Seabiscuit: An American Legend by Laura Hillenbrand


  Howard listened to the hooting and was horrified. He rushed to the press box to administer some image control but met a hostile audience. Chief steward Thorpe came in at the same time, venting his rage. “No one coaxed Howard to put his horse in the race because we figured something like this would happen,” he sniped. “I think it was poor sportsmanship.”

  The crowd was howling epithets, the stewards were infuriated, the reporters were unsympathetic. For once, no amount of Howard charm could help. He reeled back to his box and sat down to a chorus of catcalls. Gradually, the din died off. Howard was deeply embarrassed, but did not regret what he’d done. “If I had raced him that day,” he remembered later, “I would have broken him down for good. I would have been a fool to do that, no matter what was said of me. The old boy had taken enough punishment in his lifetime without me piling any more on.”

  On the track, the race was about to go. War Admiral crashed through the gate several times before settling down to break with the field. His black and yellow silks bobbed along with the pack, then fell back. Somewhere in the race he stepped in a dip in the ground, nearly fell face-first to the track, and emerged with a cut hoof. He labored home far behind the winner, Menow, diving for a photo finish for third place. He returned bleeding, only to have the judges deem that he had lost the photo for third. It was the first time he had ever finished out of the money. Riddle stood up and left. Howard felt a pang of pity for him and his horse. “It seems things are all going wrong, what with Red in the hospital and the Biscuit hurt,” he said.11 “But then, Sam Riddle probably feels worse than we do right now.”

  The crowd was sagging. The race caller, collecting himself and trying to salvage something out of the ruined afternoon, cheerily announced that the winning jockey, Nick Wall of Stagehand fame, was “an East Boston boy!” There was no response.

  “If anyone proposes another match race between these two super horses,” wrote a reporter after the race, “henceforth, he will be tried in the morning for treason, mutiny, mopery and non compos mentis.”

  After the race, the New England Turf Writers Association held its annual dinner. Their evening program reflected the general view of the Seabiscuit crew. On the program cover was a handsome shot of War Admiral. Seabiscuit’s photo was put on the back.

  The next morning Smith packed Seabiscuit’s leg in poultices, bundled him up with the rest of the Howard horses, and got the hell out of Boston.

  Hollywood Gold Cup, July 16, 1938

  (© BETTMANN/CORBIS)

  Chapter 16

  I KNOW MY HORSE

  Seabiscuit’s train chattered west. They were bound for Arlington Park, just outside Chicago, in hopes that they would find some peace there. They didn’t.

  When the doors of the railcar slid open and Seabiscuit’s head poked out, Smith was down on the platform waiting for him, standing in a sea of hostile reporters. Unraced for two and a half months, the horse was supercharged. He swung his head around edgily, his ears wagging from under his protective shipping helmet. Smith called out, “Hey there, boy, take it easy,” and Seabiscuit caught sight of him, picking out his rigid form in the crush of men. He relaxed and walked down the gangplank with his usual ease.

  Having heard the radio commentators state that Seabiscuit’s injuries were career-ending—statements that no one in the Seabiscuit camp had uttered—and having heard persistent rumors that Smith had lied about the horse, the reporters were immediately suspicious when they saw Seabiscuit step out, walking soundly. They made no secret of their cynicism. “Does he really have a sore tendon?” asked one. “Why was he scratched from the Massachusetts?” yelled another.

  “My,” Smith replied, “but you must be having rainy weather around Chicago.”

  Someone suggested that Arlington Park officials would demand that Smith work Seabiscuit in their presence before his next scheduled race, the July 4 Stars and Stripes Handicap, to see that there was no “monkey business.” Smith said that complying with such a demand was up to Howard. Then he swung up on Pumpkin, grasped Seabiscuit’s halter, and led him, bucking and antsy, away from the reporters.

  Seabiscuit had indeed been injured, but the veterinarians had been wrong. The injury was not as serious as they had feared. Under Smith’s care, Seabiscuit’s leg cooled and healed. He was soon dead sound.

