Seabiscuit: An American Legend by Laura Hillenbrand


  Time passed. A breeze whistled over the empty track. Seabiscuit didn’t come. The laughter gradually died out.

  By the time the boys at the training track realized that they had been had, it was all over. Seeing that he had emptied out the clockers’ stand and reporters’ booths, Smith had simply turned Seabiscuit around and worked him over on the main track. He had fooled every single clocker and newsman on the grounds.

  Knowing he wouldn’t be able to pull that off twice, Smith tried his most ingenious move: hiding in plain sight. Since his pursuers were focused on discovering him working Seabiscuit late at night, before dawn, and on the training track, Smith scheduled a workout on the main track in the daytime, just after the last race. He knew that the clockers and reporters would never believe that he would do something so obvious, and would pay no attention to him.

  Because Belmont rules stated that any workout in daylight after the last race had to be approved, Smith had to consult the stewards. He knew better than to walk over to the stewards’ stand—a reporter stood by to tail him wherever he went—so he called the office instead.

  When the phone rang, the stewards were tied up in meetings. By fantastic coincidence, a reporter named Eddie Farrell happened to have just taken a seat by the phone while he waited to speak with the stewards. Hearing the ringing, a steward yelled into the office, asking Farrell if he would pick up the phone. Farrell answered with a simple hello.

  “This is trainer Tom Smith speaking,” came the voice over the line. “I would like permission to work a horse after the last race.”

  Farrell couldn’t believe his ears. He turned in his chair and called to the stewards. “Tom Smith would like permission to work a horse after the last race.”

  “Tell him all right,” came the reply.

  Farrell banged down the phone, dashed to the press box, rounded up the clockers, and delivered the news.

  One half hour after the last race was run that evening, twenty-two giggling newsmen and clockers tiptoed to the top of the grandstand. They crammed into the press box and hid themselves, keeping the lights out and spying through peepholes. Grinning and giddy, they watched as Smith’s charge worked over a mile and an eighth. The following morning the papers were full of stories on Seabiscuit’s workout, but again, the reporters made no mention of the circumstances. “Score, newsmen 2, Tom Smith 0,” wrote Jolly Roger.

  But there was something out of place about the incident. Some of the clockers, training their field glasses on Tom Smith’s face as he led the horse back to the barn, noticed a glaring incongruity. Tom Smith looked happy.

  “I’m wondering,” Jolly Roger wrote later, “if that really was Seabiscuit the boys were looking at.” It occurred to him for the first time that Grog, who was supposed to be in California, hadn’t made an appearance out there in a good long time.

  The question was still eating at him later as he sat at his spy post outside Smith’s cottage. Curious, he trained his field glasses on Smith through the cottage window. There sat the trainer, pushed up against the oil stove. Smith, Roger noted with despair, “had a slight, knowing smile.”

  Had Smith known he was speaking to a reporter when he called the stewards’ office that afternoon? “I was just wondering which would be the winner in a contest such as this—an Indian fighter’s intuition or that wily old boy, coincidence,” Roger wrote later. “Personally, I’m coupling Seabiscuit and Intuition.”

  At the murky press of daybreak on May 20, Pollard took Seabiscuit to the track, jogged him around to warm up, then walked him to the training track and into the starting gate. It was immediately clear that Seabiscuit wasn’t right. He started banging around the gate like Chanceview and refused to settle down. When the bell rang, he left it like a shot. Pollard flattened down for a hard mile workout. The first few furlongs went well, but gradually, Seabiscuit began to slow down. After a third quarter in 25⅖, Pollard reached back and delivered a crack with the whip. There was no response. The horse kept decelerating. After a final quarter in 27 ⅗, Pollard pulled him up.

  The stopwatch told the tale. It had taken Seabiscuit 1:42 to negotiate eight furlongs on the training track, and that was under strong urging. Worst of all, it was by far the fastest mile the horse had worked since coming to Belmont. The reporters, for once, had caught the workout. “Somebody ought to tell him that he’s going to fight War Admiral,” one of them mused after watching Seabiscuit slog by. “If he goes into the ring that way against the Admiral, he’ll be batted out in a helluva hurry.”

