Seabiscuit: An American Legend by Laura Hillenbrand

Chapter 14


  Seabiscuit slept for most of the trip to Belmont, rising only when reporters tramped aboard the train at the stops between San Francisco and New York.1 The newsmen had learned how to buy access to their source; several of them came on board laden with carrots, which Seabiscuit fished from their pockets. “Whenever food showed,” Smith noted, “he was quick to get up.” When the human buffet cleared out of the train, down Seabiscuit would go again.

  On April 26, the horse completed his 24,265th mile of career rail travel.2 He was stretched out on his side in the straw when the Overland Limited drew up in New York. The big railcar door slid open and Seabiscuit got up, shook off the straw, and poked his head out. Two hundred people surged forward. Smith appeared and glared back at them from under the gray fedora. He led Seabiscuit down the ramp and stood for a moment, frowning as the horse blinked in the sun and yawned. Flashbulbs blinked and movie cameras whirred as Seabiscuit stood there, posing.

  Several score of newsmen were scattered among the fans, eyeing the horse critically. Long before Seabiscuit arrived, the polls on the race had begun. Virtually every reporter and horseman in the East thought that War Admiral would prove to be Seabiscuit’s master. The New York bookies were having a tough time trying to find anyone willing to put a few bucks on Seabiscuit; 95 percent of the wagers were on War Admiral.3 Down in Louisville to cover the Kentucky Derby, Oscar Otis found that he was about the only journalist who thought Seabiscuit could win. Other reporters thought he was addled. “There’s going to be a pretty good horse race,” wrote the New York World Telegram, “until Seabiscuit flattens out like a rug at the sixteenth pole.” Seabiscuit, wrote another reporter, “was a hero in California and a pretty fair sort of horse in the midwest. In the east, however, he was just a ‘bum.’”

  Smith led Seabiscuit down the gangplank, past lines of trees heavy with spring foliage, around the walking ring, then toward the barns. A cluster of people trailed him. Seabiscuit, wired from the journey, was bucking and kicking out behind, so they kept their distance. On the backstretch the horse passed War Admiral’s barn. On the wall near the Triple Crown winner’s stall was a little shrine to Man o’ War and Brushup, War Admiral’s mother. Below photos of the two horses hung a sign: THEY GAVE US WAR ADMIRAL. War Admiral’s trainer, George Conway, lingered by his horse’s stall. He was a tall, cardiganed old man, formal and quiet. He hovered over the grooms while they curried his horse and prowled along behind when the horse went to the track. War Admiral stood quietly as Seabiscuit clopped past. The two horses didn’t see each other. Seabiscuit moved on to Barn 43, to a freshly painted 168-square-foot stall with a cathedral ceiling. Howard had obtained special permission to knock down the wall between it and the next stall so that Pumpkin could take up his customary sidekick position.4

  On April 28 Pollard completed his long drive across the country. He went to the barns to see Seabiscuit, then hung up his tack. Woolf was there with him; Howard had insisted that Pollard ride in the match, but he was covering his bases. Woolf’s presence was a constant reminder of Pollard’s shaky position. He needed no reminding. The papers were full of questions about Pollard’s ability and fitness. The newsmen gathered by the rails, watched Pollard ride, and commented on his obvious soreness. They began to wonder aloud what Howard was thinking. “It’s probably a matter of sentiment with Owner Howard to put Pollard in the pilot-house, and it might turn out to be a good idea, despite,” wrote reporter Jack James. “But right now it looks, from this distance, as just another ‘worst of it’ impost which our boy friend, the ’Biscuit, must carry to the post.”

  The moment Pollard arrived at the track, the hard training began. Because the starting gates of the day had no doors, the only breaking signal horses received was the ring of a bell. Smith wanted to sharpen Seabiscuit’s response to it. He began by fashioning a homemade starting bell. He boosted Pollard onto Seabiscuit, picked up the starting bell and a buggy whip, and without a word of explanation, led them to the training track. Pollard must have expected that they would go to the gate, but Smith led them right past it. The jockey had learned enough to know that asking Smith what was going on would have been fruitless. He rode out to the track in silence, looking down at the contraption clutched in Smith’s hand and wondering at the trainer’s judgment. “I thought Tom,” he remembered later, “had blown his topper.”5

