Seabiscuit: An American Legend by Laura Hillenbrand


  At first glance, it seems surprising that the story caused the stir it did. The uproar was not over the rough riding in the race—which was truly outrageous—but over a supposed shadowy conspiracy around it. Yet, however much the tone of the article suggested otherwise, even if true, the allegations were trivial. As long as Woolf intended to win, there would have been nothing wrong with minimizing his winning margin. At most, it would have created a more entertaining spectacle and saved Bing, Lin, and Jimmy Smith from the humiliation of seeing their horse routed. Likewise, there certainly was nothing wrong with Richardson trying to win the race. But the paper presented these allegations as scandalous bombshells, calling them “startling disclosures.” In an era in which the sport’s corrupt years were still a fresh memory, it was enough to set the ball rolling. The story was picked up by the wire services and distributed nationwide.

  A massive controversy ensued. Richardson immediately denied placing any bet, and Woolf denied that he had ever made any such statement, or even spoken to any reporter. Though the allegations did not point to race-fixing, in the sensational atmosphere following the unexplained suspension of two jockeys, the race was now being referred to as a “frameup” and a “fix.”17 Resting in the Del Mar Hotel, Howard saw the Sun story and exploded. He had long tolerated false allegations with tactful restraint, but he saw this as a strike against his honesty and an attempt to group him with the race-fixers from the sport’s past. It brought him beyond rage.18

  Summoning a host of reporters to the hotel lobby, he lost his ever-genial composure for the first and only time in his public life. Barely able to contain his fury, he emphatically denied that he or Smith had given Woolf any such orders. He called the story “dirty and libelous.” “The whole thing is not worthy of denial,” he hissed, “excepting that it is so vicious that it cannot be overlooked.” He said that he had told Woolf to gun to the lead and get far enough ahead of Ligaroti to move to the outside; letting Seabiscuit’s rival assume the rail would prevent Ligaroti, who often drifted in, from bumping him. It was only because Ligaroti was so fast, Howard said, that Woolf was unable to execute the plan. Most compelling was his final point: Given that both his splits and final time for the race were record-shattering, the idea that Seabiscuit had been restrained was preposterous.

  “Any fool writing racing ought to know that a race run in 1:49, with the first mile in 1:36⅕ and which was the time caught by numerous private clockers as well as the official track timer, couldn’t be fixed in that manner,” he said, glaring at the reporters. “I am deeply chagrined that any editor would accept a story without verification in which such obviously erroneous information is contained.… If the man who wrote that story had any sense, he would know you couldn’t ‘boat’ a race run in that fast time.”

  Howard challenged the anonymous writer to produce proof of his charges and angrily defied anyone in the room to give him a plausible argument for how the allegations could have been possible. He concluded by addressing the implications that he was a race-fixer. “If Seabiscuit, or any other of my horses, can’t win on their merits, I’d retire from racing today.”

  Howard followed up the press conference by publishing a signed statement that Woolf had not been told to check Seabiscuit. He wrote at least one prominent reporter personally, arguing that the race itself was testimony to the absurdity of the Sun’s charges and enclosing the finish photo of the race—the reporter had evidently questioned whether or not Seabiscuit had crossed the line first. In his letter, Howard pointed to what he thought was the motivation behind the attack on his integrity: the rivalry with War Admiral. “I realize,” he wrote, “that there are a few people in the East who are becoming quite alarmed over the prospect of Seabiscuit ending up as the top winner of the American turf.”19

  Back at Del Mar, officials supported Howard, stating that the accusations that Seabiscuit had been restrained, or that Howard or Smith had told Woolf to do so, were ludicrous. But they couldn’t stop the flood of charges. A movement began to deny Howard the purse money or prevent it from being officially credited to Seabiscuit.

  The California Turf Writers Association, recognizing that a lack of official information had created this absurd situation, demanded that the stewards clear things up. The morning after Howard’s speech, the Del Mar officials finally issued a statement explaining in detail exactly what had transpired during the race: Richardson had grabbed Woolf’s saddlecloth, then his whip, then Woolf had grabbed Ligaroti’s bridle. They emphasized their agreement that without the fouling, Seabiscuit would have won anyway.