  The public pressure on the Howard barn was enormous. After seeing Seabiscuit walk from the train, a local reporter stated that the rumor that his injury had been faked had been “confirmed.” Another called for the stewards to demand that Howard file a definitive guarantee that the horse would start. Arlington Park officials made a point of warning the public that if it rained, Seabiscuit probably would be scratched. But though the press and track officials were skeptical, the public was not. They bought up advance seats at an unprecedented pace, packed into special trains, and crammed into the track in record numbers to see the horse they called “the Great Traveler.”

  Right on cue, rain swamped Arlington on race day. Seabiscuit had been assigned 130 pounds, as much as 25 more than his rivals. He would be running on a course that clearly had no time to dry out. The only exercise Smith had time to give him was one slow gallop, followed by a brief half-mile sprint. The horse, idle since the Bay Meadows Handicap in mid-April, was as big as a house. He had no chance of winning the Stars and Stripes, and everyone in his camp knew it. But the pressure from the stewards and the press was too much to bear. Howard announced that as long as it wasn’t raining at the time of the race, his horse would go.

  The rain stopped, and the puddles on the track went still. Pumpkin, Howard, and Smith brought Seabiscuit to the paddock, and drew him up beside a swaying willow hedge. The crowds gathered ten deep for one hundred feet in each direction, a few spectators reaching through the slats of the fence to stroke Seabiscuit’s chest as Smith cinched the girth on Woolf’s kangaroo-leather saddle. Howard gave the nod and Woolf rode Seabiscuit out before a crowd of fifty thousand. Shuffled back to last in heavy traffic and carried hopelessly wide on the first turn, Seabiscuit slipped through the mud, but still passed eight horses to finish second. The crowd was quiet. “The Seabiscuit myth,” wrote a reporter, “is broken.”

  Smith loaded the horse back onto the train. Woolf and Howard climbed up with him. They were going back to California.

  The destination was not Santa Anita, but the new Hollywood Park. The track was offering a $50,000 purse for the inaugural Hollywood Gold Cup, a ten-furlong race that promised to become one of the sport’s premier events. The field was topped by a familiar face. Bing Crosby and Lin Howard’s Ligaroti was finally coming into excellent form. On the day that Seabiscuit lost the Stars and Stripes, the “Argentine Jumping Bean” had broken the track record in the American Handicap. In the race he had defeated Whichcee, who had been universally regarded as California’s second-best horse, behind Seabiscuit. Bing and Lin were overjoyed, and prepped him for the Hollywood Gold Cup. Lin was listed as the official trainer of the horse, but the actual conditioning had been done by Jimmy Smith, Tom’s son. Track officials had been pleading with Howard to bring his horse to the race and make it a family affair, and though Seabiscuit had been assigned 133 pounds, between 13 and 28 pounds more than his competition, Howard accepted. Seabiscuit’s stock was falling through the floor. No one in the Howard camp had any credibility left, and it was widely speculated that the horse’s great days were behind him. Seabiscuit had to run in a big race, and he had to win it.

  The race was scheduled for July 16, giving Smith only a week to prepare Seabiscuit after his arrival in California. The trainer did his best to keep him fit on the long journey west. Whenever the train pulled into a stop, he backed Pumpkin into a corner of the railcar and trotted Seabiscuit around and around. Outside the train, admirers mobbed the platforms to watch him go. As the train pulled out, the fans cheered him on his way. With each stop, news that the horse was coming buzzed up the telegraph wires, and a new throng would gather farther along the route. In town after town
, through Kansas, New Mexico, and Arizona, the story was the same. At Albuquerque, even the reservation population turned out. As Smith walked the horse by, an ancient Indian leaned up and looked the horse over.

  “Racehorse?” he said. Smith nodded.

  “Looks like a cow pony to me.”1

  Smith was pleased.

  The rumors followed them west. The backstretch at Hollywood was thick with stories, chief among them that Seabiscuit was lame. The stewards listened and worried that they would be burned by Seabiscuit as Belmont and Suffolk Downs had been. They had some reason to be wary. Earlier in the meet, a much-anticipated meeting between Kentucky Derby winner Lawrin and Preakness winner Dauber had to be canceled at the last moment when Dauber suffered a minor injury. The event had been traumatic for the Hollywood Park officials and seemed to make them overly concerned about Smith.

