. There, he hooked up in a murderous head-to-head duel with a filly named Fair Knightess, who was carrying 108 pounds to Seabiscuit’s 130. Screaming around the track side by side, she and Seabiscuit disposed of Aneroid, then left the field far behind. Deep in the homestretch, Fair Knightess finally began to weaken. Seabiscuit shook loose to win, clipping two fifths of a second off the track record. Fair Knightess finished just two lengths behind him, fighting to the last. Seabiscuit cantered back to wild applause. Pollard leapt from his back and ran up the jockeys’ room stairs, shouting, “Hail the conquerin’ hero comes!5 Well, boys, I finally got my picture took!”

  The festivities moved from the track to the New England Turf Writers Association’s annual dinner. Howard received a trophy, then Pollard came up to the stage to receive a commemorative whip. “I’ll raise high and hit hard with it,” he quipped. The audience, anesthetized by highballs, made no response. Pollard started clapping loudly, and the crowd looked up. “Hell!” he shouted. “Let’s have some applause in this place!”6

  The Howards couldn’t stop thinking about Fair Knightess’s dazzling performance. Sometime after the dinner, Howard contacted the filly’s owner and offered an exorbitant sum for her. Shortly after, Fair Knightess was led over to the Howard barn and moved into a stall down the row from Seabiscuit. She proved to be one of the few horses who could keep up with Seabiscuit in morning workouts, and unlike the colts, she didn’t get demoralized when he taunted her, giving it right back to him. When Fair Knightess’s racing days were over, Howard wanted to breed her to Seabiscuit.

  A single thought occupied the minds of everyone in racing. Seabiscuit and War Admiral had to meet. Seabiscuit had beaten everything else the East had to offer. What’s more, a heated money-earning race had developed. Seabiscuit’s 1937 earnings were now $142,030, about $2,000 behind War Admiral, who was the leading money winner for the season. Both horses were chasing the all-time career mark of $376,744, set by Sun Beau in 1931. War Admiral’s hoof had grown back, and he was back in training. All of the sport began talking of a match race. Even Bing Crosby, owner of a promising colt named High Strike, began goading Howard. CONGRATULATIONS, he wrote in a telegram to Howard after the Massachusetts Handicap.8 PACIFIC COAST CLAMORING FOR MATCH RACE HIGH STRIKE WAR ADMIRAL SEA BISCUIT IN THAT ORDER. Howard loved the idea.

  Across the country, turf writers began agitating for the match. The Los Angeles Daily News began a running poll on who would win.7 Seabiscuit held a slight edge. Racetracks all over the nation began bidding for the race. Down in Florida, Hialeah officials began talking of $100,000 for a match on George Washington’s birthday. Arlington Park in Chicago also bandied around the idea. Then, in late August, Bay Meadows wired a formal proposal to Howard and Samuel Riddle, offering $40,000 for a fall match, with Seabiscuit weighted at 126 pounds to 120 for the year-younger War Admiral. Howard accepted. Riddle would not commit. The match-race idea withered on the vine.

  Then Riddle surprised everyone. After strong urging from Santa Anita founder Doc Strub, he agreed to enter War Admiral in the 1938 hundred-grander, Seabiscuit’s career objective. The press jumped on it.

  Smith was skeptical. He knew enough about Riddle to believe that the old owner would never subject his skittish colt to a five-day rail journey to race in what he viewed as the sport’s minor leagues. Smith believed they were going to have to hunt War Admiral on his own turf.

  Seabiscuit had won seven consecutive stakes races. The all-time record was eight. Howard wanted to break the record, but he had a tough choice to make. As Smith had foreseen, since his stellar per
formance in the 1937 Santa Anita Handicap Seabiscuit had been assigned the highest weight in virtually every race, at times carrying over twenty pounds more than his rivals. By the rule of thumb that every two to three pounds slows a horse by a length at eight to ten furlongs (a mile to a mile-and-a-quarter), and every pound costs him a length at ten furlongs or more, Seabiscuit was running with massive handicaps. The highter the impost, the greater the risk of injury, a significant concern for Seabiscuit, who had a history of leg trouble. Many top horses before him, such as his grandsire, Man o’ War, had been retired prematurely to avoid high imposts. Others who had continued to campaign under high weight, such as Equipoise and Discovery, had lost repeatedly.