  Though the accusations died off quickly after the stewards’ statement, Howard was still in a jam. He was jockeyless. Unsure of what to do, he suspended all of Seabiscuit’s engagements.

  Lin inadvertently solved the problem for him. He firmly believed that Richardson had not fouled Woolf enough to merit banning him from the track for the rest of the year. He discovered that, evidently unbeknownst to anyone, someone had filmed the race. Lin bought the film and, before viewing it, asked the stewards and reporters to join him at a theater in Solana Beach to see it. Delighted at the chance to find out what really happened, a mob showed up. The lights dimmed and the film ran.20

  Lin turned crimson. The film showed Richardson committing every foul short of shooting Woolf off his horse. Woolf had clearly acted in self-defense. The press began to lobby to have the suspension overturned for Woolf. The state racing board, tired of the whole mess, realized that the race’s nonbetting status gave them an out because the public had not been defrauded. They opted to lift the suspensions on both jockeys after the Del Mar meeting concluded.

  The moment the result was handed down, Howard contacted Woolf. Pack up your things, he told him. We’re going east to get War Admiral.

  Smith led Seabiscuit along the road that wound up to the railroad siding. The train stood waiting, stocked for a long sojourn in the East. A flurry of Navy planes screamed overhead, almost low enough to part a man’s hair.21 The horse didn’t bat an eyelash. He tramped aboard the train and lay down. By the time Smith got settled in and the train whined into motion, Seabiscuit was fast asleep.

  After drilling through walk-up starts with Smith’s homemade bell, Woolf and Seabiscuit streak over the Pimlico track in a workout on October 26, 1938.

  (MORGAN COLLECTION/ARCHIVE PHOTOS)

  Chapter 18

  DEAL

  The summer of 1938 gave way to fall. Through the window in his room at Boston’s Winthrop Hospital, Red Pollard watched the sky darken. He was not getting better. Surgeons had operated repeatedly on his crushed leg, rebreaking it and resetting it, but it would not heal.1 Though nearly four months had passed since his injury, he could not stand. His powerful five foot, seven inch boxer’s body had dwindled to a virtual skeleton. He weighed eighty-six pounds.2 His face had aged so dramatically that, on the twenty-ninth birthday he celebrated that November, he could easily have passed for sixty. He was so weak that basic tasks required tremendous effort. He kept a brave face before his friends, assuring them he would ride again, but they didn’t believe it and neither did he.

  The brisk New England October blew into Massachusetts. Pollard brooded. He pored over “Old Waldo” Emerson and ruminated on the philosopher’s essay on “Compensation.”3 He thought about the career he had lost. He grasped for hope in Emerson’s vision of natural polarities, in which all things are balanced by their opposites—darkness by light, cold by heat, loss by gain.

  A makeweight flying to the void

  Supplemental asteroid

  Or compensatory spark4

  Shoots across the neutral dark.

  He was falling in love with his private nurse. Regally lovely, Agnes Conlon caught the eye of every young man in the hospital. The child of a well-heeled, status-oriented Back Bay family of antique dealers, she was far out of the league of a jockey with a seventh-grade formal education and no fixed address. She was also spoken for, the steady girlfriend of a local physician. In disposit
ion, she was Pollard’s antithesis, governing her life with rigid reserve as he scattered his passions.

  In their afternoons in the hospital, Pollard wooed her with quotes from Old Waldo while she tended to his leg.5 He apparently told her about his darkest secret, his blind eye. He trusted her completely.

  Sometime that fall, Red proposed. Agnes’s family was horrified. “It was as if you suddenly decided to marry someone from the circus,” said his daughter, Norah Christianson. And Red was so emaciated and weak that Agnes was certain he was dying.6 But something about him was appealing. It would be said later by those who knew Agnes that Red was, for her, a liberation from herself. It seemed that there was a part of her that yearned to be as extravagant as he. Agnes did a crazy thing.