  The rumors that had been filtering down the backstretch, whispered in confidence between clockers and horsemen, suddenly became noisy public accusations: Something is wrong with Seabiscuit. The newsmen peppered the nation’s papers with stories about the slow workouts. People were hollering suspicious questions at Smith everywhere he went. The atmosphere was growing hostile. Smith needed a little Howard image control, but he was on his own. The Howards were on a cruise around Bermuda. They had visited briefly in early May, just before embarking on the ship. Howard, chattering gaily about how he had been mobbed on the train by Seabiscuit fans who were coming to New York for the race, swung by the barn for a quick once-over of his horse.

  “He never looked better,” said Howard.8

  “Right,” said Smith.

  Then the Howards had sailed off. They had no idea that a problem had arisen since their departure or that Smith was in a terrible predicament. The reporters pestered the trainer over and over again: Is the horse okay? Seabiscuit, Smith said repeatedly, had “never been better.”

  One week before the match, Pollard rode out onto the Belmont course for his final test before the match race. He was aboard Fair Knightess, who was making her first start since she and Pollard went down in the San Carlos three months before. In this, the Handspring Handicap, she was a long shot; no one had thought that Smith could get her back into racing condition after her injuries. Firing her out of the gate, Pollard sent her up alongside the favorite, then drew off to a commanding lead on the backstretch. No one could catch them. Pollard and Fair Knightess, who might have died together on the track at Santa Anita, cantered home easy winners. Pollard was ready to go.

  Seabiscuit was not. Smith was shaken. The horse’s speed was gone, and Smith didn’t know why. The issue was being treated as a scandal. The New York Daily Mirror was demanding that racing officials step in and investigate the horse’s condition and either call off the race or assure the alarmed public that Seabiscuit was in good shape.9 Even Walter Winchell chimed in, questioning Seabiscuit’s fitness. Smith’s defenses were less and less convincing. Apparently in an effort to mollify the inflamed press, he let photographers back into the barn. If the horse was unsound, he said, he would never let him out of his stall to work out. The reporters wanted to see the horse in the daylight. Smith, his nerves at the breaking point, made an ominous statement implying that there would be no match race, then led the horse out.

  Few seemed to have noticed what Smith had, which was that War Admiral looked even worse than Seabiscuit. On May 17, it had taken him a doddering 1:49 to negotiate a mile, a time even slower than Seabiscuit’s. Four days later, it took him 2:08⅕, trotting horse time, to run the race distance of a mile and a quarter. On May 23 he had seemed so uncharacteristically narcotized in starting-gate drills that a bystander had remarked, “You’d swear he was a dull-witted lead pony instead of the high-strung animal he is.” By many reports, Riddle and Conway were weighing whether or not to scratch their horse from the race, but they were waiting in hopes that Seabiscuit would be withdrawn first, saving them from being blamed for the massive disappointment. Smith was getting conflicting signals. Some people were telling him to stay in the race, that War Admiral was training so badly that Seabiscuit, bad form and all, could lick him. Others warned Smith that War Admiral’s bad works may have been designed to fool Smith about the colt’s condition.10 He didn’t know what to do, and the reporters wouldn’t stop pressuring him.

  Was the h
orse lame?

  “No.”

  Was he not in shape?

  “If the horse is not in shape, I’ll pull him out of there.”

  Was he sick?

  “He galloped yesterday. Sick horses don’t gallop. They act sick.”

  It was time to make a decision, but the Howards were hundreds of miles away. Smith patched through an emergency call to their cruise ship: Come to Belmont.

  The Howards couldn’t believe the state in which they found Belmont. Wild accusations were flying around, including one published charge that Smith was deliberately working the horse slowly in order to get long odds in the race. Everyone wanted to know if the horse would run. Howard was privately distressed but publicly reassuring and confident. To quiet the doubters, he gave his word that the public would be able to see Seabiscuit work a full ten furlongs—the race distance—at three-thirty on the afternoon of May 24.

  On the morning of the appointed day, Smith took Seabiscuit to the track for a short morning gallop, in preparation for the afternoon’s public workout. He studied his horse’s action. His eyes fixed on the horse’s knees.

  There it was: a faint whisper of soreness. It was subtle, but it was there.