  On July 11, 1938, Smith walked Seabiscuit onto the track for his first workout at Hollywood. The trainer didn’t like the looks of the track, which was so deep and crumbly that it was playing at least a second slower than usual.2 “It looked like they were trying to grow corn on the track,” he said.3

  Before five hundred spectators, Seabiscuit breezed an easy mile under Woolf. He didn’t show a trace of lameness, prompting Smith to announce that the horse was ready to run in the Gold Cup. But no one was ready to believe that things were as they appeared. The rumors about Seabiscuit’s bad-leggedness continued to circulate, and the stewards’ anxiety escalated. Two days later Smith stacked Seabiscuit with 133 pounds, including Woolf, and turned them loose for another workout. With Woolf pulling hard on the reins, Seabiscuit went smoothly and soundly, looking so fit that even the clockers were singing his praises.

  The pair of workouts should have been enough to dispel the rumors. They weren’t. As Smith led the horse back to the barn, someone gave him an incredible piece of news. The stewards had commissioned a veterinarian to go over to the Howard barn, pull Seabiscuit out, examine him, and determine whether or not Smith was lying about his horse’s condition.

  The action was unprecedented; no one had ever seen stewards treat a trainer with such blatant distrust.4 It was all the more extraordinary given the record of the trainer in question; aside from Fair Knightess, Tom Smith had reportedly never had a horse in his care suffer a serious injury.5 But Smith had played around with his pursuers for too long. Ever since Oscar Otis had discovered the trainer working Seabiscuit by moonlight in 1937, racing officials had been growing increasingly frustrated. It had finally boiled over.

  Standing in the barn next to his perfectly sound horse, Smith was dumbfounded. “Nobody is going to inspect this horse if I know anything about it,” he snapped. “He won’t go postward if I don’t think he’s in good shape. We wouldn’t have shipped Seabiscuit clear across the country if we didn’t believe he was in good shape. And now that he’s here, no clockers, newspapermen, or veterinarians are going to step in and tell me how to train my horse.”

  His words fell flat. The veterinarian arrived at the stall, ready to examine the horse whether or not Smith gave him permission. Smith blocked his way.

  “Nobody is going to examine Seabiscuit but me,” he snarled. He slammed the stall doors in the veterinarian’s face. The vet gave up and left.

  After trying and failing to reach Howard to get him to talk Smith into the exam, the stewards asked Smith to work the horse in their presence, and cleared a slot for him between the third and fourth races on the afternoon of July 14. An assembly of clockers lined up to see the work. They sat there and aged a little, seeing nothing but an empty track. Hollywood Park general manager Jack Mackenzie tried to make an end run around Smith, running up to Howard’s box in hopes of winning his word that Seabiscuit was sound and would start. But Howard, like Smith and Seabiscuit, never showed up. Mackenzie camped out at the box all afternoon, then gave up and went to a telephone and tried to track Howard down. For once in his life, Howard was inaccessible.

  That evening Smith finally emerged from the barn with Seabiscuit. Track representatives dropped in behind him, trailing him all over the track. After watching Seabiscuit work, they followed him around while he cooled out, searching for lameness that wasn’t there.

  The conflict turned bizarre on the day before the race. Smith sent his stable agent, Sonny Greenberg, to the racing secretary’s office with an entry form. Mackenzie took one look at it and hit the roof. Smith had scrawled two words across it: “Doubtful starter.”

  Mackenzie booted Greenberg back out the door with a demand to see Smith in person. Greenberg ran back to Smith.6 The trainer scrawled another note and sent Greenberg back to the track offices. The stewards read his message: “I have a previous engagement.”

  That did it. Mackenzie was seething. Someone suggested that mercenaries be sent over to the Howard barn to forcibly haul Smith into the office. Setting that popular idea aside, the stewards fired the leg-weary Greenberg back to the barn again, bearing yet another message. “Seabiscuit will either be a positive starter tomorrow, or we will refuse his entry entirely.”

  A few minutes later, Greenberg dragged himself back to the offices with Smith’s counterdemand: No one was to show up at his barn asking to examine the horse. The stewards complied, and Greenberg stumbled back to the Howard barn.

  In late morning, the administrative office door swung open. The officials looked up, expecting to see Greenberg. It was Smith. The stewards sat blinking at him. “All right,” Smith said. “Take the ‘doubtful starter’ off the blank. Seabiscuit will run all right.”