  A letter from Red slid into the mailbox of the Pollard family home in Edmonton.7 Agnes had said yes. Old Waldo, Pollard told his friends, had been right after all.8

  A few hundred miles south of Winthrop Hospital, Alfred Vanderbilt was busy cultivating a passion of his own. Fresh from his honeymoon with Marcela’s niece, the twenty-six-year-old operator of Baltimore’s Pimlico Racecourse had never given up on the idea of staging a War Admiral–Seabiscuit match race. When the meetings at Belmont and Suffolk Downs had fallen through, Vanderbilt had begun contemplating the idea again. He had bided his time all summer, waiting for the horses to reach their peaks and the demand for the race to build again.

  September of ’38, the timing seemed right. While Seabiscuit had spent the summer pillaging the West, War Admiral had been plundering the East with four triumphs in succession. Then Riddle did something out of character. At a society dinner in mid-September, he announced that he would put up $25,000 as forfeit money for a race between his colt and Seabiscuit. Howard jumped at the offer. Knowing Riddle’s fickleness, he opted not to call him directly to negotiate in private; with only the two of them talking, there would be few consequences to backing out.9 Instead, Howard cranked up the pressure by bringing in the press. He cracked open his address book and began calling reporters, asking them to announce that he’d gladly meet Riddle’s sum, and War Admiral, anywhere and any time Riddle wanted. “We’re ready,” he said, “any time Samuel D. Riddle wants to send his horse against the Biscuit.”

  Vanderbilt decided that the time was ripe to get Pimlico involved. He was playing with a weak hand. Pimlico could offer only a tiny fraction of the $100,000 purse Belmont had put up. Riddle posed another problem. He was still angry over Pimlico starter Jim Milton’s use of tongs on War Admiral the year before, and he was sticking to his vow never to run a horse at the track again.

  Vanderbilt thought he could talk Riddle out of his boycott, but just as he was about to contact the owner, Riddle seemed to back out of his offer altogether. He announced that he would not allow any race to interfere with War Admiral’s set schedule, which called for him to appear in Belmont’s Jockey Club Gold Cup, then complete his season in two $7,500 races in New England. After that, the four-year-old horse would be retired.

  Howard, who had already brought Seabiscuit to Belmont in hopes that a match could be arranged, was disconsolate. Neither he nor Smith wanted to run in the Jockey Club Gold Cup. They had never welcomed the idea of a full-field contest with War Admiral, and the October 1 race would interfere with a promise Howard had made to run Seabiscuit in the September 28 Havre de Grace Handicap in Maryland. Howard hoped to talk Belmont officials into another match, but they wanted no part of it. Any interest there might have been in a match declined further when Howard, knowing he could not scratch his horse at Belmont again, allowed him to run in the September 20 Manhattan Handicap under 128 pounds in the middle of a whirling rainstorm. Seabiscuit came home third, drenched to the bone, covered head to toe in mud, and miserable. Howard and Smith took Seabiscuit down to Maryland. Howard believed that his last chance for a match race had probably slipped away. Almost everyone agreed with him.

  Except Vanderbilt. The young Marylander was an energetic diplomat and thought he could get a deal made. On September 28 Seabiscuit’s stock rose after an overwhelming victory in the Havre de Grace Handicap. Taking advantage of this, Vanderbilt launched a vigorous one-man campaign to find an agreement between the Howard and Riddle camps. Desperate for the race and knowing that Riddle was in control, Howard was game to any of Vanderbilt’s suggestions. So Vanderbilt began working on Riddle.

  At first Vanderbilt had so much trouble just making contact with War Admiral’s owner that he nearly gave up. When he did track him down, Riddle was cool. For a fortnight, Vanderbilt besieged him with wires, calls, and requests for private meetings. He used a good measure of flattery, assuring Riddle that War Admiral would of course beat the stuffing out of Seabiscuit. Vanderbilt gave him a reasonable starting proposal: He would make the Pimlico Special, the prestigious stakes race that War Admiral had won in 1937, into a two-horse event. He knew the Special’s conditions would appeal to both owners, as both horses had won at Pimlico at the race’s 13⁄16-mile distance. Knowing that the attendance for such an event would completely swamp his little track, which had seating for just sixteen thousand, Vanderbilt proposed a date of November 1, a Tuesday, hoping that work commitments would limit the crowd to a manageable level.