  Howard had a terrible decision to make. Seabiscuit probably could run in the race. At best, he would probably lose. At worst, he could be injured. Howard’s inclination was to scratch him, but the potential consequences were daunting.

  Belmont officials, anticipating the largest crowd ever to attend a horse race in America, had worked themselves to exhaustion and spent $30,000 to publicize the race and prepare the track. In the Belmont grandstand, which, if stood on end, would nearly equal the height of the new Empire State Building, every seat was booked. Millions had been wagered. Silversmiths had already cast an elaborate trophy. Press coverage was at saturation levels. The buildup to the Memorial Day Indy 500, normally a huge sporting event, was all but squeezed out of the nation’s press; in the San Francisco Chronicle, coverage of the auto race was buried, alongside an interpretation of the tides. The horses were on the cover of Newsweek as well as the ubiquitous Radio Guide, which showed War Admiral galloping, Seabiscuit yawning. Billboards advertising the event rimmed every major road on Long Island. CBS Radio had taken out full-page ads to promote its international broadcast of the race. Several “Seabiscuit Limited” trains, packed to the doors, were already en route from the West Coast. Other chartered trains were coming from Kentucky, Chicago, Boston, and Philadelphia. Bing Crosby had booked a plane east with a huge party of his friends. Swope, Widener, and Whitney had gone out on a narrow limb to give Howard what he had demanded, putting up an enormous purse and postponing the Suburban Handicap, a fixture of the biggest racing day of the spring, to accommodate the race. There was even talk of shipping old Man o’ War all the way from Kentucky to accompany his son and grandson to the post. The world awaited the race with rapt attention.

  And should Howard decide to scratch the horse, he knew that it would only confirm the long-standing belief that his horse was a “cripple.” “Now the one time out of so many times that the critics appear to be right,” Howard said bitterly, “has to come just before a race like this.”11

  Hours before Seabiscuit was to undertake his public workout, Howard and Smith retreated to the cottage by the barn. Nearby, the grooms stood with the horse they called “Old Pop,” grim-faced, watching the door and saying nothing. Seabiscuit, oblivious, rooted around in his hay.

  A passerby finally broke the silence.

  “He looks all right.”

  “Yes, he looks all right,” replied a groom.

  “But he hasn’t been working very well, has he?”

  “No, he hasn’t.”

  In midafternoon, the cottage door opened. Smith emerged, went to Seabiscuit’s stall, and began preparing to send the horse out. Howard went to the stewards’ stand, to which he called C. V. Whitney, Joseph Widener, and Herbert Bayard Swope. At the track, crowds began to gather to see the workout.

  Smith led Seabiscuit toward the course. Howard disappeared into the administrative offices to explain the problem to Swope and Whitney and get their opinion. A few minutes later, he walked out. A crush of reporters pushed up to him. His voice wavered as he began to speak.

  It was three-thirty. Back on the track, Smith boosted Pollard up on Seabiscuit, swung his leg over Pumpkin’s back, and began moving down the course. The track announcer’s voice cut over the grandstand.

  The race was off.12

  The crowd sagged. Smith led Seabiscuit past the stunned fans and back into the barn.

  At the stewards’ office, Howard gave his profound apologies to everyone, then took Marcela back to their lodgings at the Garden City Hotel. She wanted to cry in private.

  Howard was mortified over the disaster he had created. And he was worried about his horse. “I don’t know if he’ll ever come out of his soreness,” he said.13 “We won’t patch him up and send him out there to break his heart trying to win.” The idea of retiring him and taking him home to Ridgewood began playing in his mind. Smith shook his head. The horse was not through yet. Smith could work through the lameness. Howard came to believe him. They began laying plans.

  Howard was in a fix. His efforts to arrange a match at Belmont had not only fallen through, they had greatly diminished his chances of ever securing a meeting between the two horses. Riddle, who had never been more than lukewarm about it, could now say that he had tried to get the match race but that Howard had backed out. War Admiral could go into his scheduled retirement at season’s end without anyone accusing him of dodging the best competition. Belmont officials were snakebit. Howard did his best to warm them to the idea of rescheduling the match, even setting aside his heretofore paramount goal of breaking Sun Beau’s earnings mark. Forget the $100,000 purse, he said. Once Seabiscuit recovered, he would welcome a race at Belmont held merely on a sporting basis.14 Belmont officials grudgingly agreed to consider it, and there was talk of rescheduling the race for the fall meeting.

