Seabiscuit: An American Legend by Laura Hillenbrand

  The reason was Tom Smith. Once again the old cowboy had something up his sleeve. All along, he had been secretly hoping that Riddle would demand the walk-up.11 By some accounts, he had actually instructed Howard to make a few protests before ultimately agreeing to it so that no one would suspect his game plan. The best anyone thought Smith could hope for was for Seabiscuit to somehow stay reasonably close to War Admiral in the early stages of the race. Smith was far more ambitious. Sitting on a tack trunk with his friend Bill Buck during the match negotiations, he made an amazing statement. “I’m going to give them birds the biggest surprise they ever had in their lives.12

  “I’m going to send Seabiscuit right out on the lead.”

  Pollard was lying on his hospital bed, chatting with David Alexander, when the phone rang. It was Woolf, and he wanted to get Pollard’s opinion on the match.13 The Iceman, like virtually everyone else, disagreed with Smith. He thought War Admiral simply had more God-given speed than Seabiscuit, and that the Triple Crown winner would surely beat him off of the line. How, he asked Pollard, should he ride this race?

  Pollard surprised him. If Woolf put the throttle to the floor right from the bell, he promised him, Seabiscuit would beat War Admiral to the first turn. He told Woolf to gun to the lead but to keep him in check on the backstretch. When jockey Kurtsinger launched War Admiral in his final drive for the wire, Pollard said, do something completely unexpected and probably unprecedented: Let him catch up.

  It was a startling plan. “Maybe you would call it a kind of horse psychology,” Pollard explained to Alexander. “Once a horse gives Seabiscuit the old look-in-the-eye, he begins to run to parts unknown. He might loaf sometimes when he’s in front and thinks he’s got a race in the bag. But he gets gamer and gamer the tougher it gets.” Pollard was sure that if Woolf let War Admiral challenge him, Seabiscuit would run faster and try harder than if Woolf tried to hold the lead alone. “Seabiscuit is the gamer horse. I know that.” From there on in, the instructions were simple. Once War Admiral hooked Seabiscuit, “race him into the ground.”

  Everything hinged on two assumptions to which virtually no one outside the Seabiscuit camp would have ever agreed: that Seabiscuit had the speed to beat War Admiral off the line, and that he had enough gameness to fight back and win when his jockey sacrificed his lead. On the first point, Woolf was quickly convinced. The second was more difficult. Pollard knew that what he was asking his friend to do went against every tenet of reinsmanship.

  “Most jockeys would have thought me nuts,” he told Alexander after hanging up. “When a horse drives on you at a time like that, it just seems logical to drive as hard as you can to stay in front. It’s instinct. I tell you that what I told Woolf to do was tough to do.” If Pollard was wrong about Seabiscuit, then his strategy would hand the victory to War Admiral. But Woolf recognized that his friend understood the horse better than he did. He came to view the race as Pollard did, as a test of toughness, and had never seen a horse as tenacious as Seabiscuit. “Seabiscuit’s like a hunk of steel—Solid.14 Strong,” he once said. “Admiral has speed, good speed … speed when unopposed. But he’s not game.” Of Seabiscuit he said, “you could kill him before he’d quit.”15

  Woolf agreed to do exactly what Pollard told him to do. He and Smith brought Seabiscuit to Pimlico and went to work.

  On the day after the match race deal was finalized, Smith walked up the Pimlico track to the starter’s stand. Climbing up to the bell, he rang it several times, studying the sound. It made a clang much like an alarm clock. He hopped down and went back to the barn, where he gathered up some redwood planks, a phone, and an alarm clock. Dismantling the clock and the phone, he rigged up a starting bell with the clock alarm and the telephone’s five-inch batteries, then cut the redwood into a box to hold the works and wired a trigger button to the outside. When the box was complete, Smith tacked up Seabiscuit and Pumpkin, pushed Woolf up onto the former, swung himself onto the latter, and took them toward the track, carrying the box with him.

  On most mornings, War Admiral preceded Seabiscuit onto the course. Invariably, hundreds of people fanned out around the track apron to watch the Triple Crown winner, who had come to Pimlico after crushing the field in the Jockey Club Gold Cup. Trainer Conway stood on the sideline and watched his horse from afar as he circled around the course, legging up for the stout mile-and-three-sixteenths distance of the match. War Admiral was, as always, fretting and fussing and glorious.

  As War Admiral was led back to Man o’ War’s old barn, Conway stepped back to watch Smith and Pumpkin trotting onto the track alongside Seabiscuit and Woolf. Smith took the horses up to the race’s starting point at the top of the homestretch. The crowd, which had been thinly dispersed around the track to see War Admiral’s distance workouts, migrated up to the turn after Seabiscuit and stood in a thick mass by the rail.

  Spectators murmured among themselves at Smith’s homemade bell.16 They watched quizzically as Smith lined up his horse, stepped behind him, and hit the bell, sending Seabiscuit into a rocket start. Woolf hustled him deftly; having begun his career booting horses through walk-up match races in Indian country, he knew how to hit the gas on a horse. Most of the time, Woolf would only let the horse fly through a short sprint before pulling him up and circling back for another go. Day after day, Woolf and Smith repeated the drill, sometimes pairing him with Chanceview. The homemade bell worked perfectly, and the horse began blowing off the line with explosive power.