  Smith positioned Pollard and Seabiscuit on the track, then moved a few feet behind them. Pollard prepared himself for Smith’s orders. Smith lifted the buggy whip and flicked it over Seabiscuit’s flanks just as he hit the bell. The device raised a clanging racket, sounding, Pollard remembered later, “like all hell breaking loose.” The jockey burst into frantic urging and Seabiscuit lunged forward, breaking into a dead run. Pollard galloped Seabiscuit out, brought him back, and he and Smith repeated the drill over and over. The lesson was perfectly conceived classical conditioning. Seabiscuit, like any prey animal, was hard-wired to bound forward at the whip’s brush over his hindquarters, a simulation of a predator’s grasp. By pairing the touch of the whip with the sound of the bell, Smith was teaching Seabiscuit to associate one with the other so that he would have the same reaction to the first as to the second: run. Seabiscuit proved to be a superb student. After a few tries, he was reacting so quickly that he was gone before Smith could wave the whip. The horse was alert, buoyant, animated, all of his faculties alive to his rider. Pollard could feel it under him: electricity pulsing up into his hands.

  The jockey, too, needed a little conditioning. To prepare Pollard for a rocket start, Smith sent him out for races on every front-running sprinter in the Howard barn. Smith didn’t care about the race results; all he wanted was swift starts and the fastest early fractions. The horses lost, but Pollard did as told, outbreaking the field in each race. His arm was loosening up every day, and for the first time since his fall with Fair Knightess, he began to look like the rider he had once been.

  Seeing Pollard coming back into form, Smith changed training tactics. He took the rider and Seabiscuit out to the starting gate. Traditional gate schooling has always been a matter of standing still, teaching a horse to tolerate the huge, clattering metal contraption around him while he awaits the loading of other horses. But in the match race War Admiral would be his only competitor. Waiting would not be a problem. If Seabiscuit relaxed in the gate, War Admiral would leave him in his dust. The horse had to learn to be less patient, not more. Smith designed a new exercise. Sitting on Pumpkin by the gate, he ordered Pollard to rush Seabiscuit into the gate, pause for only an instant, then gallop out. Pollard did as told, and Seabiscuit bounded through. After a few repetitions Seabiscuit grew playful. He eagerly dove into the gate and streaked right through, then pivoted back for another run at it.

  After a dozen or so starts, the horse was bouncing all over the track. It was time for a test. Starter George Cassidy stepped into the starter’s box and Smith brought Seabiscuit up. This time Pollard halted him in the gate. For a moment Seabiscuit stood still, perched on his toes, hind legs braced, ready to roll. Cassidy rang the bell. Pollard threw the reins up on Seabiscuit’s neck, and the two sprang out. Seabiscuit ran flat out for a sixteenth of a mile before Pollard pulled him up. Smith was satisfied that the horse understood the task before him. Seabiscuit skipped back to the barn, “obviously,” said one railbird, “in a marvelous humor.”

  On May 11 Smith began the third phase of starting gate instruction. For horses, herd animals alert to clues of danger from each other, skittishness is contagious. War Admiral was a raging lion behind the gate, and Smith was concerned that Seabiscuit would take one look at his opponent’s tantrum and throw one of his own. He needed to expose Seabiscuit to a similarly unruly gate horse and inure him to the sight of it. He already had just the right horse for the job. Months earlier, Howard had purchased a colt named Chanceview from Alfred Vanderbilt. The horse had proved fairly useful as a stakes horse, but he was an incorrigible rogue at the starting gate. S
mith brought them out together, turned Seabiscuit toward Chanceview, and let him watch while the colt banged around like a rodeo bronc. Smith drilled them in the gate until he was satisfied that Seabiscuit had seen every trick War Admiral might pull.6

  The New York publicity machine heated up. On May 4 Seabiscuit and War Admiral were brought out on a grassy lawn before a pink flowering hedge to pose for an army of photographers. War Admiral emerged first. He was a splendid sight, his mane and tail braided in yellow ribbons, his coat glossy and his head high. He was in a mercurial Hastings temper, and a halter and chain looped over his bridle barely restrained him. As an attendant approached him with the saddle, he reared skyward, struck out with his forelegs, and began plunging around on the end of his lead. The saddle holder chased him around and around the enclosure. The man threw the saddle over the horse’s back, and War Admiral flung it right off. They tossed it on him again, only to have it come sailing back in their faces. “Don’t worry about that,” said his nervous jockey, Charley Kurtsinger. “As soon as he starts running he’s the easiest horse in the world to handle. All he wants is to get out in front and go.”

