Seabiscuit: An American Legend by Laura Hillenbrand


  On March 29, 1938, two days after the Caliente triumph, the Seabiscuit train drew into Tanforan. Several hundred fans were waiting. Howard traveled over to Bay Meadows. There he received a wire from Swope, who had a pleasant surprise. He had been true to his word. He had sold Belmont chief Joseph Widener on a full-field meeting between Seabiscuit and War Admiral in the Suburban Handicap on Memorial Day, May 30, with an augmented purse of $50,000. Now that the issue was in the works and Belmont was moving forward, Howard sensed that it was time to play hardball. He picked up the phone and called Swope.

  After agitating for so long for the race, he said no to Swope’s proposal. He made a string of demands. He wanted a one-on-one race. He wanted it run at Belmont, over a mile and a quarter, but not on Memorial Day, which would conflict with Seabiscuit’s schedule. He suggested sometime between September 15 and October 1. He wanted the horses to carry equal weights, proposing 126 pounds but leaving himself open to any weight Riddle wanted, so long as both horses carried the same. And he wanted a much, much bigger purse. When Swope heard Howard’s figure, he must have blanched.

  One hundred thousand dollars.

  Howard wasn’t kidding. If Swope failed to get that much, Howard said, he could take Seabiscuit to a certain western track, which had already offered such a sum. Howard, who had long felt victimized by eastern disdain for western racing, now tried to exploit it. “Belmont Park, the country’s leading racetrack,” he said, “should be willing to at least meet that figure.”

  It was an audacious play. He was asking for a king’s ransom, and he was bluffing. Hollywood Park had indeed mentioned $100,000, but Howard knew that Samuel Riddle would never take his horse west to race. He was counting on Swope’s ignorance of that fact.

  Howard knew he had to find a way to give Riddle a strong interest in running, so he had done his homework. He approached Riddle as he approached the marketplace, tailoring the proposal to the owner’s desires. Horses have strong preferences for particular courses, and Belmont was War Admiral’s home track, the site of his greatest performance. A mile and a quarter was War Admiral’s optimal distance. Howard had learned that Riddle shared his ambition to break Sun Beau’s all-time earnings record by season’s end; the $100,000 purse would be highly appealing. And he knew that Riddle was deeply concerned about the weight his horse was asked to carry. Before the Widener Handicap, War Admiral had never carried more than 128 pounds. Riddle set a limit of 130, ranted at the Hialeah racing secretary when the horse received just that, then balked when another track’s secretary assigned the horse 132 pounds for a later race. The weight issue was putting War Admiral’s schedule in doubt, and Howard’s offer to run under any weight provided an alternative. Riddle’s image, never wonderful, also stood to benefit. With this proposal, he would be able to accept every one of Howard’s conditions, casting himself as the good guy who was sportingly making concessions to his demanding opponent, even though it was he who was getting the bargain. Finally, Howard’s proposal gave Riddle a built-in excuse. If War Admiral lost, Riddle could always say that Howard had dictated the terms of the race. It was an offer that was very hard to refuse.

  It also must have been very hard to make. In his drive to bring Riddle to the table, Howard was gambling with his own horse’s chances. Howard much preferred that the race be held in the West. If it were held at Belmont, Seabiscuit would have to endure a five-day, 3,200-mile train trip to get there. Belmont posed another problem. Seabiscuit had run there only once, under Fitzsimmons’s care, and he had been humiliated. Smith warned Howard that Belmont’s mile-and-a-half circumference was so large that the race would be run around just one turn, instead of the two turns necessary to complete a mile and one quarter at every other track in America. One of Seabiscuit’s major weapons was his supremacy at running turns; racing around just one turn at Belmont would deprive him of one of his strengths.7 There was a strong possibility that if Howard secured the match race on these terms, his horse would be too compromised to win. It was a daring play, but Howard felt it was his only chance.