  Back at the barn, resting his sore legs, Greenberg saw Smith laughing. “The madder they got, the better he liked it,” Greenberg remembered. “He just done that for bein’ onery.”

  On July 16 a record sixty thousand people pressed into Hollywood Park to see Seabiscuit try for the Gold Cup, while millions more crowded around radio sets to hear NBC’s national broadcast. The radio announcer spent fourteen of the fifteen minutes before the race talking about Seabiscuit. One question hummed through the crowd: Was Seabiscuit the same horse he was when he left California in April?

  The fans cheered when Seabiscuit stepped out onto the track, then gave him two more ovations as he paraded to the post and loaded into the gate. Once in, Seabiscuit stood quietly. In stall number one, the quick-footed Specify began acting up, backing, ducking back and forth, and kicking at his handlers. He had been assigned just 109 pounds, and his jockey, Wayne Wright, had reduced himself half to death to make weight.7 Wright felt weak and woozy, and was having trouble holding the horse. A lot was riding on his being able to hold himself together: Specify’s owner, Bert Baroni, was so confident that Seabiscuit was lame that he had placed a $5,000 wager on his horse.

  Standing under his 133 pounds in the hot sun, Seabiscuit waited. After several minutes and the efforts of three assistant starters, Specify finally stood still. Starter Eddie Thomas reached for the bell. An instant before he rang it, Specify lunged forward. Wright couldn’t hold him. Thomas hit the bell a millisecond later. Specify had lunged himself into a false start, but the race was on. Wright was under Baroni’s orders to restrain the horse, but he simply couldn’t. In a few strides, Specify was six lengths ahead of the field and running away with Wright.

  Seabiscuit broke sluggishly and sank back through the field. Going into the first turn with only one horse behind him, Woolf asked Seabiscuit to move up. There was no response. From his post on the homestretch, Smith watched Seabiscuit’s action and gritted his teeth. As he had foreseen, the track was crumbling like sand under the horse’s hooves. In the saddle, Woolf could feel his mount fighting the surface. Seeing that he could not make up ground at this stage, the jockey changed his game plan, eased up, and settled in to wait. The fans grew concerned. Seabiscuit was dropping farther and farther out of the race. After half a mile, he was more than twelve lengths back and still sinking. Woolf was not moving at all, his chin in Seabiscuit’s mane, his eyes on the horses ahead, his hands still. In the grandstand, t
he crowd pleaded for Woolf to do something.

  The Iceman wasn’t worried. “Let ’em run themselves out,” someone heard him saying into Seabiscuit’s ear.8 “It’s a long way to go.” Smith had given him orders to stay with Ligaroti, who was now galloping near him. Woolf knew that to put Seabiscuit into a drive to catch Specify would leave him vulnerable to a late rally by Ligaroti. He would not repeat the mistake he had made against Stagehand, moving too soon. He nudged his mount down onto the rail, where the going was smoother, and waited.

  With eight horses ahead of him, Woolf couldn’t see what was happening out front. Seabiscuit was built low to the ground, so Woolf’s view was constantly obstructed by bigger horses. Somewhere in the backstretch, he lost sight of Ligaroti. He knew that there was a horse far out in front, but because the runner immediately ahead, Whichcee, was blocking his view, he couldn’t tell if it was Specify or Ligaroti. It was critical to know. If it was Ligaroti, a horse with a sustained stretch drive, he would have to move now and hope Seabiscuit could hold his rally. If it was the shorter-winded Specify, whom he expected to collapse in the homestretch, he could afford to wait.

  Late in the backstretch, Woolf shifted Seabiscuit to the outside and craned around Whichcee. He caught sight of the horse out in front, but he still didn’t know who it was. He looked at the horse’s jockey. He was leading with his left hand. Woolf knew that among the local riders, only Wayne Wright was left-handed. So it had to be Specify. He studied Wright’s hands. He was holding the reins loosely, and they were flapping on Specify’s neck. It was all Woolf needed to see. Specify was at the top of his speed, with nothing in reserve. Woolf was sure that he would soon burn out. He began to edge Seabiscuit closer but didn’t ask him for his best, thinking that Ligaroti was tracking him. A tentative cheer rose out of the crowd. Seabiscuit was only making up ground in inches, and he was still at least eight lengths behind. Time was running out.

 
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