  Finally, they got the saddle on and the girth cinched. Kurtsinger, dapper in Riddle’s legendary black and yellow silks, leapt onto his back, and again War Admiral flung himself around, bucking and thrashing and tearing divots out of the Belmont lawn. Kurtsinger gritted his teeth and hung on. The photographers began grumbling. “He’s just a lively horse,” trainer Conway said weakly as he was buffeted around.

  A distant train whistle sounded. War Admiral spooked at it, jerking his head up. For one brief instant he stood still, ears pricked, head high, body stretched out in all its geometric magnificence. He was listening to the train. No one was foolish enough to try to pull off the ugly halter and nose chain to perfect the shot. The attendant on the end of the lead rope braced himself, Kurtsinger turned his head and grinned stiffly, and all the photographers snapped their shots.

  Kurtsinger bailed out and War Admiral whirled off. Seabiscuit came out after him, sauntering in, wrote a reporter, “like he owned the place.” Pollard strode out with him, buttoned into Howard’s red and white silks.

  The contrast between the two horses could not have been more glaring. Though a little lower at the withers and nearly half a foot shorter, nose to tail, Seabiscuit seemed a cumbersome giant in comparison. At 1,040 pounds, he outweighed War Admiral by 80 pounds, with six feet of girth and a markedly wider chest. But the big body was perched on legs a full two inches shorter. His neck was thick, his head heavy, his tail stubby, his boxing-glove knees crouched. Whitey had done his best to clean Seabiscuit up, braiding his mane, forelock, and tail, but the mane plaits didn’t lie right and stuck out like quills. The horse stood straddle-legged, as if perpetually bracing himself against a strong wind.

  But to the weary photographers, Seabiscuit was a relief. He stood perfectly still as he was being saddled, and Pollard hopped on his back. The photographers lifted their cameras, and Seabiscuit pricked his ears and struck his horizon-gazing pose. He held the position, without quivering a muscle, for nearly five minutes as the photographers scurried around him, cameras grinding, shooting him from every angle. They brought the noisy newsreels right up to his nose, but he never moved.

  From the day of his arrival in New York, Smith was Smith; the New York press corps couldn’t get a grunt out of him. “Tom Smith,” wrote a reporter, “says almost nothing, constantly.” The New York Herald Tribune found one reporter’s valiant attempt to get more than a monosyllabic answer out of him so amusing that it published a transcript of the entire nonconversation. Smith was cooperative in only one respect. Probably at Howard’s insistence, he let the press come into the barn to see the horse, albeit without narration from the trainer. This was a step better than George Conway. A similarly mute man described by one reporter as “lean, tall and indifferent,” Conway wouldn’t let photographers near the barn in the understandable fear that the jittery War Admiral would spook at the flashbulbs and whack his head. When Smith proved more welcoming, the reporters virtually moved into Barn 43, forcing the trainer to wade through them to get to his horse. When the horse left the barn, they tramped along en masse behind him, joining large throngs of spectators on the apron of the track. They hung around day and night, asking Smith if he really thought his horse could win.

  By May 14, the honeymoon was over. “You won’t be seeing this horse much anymore,” Smith growled. He shooed the press out of the barn, slung a rope across the entrance, posted a guard, and retreated to his track cottage, sitting by an oil stove in a cramped room. Even Pollard, who had been jabbering gaily with reporters since his arrival, stopped talking. “Some suspect,” wrote Jolly Roger, “that Tom may have removed his tongue.” Team Seabiscuit effectively vanished. No one was allowed to see the horse. Pleas for information brought a vintage reply: “No.”

  The reporters assumed that Smith was just being curmudgeonly, but there was likely more to it than that. In a workout three days earlier, Seabiscuit had needed 1:48 to negotiate a mile. Though the track was somewhat soggy that day, Seabiscuit had been capable of ticking off miles in 1:36 throughout his career with Smith. It had been an unusually rainy spring in New York, and the track was difficult to handle even when dry. But the surface alone couldn’t account for so sluggish a workout. The horse seemed off, yet Smith could find no problem. There was still plenty of time before the race, but the trainer was increasingly concerned. He knew that any sign that Seabiscuit was not himself would only make the press more intrusive. He parked himself in the cottage and kept his mouth shut. More than ever before, he sought to hide the horse’s training, taking him out at 4:00 A.M. He got away with it until one morning when he was a little late leading the horse off the track. A group of clockers arriving for work at four-thirty saw Smith leading a winded Seabiscuit back to the barn. Smith moved the work times to 8:00 P.M. For the time being, no one caught him, but the press now knew he was fooling them.