  Swope must have swallowed hard. Howard had masterminded a situation that made refusal costly. Led to believe that Howard had very different conditions in mind, Swope had already sent Belmont officials scurrying to arrange a meeting between the two horses, and if the deal fell through now, his reputation within the organization might be tarnished. The reaction of the public was another problem. News of the race negotiations had broken the day before—Howard had undoubtedly leaked it to the press—and the response was nationwide jubilation.6 Telegrams applauding the proposal were flooding the Racing Commission offices. The papers were full of stories and cartoons about the prospect of the match. The phone in Swope’s office never stopped ringing. Belmont was already talking with CBS Radio, which was offering to broadcast the race live worldwide, predicting that twenty million sets would be tuned to it. If the deal died now, there might be a public backlash against Belmont. Finally, Howard had raised the mortifying possibility that the most spectacular draws in racing would stage their epic meeting in the West, costing Belmont the opportunity to host what promised to be one of the greatest and most heavily attended sporting events ever held.

  Swope was trapped. He returned with a complete proposal that met Howard’s demands to the letter. He even agreed to the $100,000 purse, winner-take-all.

  Swope rushed to complete the deal. He contacted Riddle, who did not immediately get back to him. With Belmont head Joseph Widener committed to the idea, the only remaining hurdle before the track could make an official offer was C. V. Whitney, a powerful member of the Westchester Racing Association’s board of directors, the governing body for Belmont. The formal vote on the proposal would be made at the April 12 board meeting, but as the majority of voters could be expected to follow Whitney’s lead, his opinion was everything. Swaying him was a tall order; a staunch opponent of match races and big purses, he was likely to come out against the plan. On April 6 Widener sent the proposal by wireless to Whitney, who was on his boat, fishing off the shores of Bermuda. Widener could not reach him.

  The delay proved critical. All over the United States, track managers realized that Belmont had beaten them to the punch. They hustled to put together match proposals, and Howard and Riddle were suddenly bombarded with offers. On the same day that Widener was attempting to contact Whitney to finalize a race plan, Chicago’s Arlington Park made a formal proposal to Howard and Riddle for a $100,000 match race in July, months before the Belmont race date. Howard, playing them against Belmont, said he was open to any proposals.

  All eyes turned to Riddle. He was, at long last, willing to negotiate. On April 6 he shipped War Admiral to Belmont. The next day he wired Swope to tell him he was coming to town the following morning. But he, too, seemed to be toying with Belmont. To Swope’s distress, Riddle sent a similar telegram to an Arlington official, who rushed to New York to meet with him the same day. Judging from his comments to his associates, his remarks about Chicago’s infernal July weather, and his general aversion to racing in “the West,” Riddle was almost certainly not considering the Arlington offer. But he was not above making Swope sweat it out. “Why not have two races, one at Arlington, the other at Belmont?” he said. “That should please everyone.”

  Swope was appalled. If both races were agreed upon, Belmont’s race would be of far less interest, especially if the first event proved decisive. Complaining that “the Chicago people” were muscling in on his match race, Swope went into overdrive. He sent a flurry of wires to Howard, extolling the superb racing strip, mild fall weather, and general beauty of New York. Howard telephoned him back, reminding him that it was $100,000 or nothing. Riddle sat down with Swope. As Howard had foreseen, he loved the conditions. His only suggestion was that the race be held sooner than September, as the form of either horse might tail off before then. Swope took his request under consideration. Riddle told the Arlington officials to hold their offer open.

  The critical date, April 12, near
ed. Everyone waited for Whitney. En route from Bermuda, he was the focus of intense pressure. The press worked on him, talking of how much revenue New York would lose if Whitney turned it down, and inviting the fans, who at this point were in agonies of anticipation, to lay the blame squarely on his shoulders if the race fell through. On the morning before the meeting, Howard cranked up the pressure. “You can tell them Seabiscuit will meet War Admiral anywhere, weight for age, track fast, from a quarter mile to a couple of miles,” he said.8 “I have been willing for a long time. Personally, I want to know which is the best horse. And there are a million racing patrons who would like to know the answer to the same question.”

  “When these two meet,” he continued, “whether it be at Belmont Park, Bay Meadows, Tanforan or Pumpkin Corners, they can bet me until the bell rings.”

