Seabiscuit: An American Legend by Laura Hillenbrand

  It was Stagehand.

  The realization shivered through Woolf: The caps of Stagehand and Sceneshifter had been switched.11 All the way around the track, the horse Woolf thought he had been chasing had in fact been behind him, stalking him. Woolf had spent Seabiscuit’s rally much too early, in pursuit of the wrong horse.

  Up in the grandstand, Stagehand’s trainer, Earl Sande, realized what was happening. “We’ve got the race!” he shouted.14 Nick Wall, aboard Stagehand, thought he had it too. He had sat behind Seabiscuit, watched him dash off on the backstretch, and thought that Woolf had lost his head. He was sure that Seabiscuit was finished. Wall was sitting on a fresh, perfectly conditioned horse, under a feather impost, just dropping down into his run. He thought: I am going to gallop by him and win as I please.12

  Streaking down the homestretch, Woolf was a crimson blur on Seabiscuit’s back, lifting him, holding him together, begging him for more, dropping flat to lie under the wind. Wall wound Stagehand up to top speed, his eyes fixed on Woolf’s back. He couldn’t understand it: His horse was tearing over the track, but he was barely gaining. Gradually, he snipped away at the distance between them. They drew even. Seabiscuit disappeared, his compact body eclipsed from the crowd’s view by Stagehand’s long, dark form. It seemed that Stagehand would surely rush right by and that Seabiscuit would reappear in his wake. Up in the stands, Pollard thought it was over.15

  But Seabiscuit did not appear. For as long as they lived, spectators would regard what they saw next as the most extraordinary feat they ever witnessed in sport.16 They recognized it all at once: Seabiscuit, under a tremendous load, having already run at world-record speed for most of the race, accelerated. He surged forward with such power that it was as if, said one witness, “he were breaking from the gate again.” Stagehand could not shake him.

  The crowd was in a frenzy. McCarthy, one of the few commentators who had not mistaken Stagehand for Sceneshifter, was screaming himself hoarse.10 “It’s Seabiscuit and Stagehand. They’re coming away. It’s all between them … They’re almost here! Stagehand is running stronger. … But Seabiscuit won’t yield! How he tries!”

  It was too much for Pollard. He twisted in his chair and gasped for air, terrified, overjoyed. He was choking on it. His heart was thumping so hard in his chest that for a moment he wondered if it would fail, if he would die right there in the announcer’s booth, the race still playing out beneath him. Marcela went white and shrieked.13 Someone behind her, remembering the microphone, clapped a hand over her mouth.17 Below them, Howard stood absolutely still. His binoculars had fallen from his hands.

  The rest of the field dropped into the distance. Stagehand and Seabiscuit drove side by side, blazing through a final quarter in 24⅘ seconds, astounding for a distance race. Wall was hammering Stagehand at Seabiscuit, but Seabiscuit was hanging up against him and giving it right back, ferocious, head down, ears pinned. Woolf was strung flat over Seabiscuit’s back, driving for all his worth. As the wire neared, the horses’ heads bobbed out of time, so that the lead was traded every few feet. They hit the line together.

  Again, no one was sure who had won. There was the long wait, the murmuring crowd, the timer blinking a new track record, and again, the soft whir of the finish photo slipping down to the stewards. The photo was murky, indistinct. The stewards made their ruling.

  The winner was Stagehand.

  Atop the grandstand, Marcela and Red huddled together and wept. The jockey pulled himself up and smiled. “He tried with every ounce, with every muscle in his body,” he later said. “I am proud of my horse.”

  Howard and Smith sat cold and still in their box. By two noses in two runnings of the race he and his wife most wanted to win, Howard had lost $182,150, and Seabiscuit had been denied the title of history’s greatest money winner. Howard pushed out a faint laugh. “Hell,” he said. “We can’t win all the time.”

  The press box wilted. Seabiscuit had delivered what many of them thought was the greatest performance in racing history, and had lost simply because of a fluke in the weight system, and a foul from another horse. “The best horse,” wrote turf scribe Salvator, “was unjustly beaten.”