  The absence of news about the year’s biggest story drove the reporters to distraction. At first they wrote whatever came to mind. One dreamed up an “interview” with Seabiscuit, in which the horse disowned his year-younger half-uncle, War Admiral. Life magazine ran a full-page photo layout of Seabiscuit’s facial expressions. One bored clocker resorted to timing Smith as he walked down the track, catching him at a clip of thirty-five minutes for the half mile. Veteran turf writer John Lardner printed the information, “but this,” he admitted, “had little or no bearing on the race.”

  The New York press corps went into a huddle. They dubbed their conflict with Smith “the Battle of Long Island.” If Smith was going to be silent, so would they; they opted not to write another word about Seabiscuit. It was a bold move, but a bad one. An angry public outcry followed, and the plan was quickly scrapped. So they formed a conspiracy. They banded together to create the “Wise We Boys,” a network of reporters and clockers operating in concert to catch Seabiscuit training.7 Someone followed Smith every hour of the day, and each reporter received assignments on where and when to be posted. Clockers were stationed at the track twenty-four hours a day, greeting one another with the phrase “What do you know?” Sentries were deployed in concentric circles around Barn 43, even, reportedly, perching in trees. Meetings were held to share information. It was, remembered one reporter, “an epic of espionage.”

  The Wise We Boys’ most inspired decision was to send scouts to pick the brains of anyone who had witnessed Smith’s secret training methods in the past. They pooled their findings and made a critical discovery. During his sojourn in the East in 1937, Smith had been caught working Seabiscuit at night four times. While this information wouldn’t normally have been very useful, the reporters were able to pin down the exact times at which the workouts had been held. In every case, the horse had worked precisely at 8:00. Further investigation unearthed evidence that Smith had secretly worked Seabiscuit twice at Bay Meadows. Again, the time was 8:00 P.M. They had found S
mith’s witching hour.

  A fearless clocker volunteered to verify the finding. On the night of May 17 he scaled the grandstand and slid out onto the roof. Shinnying out onto a perilous but hidden spot, he gripped the roof with one hand and his stopwatch with the other. He waited. The track was flooded in moonlight. He could see every pole along the course, glowing in lunar blue.

  At exactly 8:00, Smith emerged. He walked the length of the grandstand, checking for spies. Seeing no one, he pointed his flashlight at the barns and flicked it on and off twice. Seabiscuit emerged under a rider and cantered up to the far turn. As he dropped into a run, the clocker punched his watch. Seabiscuit rolled around the track, then slowed to a walk and returned to the barn. The clocker stopped his watch and crawled back down.

  The next morning, papers across the nation ran the workout time, which was slow, and attributed it to Seabiscuit. Not one paper mentioned the circumstances, reporting the work exactly as if the horse had gone out in the standard manner. Smith said nothing.

  The following afternoon Smith emerged from the barn to swing Pollard up on a horse for a race. As he stood in the paddock, a reporter’s voice sang out from the crowd.

  “Is it true, Mr. Smith, you consider eight P.M. to be your lucky hour?”

  “Tom answered,” wrote a delighted Jolly Roger, “with a grunt of something akin to rage.”

  There was rejoicing among the Wise We Boys. “Score: Newsmen 1, Tom Smith 0,” trumpeted Jolly Roger in the San Francisco Chronicle.

  Smith executed a flanking maneuver. A few days later, reporters and clockers were startled to see him leading Seabiscuit out in broad daylight. He was heading toward the training track, which abutted the main track’s clubhouse turn. Had Jean Harlow been dancing stark naked around the sixteenth pole, the press box could not have cleared out any faster. Thinking that Smith was surrendering and victory was at hand, the Wise We Boys grabbed their stopwatches and bolted from the booth, ran down through the bowels of the immense building and into the parking lot, piled into their cars, sped over to the training track, bailed out, and sprinted to the side of the course. There they sat, panting and congratulating one another, watching the gap in the track and waiting for Smith to lead Seabiscuit in and lay down his arms, like Lee at Appomattox.

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