  While the world awaited Whitney, an event at Tanforan introduced a new wrinkle in the match plans. Only two months after being rescued as they lay side by side on the track at Santa Anita, Red Pollard and Fair Knightess emerged from the dim interiors of the Howard barn and made their first steps back out on the racetrack. The mare, brought back from temporary paralysis by Smith’s exhaustive labors, moved stiffly and hesitantly through an easy canter. She was finally out of danger. Pollard, too, was tentative. Though he presented himself as fully healed, he was barely using his left arm and his ribs were still bound in tape. Smith let him make his own choices and slipped him up on Seabiscuit’s back for a few light gallops. The jockey held up well. Howard contacted his personal physicians, who scheduled Pollard for X rays on April 13.

  On April 12 Whitney finally materialized at the board meeting. Out in California, Howard waited for news. After a long interval, he was handed a telegram from Whitney. The board had voted unanimously in favor of the proposal. The race would be one-on-one, though not officially a match race; by antiquated racing rules, a match had to be a purseless race. There was one change: Complying with Riddle’s wishes, they would schedule the race for Memorial Day, May 30, not September. Would Howard accept? Howard telephoned him back just as Riddle walked into Whitney’s office. The three men settled in to an impromptu meeting. Howard agreed to the new date but inserted a new condition: Pollard must ride. If he was not able to, the race was off. They broke without final agreement.

  Over the telephone late that night, Riddle and Swope talked it out. Riddle had a habit of raising his voice to a blasting volume when on the phone. He was booming so loudly that a man in the room with Swope said he would have had to leap out the window to avoid hearing every word. In the end Riddle barked his assent. “You know very well,” he bellowed at Swope, “my horse will beat the stuffing out of him.”9 After having demanded, and received, the concession that the race be held in the spring, Riddle grumbled that his horse would really do better against an older horse in the fall. Nevertheless, he said, he was willing to go ahead with a spring race.

  The following day Pollard stripped for his X rays. Howard’s physicians went over them. The fractures had healed. With a lot of conditioning, the jockey might be able to ride in May.

  Howard picked up the telephone at his Burlingame home and gave Swope his acceptance. The Arlington officials bowed out gracefully. The news rippled over the world. The race, anticipated to be the greatest in the sport’s history, was on.

  Before the meeting, there was another race to be run. Bay Meadows had arranged to hold a charity day for crippled children on the April 16 date of its namesake handicap, and Howard couldn’t say no. After Seabiscuit’s extraordinarily easy win in Tijuana, the Bay Meadows racing secretary had proposed assigning him 136 pounds, but Howard had intercepted him and charmed 3 pounds off of his horse’s impost. Still, 133 pounds was the highest weight any horse had ever lugged in modern California racing, and every other horse in the field would be carrying at least 20 fewer pounds.10 The only one who was happy about it was Woolf. Despondent over Seabiscuit’s loss in the Santa Anita Handicap and seizing the opportunity to eat as his diabetes dictated while his suspension was in effect, he had gorged himself on steaks and ballooned up to 128 pounds. With tack, he only just made the weight.

  The entire earth seemed to wedge itself into Bay Meadows to see Seabiscuit run. The track, flooded with by far the largest crowd ever to attend a horse race in San Francisco, was overwhelmed. Officials shunted thousands into the infield but still found the track so packed that people could barely move. The grandstand became an undulating, endless sea of earth-tone fedoras and ladies’ spring hats. Fans lay on, stood over, and clung to every support structure, making the track appear as if it were constructed entirely of spectators.

  They ran out of programs before the third race. The supply of hot dog buns, a key barometer of fan enthusiasm, was completely exhausted by early afternoon. Attendants served the dogs up on rye bread, and when that ran out, hungry fans had to hold their dogs in old newspapers and then discarded mutuel tickets. Though officials lengthened the time between races considerably, the wagering lines were so long that many bettors never caught a glimpse of a pari-mutuel window. “One unfortunate citizen,” wrote a reporter, “got in line to buy a win ticket on Patty Cake in the sixth and was considerably bewildered to find himself coming out of the melee at the end of the seventh with a hot dog.” The gridlock in the parking lot was so intractable that, even though the races ended at 6:30 P.M., it would be well into Sunday morning before everyone got out of the track.

  It was all worth it. Seabiscuit buried the field, demolishing the track record by 1⅖ seconds. The fans went wild, taking up a raucous cheer: “Bring on War Admiral! Bring on War Admiral!”