  Stagehand cantered back to the winner’s circle. “That’s the greatest racehorse in the world,” Nick Wall would say of Seabiscuit.18 “He had enough trouble to stop a locomotive.… At equal weights, there’s nothing that wears racing plates that’s a mortal to beat him.”

  Seabiscuit returned to the grandstand, where Smith and the Howards awaited him. Woolf was rigid with rage. He slid down and dragged his kangaroo-leather saddle off of Seabiscuit, so angry over the foul from Count Atlas that he could barely speak. It was the first time in his ten-year career that he had been beaten in a photo finish of a stakes race.

  Howard looked at Seabiscuit. The horse’s head was high, and light played in his eyes. He didn’t know he had lost. Howard felt confidence swell in himself once more.

  “We’ll try again,” he said.19 “Next time we’ll win it.”

  Seabiscuit, Tom Smith, and C. S. Howard


  Chapter 13


  A few minutes after Seabiscuit lost, the Howards reeled out of Santa Anita, changed into formal attire, raised their chins once again, and walked into the Santa Anita Turf Club Ball, held in honor of Stagehand’s victory. There was a buzz in the room. Hours before, beneath the swaying palms of Florida’s Hialeah Park, War Admiral had logged his tenth consecutive victory, winning the Widener Handicap with ease. The Triple Crown winner had become so unruly that before many of his races, the battered assistant starters gave up on loading him into the gate and instead let him walk up to the break on the far outside of the gate while the other horses started from a standstill inside it. But once under way, he was better than ever. In the Widener, he had delivered a smashing performance, and everyone was comparing it to Seabiscuit’s extraordinary run in the Santa Anita Handicap. The two horses were the talk of the ball and the nation. The next morning magazines and newspapers all over the country would be running side-by-side photographs of War Admiral’s victory and Seabiscuit’s defeat. Scores of sports columns in publications of every stripe focused on the merits of the two horses. The prospect of a meeting between the two was becoming an international obsession. All evening, reporters circled around Howard, asking if he’d be willing to match his horse against Riddle’s colt. Howard, as always, said yes.

  After the ball the operators of California’s new Hollywood Park approached him with a formal match race proposal.1 Howard told them that if they could get Riddle on board, Seabiscuit was in. The officials agreed to consult Riddle at his home in Pennsylvania. Howard waited to see what would happen. Again, nothing did.

  Howard’s patience had run out. For a year he had practically pleaded for a match on any terms, but Riddle remained uninterested. Riddle did not believe that Seabiscuit was in War Admiral’s league and may have felt that by agreeing to run against a western horse in a match race, he would be demeaning his colt. Even if he had held a higher opinion of Seabiscuit, he had nothing to gain from a match race. War Admiral had already won the Horse of the Year title without having to meet Seabiscuit. Because of the championship voters’ pronounced bias toward eastern horses in general and War Admiral in particular, Seabiscuit almost certainly could not dethrone the Horse of the Year without beating him on the track. War Admiral was sucking up a fortune in purse money and barely needed to extend himself against the horses he did run against—in many of his races only two or three owners were willing to send their horses out to face him. Riddle had no reason to disrupt his colt’s schedule to take on Seabiscuit and accept a risk, however small, that a fluke would cost his horse the championship. If Seabiscuit showed up for one of War Admiral’s scheduled full-field races, that was fine, but Riddle could see no reason why he should agree to a match.

  Howard was in the opposite position. Like Riddle, he understood that Seabiscuit had to conquer War Admira
l on the track to be deemed his superior in the championship voting and in history. With so much riding on the meeting, he and Smith did not want their horse to meet War Admiral in a full-field race, in which he would run the risk of a third horse interfering with him, as Count Atlas had done in the hundred-grander. The risk of interference was not the same for each horse. War Admiral’s early speed was so overpowering that he was nearly always able to blast out to a lone lead, on the rail and away from other horses, and the walk-up starts ensured that he broke by himself, unhindered by his opponents. In contrast, Seabiscuit broke with the rest of the field, and as a pace-stalker, he had to make his run from out of the crowded pack. Howard needed a match race, and he was ready to force the issue.