  Howard was willing to accept higher weight, to a point. “Seabiscuit,” he said, “is not a truck.” He set a limit of 130 pounds, choosing that weight because it was the most the racing secretary would be permitted to assign in the 1938 Santa Anita Handicap. Should Seabiscuit win that event, Howard stated, he would be willing to accept higher imposts. One hundred and thirty was an enormous impost—many of history’s greatest horses had failed to win under it—but Howard’s statement was not well received. Several columnists accused him of lacking the courage and sportsmanship to truly test his horse. The charge cut deep.

  The issue came to a head that September. Seabiscuit had been entered in both the Hawthorne Gold Cup in Chicago and the Narragansett Special in Rhode Island. The races were both scheduled for September 11. Narragansett assigned Seabiscuit a leaden 132 pounds, while Hawthorne gave him 128. Howard agonized over the decision. He didn’t want to burden Seabiscuit with 132 pounds, but he knew that going the way of the lighter weight would draw criticism. Howard opted to break his 130-maximum rule and promised that Seabiscuit would run at Narragansett under 132 pounds.

  On the race’s eve, a downpour rendered the track at Narragansett a quagmire. Seabiscuit had a reputation for being a terrible mudder. The charge was an exaggeration, but his performances were compromised by a wet surface. According to Pollard, Seabiscuit ran with a nervous, quick, belly-down stride that made mud-running difficult. “You know how Jack Dempsey used to punch, short, snappy jolts?” Pollard asked. “This is exactly how the Biscuit runs. On a muddy track Biscuit can’t use those short steps. In mud, a horse has to leap, and that’s not the Biscuit’s style.9 It would get him utterly untracked and he could do nothing.” Pollard, in his odd way, urged others to forgive the horse this one flaw. “We have to give him a break,” he said to journalist David Alexander, his close friend. “There’s more than one thing I can’t do and there are a lot more things than that that you can’t do or you wouldn’t be in the newspaper business. You’d be a jockey and a scholar and a connoisseur of femininity, like I am.”

  Psychological reasons also played a role. Seabiscuit hated to be pelted in the face with mud thrown up by other horses. “He just made up his mind that he didn’t like it,” Smith explained, “and he’s got a pretty definite mind. Alone, he could work well on the worst kind of a track, but when it splattered in his face, and particularly in his ears, he wanted no part of it. Oh, he’d go on, try—he wouldn’t have quit in a Wyoming hail storm where they come down as big as golf balls—but he couldn’t, somehow, give his best. And why punish him unnecessarily?”

  Smith was also concerned about soundness. At Santa Anita the horse had slipped and kicked himself during a mud workout. Knowing that his colt had had some leg trouble in the past, Smith wanted to avoid mud whenever possible.

  But Howard had made a promise to run at Narragansett, and had he scratched the horse so late, it would have looked as if he had never intended to run. He was again forced to choose between his image and his trainer’s wishes, and Howard was a man who had great difficulty compromising his image. So, swimming in fetlock-deep slop and conceding as many as twenty-four pounds to his adversaries, Seabiscuit finished third, snapping his historic win streak.

  Howard couldn’t win. “The consensus was that Seabiscuit should not have been started in the mud,” wrote Oscar Otis, echoing the words of many columnists. “Why he was started anyway is not known, but it seems a shame that his unbeaten record for the eastern invasion was not kept unsullied.”

  Gradually, the sniping died off. But they hadn’t seen the last of muddy tracks or hard choices.

  On October 12, 1937, after a month’s rest, Seabiscuit resumed his winning ways in smashing style, bounding home first under 130 pounds in the rich Continental Handicap at New York’s Jamaica Race Track. The victory bumped him up to the top spot in the 1937 earnings race. With $152,780, he was now some $8,000 ahead of War Admiral. As he streaked under the wire, the fans began chanting, “Bring on your War Admiral!”10

  Smith and the Howards knew that War Admiral was not going to come to them. They shipped down to Maryland, where War Admiral was completing his training for his return to racing, and prepared to meet him there. There were three possibilities for a meeting: Laurel Racecourse’s Washington Handicap on October 30, Pimlico Racecourse’s Pimlico Special on November 3, and Pimlico’s Riggs Handicap on November 5. Both horses were entered in all three. A meeting now seemed certain.

  For Smith, the trip to Maryland was gratifying. His accomplishments with Seabiscuit were the wonder of the racing world, and the man who had been considered an obscure oddball a year before now enjoyed cult status among his peers. Across the backstretch, other trainers began to mix up homemade liniments, trying to brew what they called Smith’s “magic salves.” Everyone wanted to know what sort of shoes he was putting on his horses. They began to watch everything he did and query him about his training practices, from feed to workouts.11 One enterprising promoter even offered to pay Smith to hold training tutorials.