  For Woolf, the win was bittersweet. It was, he believed, the last time he would ever sit astride this little horse. He slid from the saddle, pulled the wreath of flowers from around Seabiscuit’s neck, and wrapped it around his own shoulders. The Howards stood on each side of him, laughing with the crowd. Woolf didn’t smile. He paused a moment, the camera flashes flickering off his cheeks. Pollard was looking down on him from the press box.11 Woolf consigned the horse back to him. He walked back to the jockeys’ room, slipped out of the Howard silks, and hung them up.

  A few days after the Bay Meadows Handicap, Seabiscuit’s train clattered to a stop at the Tanforan siding for the long trek east. Team Seabiscuit was slated to stop off in Maryland to fulfill a promise to Alfred Vanderbilt to run in Pimlico’s Dixie Handicap, then go on to meet War Admiral in New York. Grooms tramped on and off the train, loading a full car to the roof with rice-straw bedding, oats, and timothy hay. A multitude stood by to see Seabiscuit off. Howard pulled up in a long Buick packed with admirers. He stepped out with a big cake in hand and gave it to the grooms, who quickly devoured it, then said good-bye to his horse. He would follow him east later. Fans brought heaps of flowers, and a woman stepped forward and braided ribbons into Seabiscuit’s mane while he posed for the inevitable photographers. The ceremony over, Seabiscuit clopped into his railcar, stacked chest-deep in straw. Pumpkin followed. Smith climbed in with them and set up his customary cot beside Seabiscuit. The train pushed off.12 A continent away, War Admiral stood in his stall at Belmont, waiting.

  As the train lurched into motion, Seabiscuit was suddenly agitated. He began circling around and around the car in distress. Unable to stop him, Smith dug up a copy of Captain Billy’s Whiz Bang magazine and began reading aloud. Seabiscuit listened.13 The circling stopped. As Smith read on, the horse sank down into the bedding and slept. Smith drew up a stool and sat by him.

  The trainer had a dark feeling. Since the Bay Meadows Handicap he’d had a nagging sense that the horse was not quite right. Though Seabiscuit had won the race easily, running the final quarter in a blazing twenty-four seconds flat and obliterating the track record by 1⅖ seconds, he had dragged early in the race. Woolf had needed to hustle him to keep up with the front-runners. Howard had shrugged off the slow early fractions, attributing them to the difficulty of accelerating under 133 pounds, but Smith was uneasy. It wasn’t just tha
t the horse seemed a hair off form. The trainer was worried about match race strategy.

  From his years holding Irwin’s horses for relay races and matches, Smith knew something about one-on-one races: If one horse could steal a commanding early lead, he almost always won. Clearly, superior breaking speed in a match race was almost always a trump card. Against ordinary horses, Seabiscuit had enough early speed, but War Admiral was no ordinary horse. He was one of the fastest-breaking horses racing had ever seen. Conventional racing wisdom holds that a horse’s natural running style cannot be altered. But to have any chance against War Admiral, Smith knew he was going to have to make the habitually pace-stalking Seabiscuit, who had to fight the inertia of a much blockier heavier body, into a rocket-fast breaker.

  As the train snaked eastward, Smith abruptly made a change in plans. He didn’t want Seabiscuit to run in the Dixie Handicap. He needed time to prepare for the race and feel out this sense of wrongness in the horse. Howard was reluctant to break his promise to Vanderbilt, but he was not about to overrule Smith when the trainer was so certain. The itinerary was changed. Seabiscuit was going straight to Belmont to prepare for War Admiral. They could make it up to Vanderbilt later.

  Rocking on his stool as the train wound over the mountains, Smith began formulating a training plan. “We’ve got to tear off that guy’s epaulets,” he said aloud, “pull the ostrich feather out of his hat and break his sword in two early or we’ll never even get close enough to the Admiral to give him the sailor’s farewell.”14

  Almost no one thought he could do it.

  The prematch race photo session at Belmont Park, May 4, 1938: War Admiral …

  (© BETTMANN/CORBIS)

  … and Seabiscuit

  (© BETTMANN/CORBIS)

 
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