  His target was a bespectacled former journalist named Herbert Bayard Swope, chairman of the New York Racing Commission, the governing body of War Admiral’s home turf. If anyone could get the match arranged, Swope could. One afternoon in early March of 1938 Howard sat down with Swope and told him that he wanted Seabiscuit to meet War Admiral, and he wanted Swope to use his influence to arrange it. Swope suggested that he enter Seabiscuit in the Suburban Handicap at Belmont Park, in which War Admiral would meet a full field, and said he would try to get the purse raised from $20,000 to $50,000. It was not the scenario that Howard wanted, but he sensed it was not yet time to push the issue. He told Swope to work on it, and if things moved forward, they could talk again. Swope agreed.

  In the aftermath of the Santa Anita Handicap, everyone at the track was buzzing about the foul Count Atlas had committed against Seabiscuit. Several reporters, remembering the foiled attempts to kidnap Woolf and tamper with Seabiscuit, speculated that the foul was the result of a race-fixing conspiracy. Santa Anita had made films of the race, but the stewards had not looked at them. A group of newspapermen petitioned the stewards to see the films.2 Expecting to see only Count Atlas fouling Seabiscuit, the newspapermen saw that and something more. They gave the films back with hearty encouragement that the stewards have a look. The stewards watched the race.

  The film showed it clearly: Woolf had lifted his whip up and repeatedly cracked Johnny Adams on the flanks. Woolf was called on the carpet. When asked if he had hit Adams, he said sure he had, explaining that Adams had been laying his horse over on Seabiscuit. Woolf was suspended for the rest of the meet. Adams was not penalized.

  Howard was furious. “If Woolf did not protect Seabiscuit,” he seethed, “it was a cinch the stewards wouldn’t. I notice that while Woolf has been set down, Adams still rides. Hence I think that it was up to Woolf to protect his own mount. It was unfortunate that he had to strike Adams, but there was no recourse. I don’t blame Woolf for not standing idly by and allowing another rider to ruin his chances in a $100,000 race.

  “Guess we’ll have to teach the Biscuit to act up at the post—to kick and rear and plunge and otherwise misbehave himself,” he said bitterly. “Then he’ll be allowed to start outside the gate, where he can break free without risk of interference. That’s War Admiral’s act, and it seems to be an effective one. When they’re out to get your horse you’re a lot better off having him away from the crowd, I’m beginning to think.”3

  His words fell upon deaf ears. Howard had to find a new jockey, and right away. He had accepted an invitation to run Seabiscuit in Tijuana during Woolf’s suspension. In 1934, when Mexico banned gambling, the lively Tijuana that Woolf and Pollard had known faded. The recent relegalization of racing had done little to bring back the town’s glory days. Agua Caliente Race Track, built for $3 million in 1929 but sold for just $140,000 in 1936, remained a shadow of its former self. Then Caliente official Gene Normile came up with the idea of renewing the track’s namesake championship race and inviting Seabiscuit down for it. There was no surer sell in all of sports. Howard could hardly refuse. After the hundred-grander, Santa Anita’s racing secretary had assigned Seabiscuit 135 pounds for the San Juan Capistrano, his next scheduled race. Howard never considered running his horse under such an impost, and Normile made the choice easier. Because Mexican racing officials were not bound by the mandate that every horse carry at least 100 pounds, they could give Seabiscuit 130 while assigning other horses fewer than 100 if they needed to. Howard accepted. Although still angry over Woolf’s suspension, Howard didn’t want to court more trouble with California racing officials by hiring Woolf for the Mexican race. California was still Seabiscuit’s home base. With Smith’s approval, Howard hired Spec Richardson to ride.

  Normile had pulled off a coup in getting Seabiscuit to come down for the Agua Caliente Handicap, but now he faced another quandary. No one was willing to run against Howard’s horse. Normile sweetened the pot for second through fifth places and offered extraordinary breaks in the weights, giving them between twenty-two and thirty-two fewer pounds than Seabiscuit. That did the trick: seven other horses were entered to try for second place.