  Then there was the painful subject of the purse. Vanderbilt knew that both men wanted $100,000. He tried to maneuver them out of it. “I told them,” he remembered, “that this was just a little track and we couldn’t put up a lot of money.” He argued that running for a smaller purse was preferable, because fans would know the race was truly a matter of sport. “I told them,” Vanderbilt continued, “‘You’re not running for the money, you’re running in the most popular race you could have now.’” The argument appealed to Riddle and Howard, who probably expected Vanderbilt to offer something in the neighborhood of $75,000. They were in for a shock. The best Vanderbilt could do was $15,000. Vanderbilt was quick to point out to Riddle that $15,000 was exactly the sum of the two purses being offered in War Admiral’s scheduled races in New England, at least one of which he’d have to miss to make the match. To reassure each man of his opponent’s sincerity, Vanderbilt asked that each put up a forfeit fee of $5,000.

  Riddle finally responded. “I’ll race if they’ll agree to my terms, but I don’t think they will.” Vanderbilt asked what those terms were. Riddle was willing to accept the purse, provided that each horse carry 120 pounds. He wanted starter Jim Milton booted out in favor of George Cassidy, the starter for War Admiral’s home track, Belmont. Finally, fearing that War Admiral would exhaust or injure himself fighting a conventional starting gate, and wanting to take advantage of his horse’s skill at breaking from a walk, Riddle insisted that the race be started from an antiquated, gateless walk-up.

  The first demand was no problem. Howard would surely appreciate a relatively low and equal impost. The second was more difficult. Vanderbilt didn’t want to be strong-armed into dismissing Milton, whom he and virtually all observers agreed had done nothing wrong in his effort to load War Admiral in the gate the year before. But Milton, upon learning of Riddle’s wishes, solved the problem for him. He came to Vanderbilt and recused himself from the race.10 He knew that if War Admiral broke poorly, he would be accused of carrying out a grudge against Riddle. Vanderbilt accepted his decision, and Riddle got his wish.

  The third demand seemed impossible to fulfill. Because horses who gain commanding early leads in match races generally win them, observers thought the bullet-breaking War Admiral held a considerable advantage over the historically slower-breaking Seabiscuit, even with a conventional start. With a walk-up, War Admiral would have the added edge of performing a start at which he was superb and experienced, while Seabiscuit would be trying it for the first time. There was almost universal agreement that if War Admiral broke from a walk-up, he would lead from wire to wire. But the issue was a deal breaker for Riddle. Vanderbilt had no choice but to put it before Howard and hope for the best.

  In New York, where he had been lobbying Riddle in per
son, Vanderbilt had the proposal with Riddle’s demands typed up as a formal contract and sent to Howard. Howard moaned about the walk-up. He called Smith, who mulled it over. The trainer told him to demand that the start be made with a bell, not simply the traditional walk-up flag, and without assistant starters. The jockeys, he said, would have to be able to handle their horses without aid. Howard passed this on to Vanderbilt, who agreed. The contract came back. Howard had signed it and enclosed his $5,000 forfeit fee.

  With one man down and one to go, Vanderbilt went to seal the deal. He showed up at Riddle’s New York hotel room, contract in hand. Riddle was gone. The owner had already departed for the train station, bound for Philadelphia. Vanderbilt jumped into a cab, sped across town, and dashed into Penn Station, where he caught up with Riddle just as he was about to board the train. Riddle was still wavering. Vanderbilt stood his ground and refused to let Riddle board the train until he had signed the paper. Riddle gave in, and Vanderbilt returned to Maryland to cheers from horsemen. The November 1 Pimlico Special, universally hailed as the race of the century, was on. Nothing, this time, was going to stop it from being run.

  When news of the deal broke to an ecstatic public on October 5, horsemen were amazed that Howard had accepted the walk-up. One horseman, wrote The New Yorker’s Audax Minor, “wonders if Riddle forgot to ask for permission to bring his own judges, too.” Yet during the negotiations, Vanderbilt had noticed something strange. Howard, who had been loudly and publicly lamenting Riddle’s demand for the walk-up, seemed in private to be delighted. “Howard loved it,” Vanderbilt remembered. “He loved it.”

 
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