  Riddle put an end to that. Belmont officials, trying to come up with some way to salvage the weekend, telephoned Riddle and offered War Admiral a berth in the Suburban Handicap, which had been moved to Saturday, May 28, to accommodate the match. Though War Admiral had been assigned 132 pounds, Riddle accepted. The day appeared to have been saved. Twenty-five thousand fans, many of whom had crossed the country expecting to see the race of the century, mobbed Belmont on race day. The papers were singing of Riddle’s sportsmanship in starting War Admiral in the race. The crowd, which had greeted Howard’s announcement with sympathy and understanding, was eager to see its consolation prize.

  At the very last second, without any warning, Riddle and Conway refused to start War Admiral. They offered no explanation. Officials insisted that they give one, so they cited poor track condition. As the track was, by all accounts, perfect—the Suburban was run in record time—no one believed them.

  War Admiral’s scratch appeared on the jockey board in the infield.15 Most of the reporters, and much of the crowd, believed that Riddle had simply balked at the 132-pound impost and didn’t care enough about the consequences of scratching to do the sportsmanlike thing. The crowd had run out of patience. A cacophony of boos and catcalls rolled down the grandstand for a full two minutes. Riddle, wrote one spectator, “was accused of everything under the sun save the shooting of Lincoln and the current recession.”

  C. V. Whitney listened to the din and was livid. Asked if he would agree to a War Admiral–Seabiscuit rescheduling, he snapped.

  “Not if I could buy them for a dime a dozen. I’ll never again consent to such a thing.”16

  After seeing what Belmont had gone through, no other track managers were likely to agree to a race either. There was a rumor that Seabiscuit’s lameness was a ruse designed to avoid a loss to War Admiral, and an awful lot of people believed it. Howard had, it seemed, only one chance left. If no one was willing to arrange a match, he was going to have to follow War Admira
l to his next scheduled contest, to pit Seabiscuit against him in a full-field race.

  The next suitable venue was the Massachusetts Handicap on June 29. War Admiral was slated to run in it, and though Suffolk Downs’s officials made no effort to invite defending champion Seabiscuit, Howard had already entered him. Seabiscuit would have a full month to recover, ample time, said Smith, for him to work the soreness out of those knees.

  Perhaps Riddle felt the sting of his public excoriation. On June 6, he ran his colt in Aqueduct’s Queen’s County Handicap despite a 132-pound impost. Many of the fans, eager to let Riddle know how they felt about the scratching of a week before, attempted to drown out any cheering with lusty howls.17 In spite of the mixed reception, War Admiral won. Then he loaded up and headed north to Suffolk Downs to prepare for the Massachusetts Handicap. On June 14, Smith and the Howards followed him. Pollard and his agent, Yummy, came with them. Woolf stayed behind. With Pollard in perfect condition, he thought they didn’t need him.

  Seabiscuit and his walker visit with Pollard after a workout.

  (© BETTMANN/CORBIS)

  Chapter 15

  FORTUNE’S FOOL

  It was the early morning of June 23, 1938, workout hours. At Boston’s Suffolk Downs, horses skittered and blew over the track, slower ones making lazy loops around the oval, faster ones humming down the rail. In the clockers’ stand, men clicked stopwatches and jotted down numbers.

  There was a pause, and all eyes refocused up the track. Around the turn came a long man on a low horse. The man was Red Pollard; the horse was Seabiscuit. The great rolling wheel of Red’s life had swung upward again, and he could not suppress his high spirits. He was riding in fine form, everything clicking, the broken bones mended, his timing right. Beneath him that morning was Seabiscuit, and Pollard could feel from the tension in the reins and the rhythm under him that Smith had worked his magic. The horse was, as they said, “sound as a Roosevelt dollar” and jumping out of his skin to run. He clicked past the track poles at a staccato pace. Pollard tipped back in the irons and Seabiscuit tugged on his hands, picking off six furlongs in 1:12⅕, marvelous time. The horse finished the mile sparkling and galloped out an eighth of a mile farther, still burning Pollard’s arms in his eagerness to continue.

 
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