  Smith was incredulous. He insisted that the training community was missing the point. It wasn’t the shoes or the liniments. “We have a great horse,” he said. “That’s all there is to it. And we tried to use common sense in training him and in racing him.”

  There was one admirer whom Smith didn’t brush off. On October 16 he led a blanketed Seabiscuit into the paddock for the Laurel Handicap. Twenty thousand people crammed into the track to see him. As Smith walked Seabiscuit into the paddock stall, a stooped man emerged from the crowd and approached him.

  “I’m Fitzsimmons,” he said, as if Smith didn’t know. “I want to ask you a favor.”

  Smith, a little starstruck, listened.

  “Mr. Smith, I am very fond of Seabiscuit, and I would consider it an honor if you would permit me to hold him while he is being saddled.”

  Smith’s eyes shone as he handed Fitzsimmons the reins. He quietly saddled Seabiscuit while Fitzsimmons stood at the head of the horse he had lost. In a few moments the horse was ready, and Fitzsimmons passed the reins back and stepped away.12 Smith turned back to his horse and collected himself. It was, he would say later, the greatest moment of his life.

  Ten minutes later Seabiscuit finished in a dead heat for first with a horse named Heelfly, who carried fifteen fewer pounds. In the jockeys’ room, Pollard surely never heard the end of it: George Woolf had ridden Heelfly.

  The meeting with War Admiral, slated for the Washington Handicap, was just two weeks away.

  A storm front rolled in and stalled over Maryland, drenching the track day after day. Smith urged Howard to pass on the entry in the Washington Handicap. Howard, ever the optimist, insisted that the track would be dry, and entered the horse. He was wrong. The morning of the race, an inspection of the track revealed a boggy surface, especially along the rail, where Seabiscuit preferred to run. This time they would not be pressured into starting. Seabiscuit was scratched. With Smith watching from the track apron, War Admiral led from wire to wire, winning easily.

  After the race, Howard learned that members of the Riddle barn were publicly mocking him for being afraid of War Admiral.13 He was furious. Though both horses were still entered in the Pimlico Special and Riggs Handicaps, each race would feature a full field. Howard and Smith much pre
ferred that the horses meet in a definitive one-on-one match, in which no other horses could cause interference or otherwise affect the outcome. Howard again tried to arrange a match race.

  The man he approached was Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt, Jr. A dead ringer for actor Jimmy Stewart, Vanderbilt was a gangly twenty-five-year-old whose gentle, self-effacing manner belied his fabulous wealth.14 His father was heir to the Vanderbilt railroad and oceanic shipping fortune; his mother’s father had invented the fantastically lucrative Bromo-Seltzer. In May 1915, when a German submarine torpedoed the Lusitania and sent the liner and Alfred’s father to the bottom of the Atlantic, two-year-old Alfred had inherited $5.8 million in government bonds, a fortune augmented by $2 million more and a sprawling Maryland property when he turned twenty-one in 1933. Dubbed the nation’s most eligible bachelor, Vanderbilt eschewed the debauchery that would have tempted other men fresh out of their teens and into a bottomless bank account. He had fallen madly and intractably in love with horse racing from the moment he saw his first race as a child, and knew where he wanted his money to go. He bought controlling interest in Baltimore’s legendary but struggling Pimlico Racecourse and set out to restore its glory. In spite of his youth, he proved to be an imaginative and effective businessman. He revolutionized Pimlico, installing a public-address system and a modern starting gate and leveling out the large hill in the infield that had given the track its nickname—“Old Hilltop”—but obstructed the view of the races. By the fall of 1937 Pimlico was beginning to make a comeback, but progress was slow. Vanderbilt wanted a headliner.

  Howard recognized Vanderbilt’s tremendous influence and powers of persuasion, and knew that Pimlico needed his horse. He proposed that Vanderbilt try to host a meeting between Seabiscuit and War Admiral. He told him that he’d take a match at any distance from a mile to a mile and a quarter, anytime the track was fast. He offered to run against the colt for a small purse or simply for a winner’s cup. “I believe Seabiscuit can beat War Admiral,” he said.15 “Maybe I’m wrong, but I’m willing to run against him to test the theory. It is all up to Mr. Riddle.” Vanderbilt approached the elder horseman with an offer for a match race for $50,000. Riddle declined.

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