  Team Seabiscuit arrived in high style. Howard motored down in the first of eight Buick limousine coaches packed with thirty of his closest friends. Seabiscuit rolled in, the fans massing by the sides of his van like snowdrifts. The van door slid open, the horse appeared, the flashbulbs crackled, and the crowd pushed forward. Accompanied by two Pinkerton guards, Seabiscuit swept down the ramp and into the mob. He struck a handsome pose and held it.4 He had been posed so often that he seemed to know what was wanted of him when the press corps buzzed around, prompting the reporters to dub him “Movie Star.” As always, he dutifully raised his head, pricked his ears, fanned his tail, and stood square when he saw the cameras raised. When he heard the shutters click, he relaxed. The track photographer asked for a profile shot, and Seabiscuit was turned for it. Each time the man prepared to snap the shot, the horse cocked his head and looked at the camera. The photographer tried hiding in the bushes while his assistant distracted the horse, but again Seabiscuit swung his head around to stare at him. After eight minutes, Smith pulled out a carrot and thrust it in the hand of the assistant. “Here,” he said. “He loves these. Hold it just out of reach and let your man take the picture.” It worked.

  Pollard was finally well enough to travel and returned to the town in which he had once reigned supreme. He found it shriveled and spent. The great racetrack was now a hollow, rattling place. Most of the bars and shops that had sprung up around it had shuttered their doors. The pulsing avenues down which Woolf had steered his purring Studebakers and Cords were wind-whipped and quiet. Even the Molino Rojo girls were gone. The home of glorious smoke-blowing women had been born again, transformed into, of all things, a schoolhouse. It would later become a church. One of the few healthy businesses in town was the sad trade in divorces, handled quickly and easily in cold offices that had once been noisy saloons.

  But for one afternoon in the spring of 1938, Seabiscuit resurrected the old Tijuana and Agua Caliente.5 Long before “Seabiscuit Day,” the Americans began arriving. Hotels filled up with Seabiscuit fans hailing from all over the United States. Officials, recognizing that they were playing host to the most adored visitor ever to cross city limits, rushed to prepare. The railroads scheduled special trains to carry the masses of humanity southward. Crews worked to widen all roads leading in from California. The track installed additional mutuel windows, constructed about a dozen bookmaking facilities in the infield, opened up all vacant areas of the clubhouse, and hired an army of extra personnel. Though the parking lot could hold fifteen thousand automobiles, officials knew that that wouldn’t be nearly enough. They began clearing out space for additional parking.

  Their efforts didn’t make much difference. Just after dawn on race day, March 27, the first headlights blinked over the border crossing. By noon, the Road to Hell was snarled with Seabiscuit fans. Border police were swamped, trying in vain to ease the gridlock by dividing traffic into four lanes. Within a few hours, cars had backed up from the track entrance all the way to the border. At the track, the additional parking was used up early in the day, and spectators began leaving their cars on the sh
oulders of the road and hiking in. When the shoulders filled up, they fanned out into the city golf club, then right onto residential lawns. Long before the first race, the track was filled well beyond capacity with the largest attendance in its history. The congregation at the paddock alone was greater than the track’s total attendance the day before.

  The mob devoured all the food in the clubhouse. They set an all-time wagering record and bet Seabiscuit down to the lowest odds ever seen at Caliente. The grandstand was soon so crammed that just before the race, masses of suffocating fans spilled over the fence and onto the racetrack. Unable to wedge them back into the grandstand, officials herded them into the infield. Police were stationed along the rails to prevent fans from seeping back onto the track in front of the horses. Photographers circled the course, their cameras ready.

  The race was over the instant it began. Seabiscuit bounded out of the gate in front and galloped away from his competition. Bored, he began swinging his head around. According to Richardson, each time the horse passed a photographer, he would prick up his ears and hoist his tail until the rider reminded him of what he was there for. To enthusiastic applause, Seabiscuit cantered home. Richardson had a miserable time trying to pull him to a stop and turn him back toward the winner’s circle, where Howard, Smith, and Bing Crosby awaited him. Someone swore that as Bing handed the trophy to Howard, Tom Smith smiled. It was only a rumor.

  The crowds swarmed onto the roads once again, pausing to clean out Caesar’s restaurant of every morsel of food well before the dinner hour. Cars were still stacked up at the border long into the night. It took two days for the town to clean up.

Previous Page Next Page
Should you have any enquiry, please contact us via [email protected]