  When the walk-ups were over, Smith would take the horse back to the barn. Just as always, in the afternoons most of the Eastern Seaboard streamed into the barn to stare at Seabiscuit. Smith didn’t seem to mind. “Can’t hurt a horse looking at him,” he said. Smith probably did think you could hurt Seabiscuit by looking at him. Which is why he made sure that the horse they were all gawking at was Grog.17

  For the next month America hung in midair. The names War Admiral and Seabiscuit were on everyone’s lips, stories on the horses were in every paper, and the inflamed division between the horses’ supporters broadened and deepened into a fanatical contest of East versus West. One reader became so furious when journalist Nelson Dunstan switched his allegiance from Seabiscuit to War Admiral that he threatened to attack him. “Everybody,” Vanderbilt recalled, “cared about it.” Even President Roosevelt was swept up in the fervor. A rumor that he was going to “denounce one of the horses” during a Fireside Chat made the rounds, but he kept his allegiances secret. “The whole country is divided into two camps,” wrote Dave Boone in the San Francisco Chronicle. “People who never saw a horse race in their lives are taking sides. If the issue were deferred another week, there would be a civil war between the War Admiral Americans and the Seabiscuit Americans.”18

  As October waned, the tension all over the backstretch heightened. Trainer Conway was a frayed wire, shouting at reporters to get the hell away from his horse. Vanderbilt, also wound up with stress, blew off steam in bruising morning football games with the exercise boys. Smith’s perpetual frown deepened. He distracted himself by working hard with Kayak, and sent him out to win two more races. Charley Kurtsinger tried to soothe his wife, who was terrified for him. Charley had only recently gotten out of the hospital after crashing with a horse at Saratoga in August, and his wife was now so afraid for him that she couldn’t bear to be at the track when he rode. The closest she could get to watching him was to sit in the track parking lot in their car. Charley promised her that if she came to the track to see him ride War Admiral, he’d win it for her.19

  Charles and Marcela Howard were similarly jittery. Marcela slept with prayer beads on her pillow every night and attended Mass every morning. She and Charles hovered by the barns, waiting. They were there one afternoon a few days before the race when a sharp rainstorm brushed over the racing oval. Charles and Marcela stood together, watching the lightning crackle over the Maryland countryside. The storm died out and dispersed, and sunlight broke over the track. Marcela found it comforting. She wh
ispered a poem:

  “The storm is past, no more repining20

  Behold! the gentle sun is shining”

  “Yeah,” muttered Charles, “but the track is still too heavy for Seabiscuit.”

  In the track offices, horsemen gathered for the post position draw. Both horses’ handlers wanted the rail, which, if the horse could hold it, would ensure the shortest trip around the track. If Seabiscuit got the rail, the experts believed he might have a glimmer of a chance. If War Admiral got it, they believed the race would be over before it began.

  War Admiral drew the rail.

  For Pollard, the days were bittersweet. David Alexander spent time with him and found him in jovial spirits. He was in love, he was about to try to start walking again, and he had been told that by early November he could leave the hospital. His engagement had brought his optimism back, and he was sure he would be able to ride again. A glance at his emaciated body, jutting out at harsh angles from under the sheets, testified to the contrary. He was up to his old pranks, sending a group of frostbitten horsemen on a wild-goose chase all over Boston in search of nonexistent “bull’s wool” socks.21 Alexander couldn’t get him to be serious. “George,” Pollard told him, “will probably mess everything up as usual and try to get beaten a nose, but even George isn’t bad enough to beat Seabiscuit in this one.”22

  But as he spoke, the pain of his situation pressed through to the surface. “Maybe I’m conceited and maybe I’m not, but there still isn’t anybody that can ride him like I can ride him,” he said. “I can’t tell you why. I just know how and he wants to run for me. I know that the minute I throw a leg over him, morning or afternoon. It looked for a while like I’d come out of here with a set of crutches as permanent equipment. Even if I’d have to use crutches, I still could have ridden the Biscuit.23 Maybe I couldn’t ride any other horse, but I could have ridden him as long as there was somebody to shove me in the saddle.”

  Before Alexander and Pollard parted, the redhead gave him a prediction. Seabiscuit, he said, was going to win by four.24

  The War Admiral camp remained supremely confident. Conway quietly built his colt’s endurance. Every day, he lingered by the rails to watch Seabiscuit’s peculiar regimens, following his movements without comment, then returned to War Admiral. Everyone in the Riddle barn knew Smith was trying to coax early speed from Seabiscuit, but the idea of a horse outbreaking War Admiral was unimaginable. “I don’t think Seabiscuit will give him much trouble,” jockey Kurtsinger said. “And I don’t care if Woolf elects to try to make a race of it. The Admiral will lick him any part of it.”

  The Howard barn preferred that their opponents keep thinking that way. They remained cryptic about strategy.25 Smith did little more than make a few grunts about Seabiscuit having good speed. Asked if War Admiral would set the pace, Marcela was coy. “That depends on whether or not he can outrun Seabiscuit in the first furlongs,” she said. “Maybe he can’t.” Pollard went right ahead and lied to reporters, telling them the barn strategy was to concede the lead to War Admiral and then try to run him down in the homestretch. After listening to Woolf and Pollard discussing strategy, David Alexander asked them if he could state in print that Seabiscuit would outgun War Admiral for the early lead. Both said yes, providing that Alexander didn’t quote them directly. “Both fully realized,” Alexander wrote later, “that War Admiral’s connections would pay no attention at all to the pipe dream of a mere newspaper columnist.” So Alexander published the prediction. All it did was inspire a hearty laugh in the press box.

  The laughter burned Howard. On the day before the race, with all the training done, there seemed no harm in letting people know what he thought. Sitting in the Pimlico clubhouse surrounded by reporters, Howard made a flat statement.

  “War Admiral won’t outbreak Seabiscuit,” he said tersely, “he won’t outgame him, and he won’t beat him.”26

  An uncomfortable silence followed. Someone politely changed the subject.

  Sometime later that day, Woolf received a telegram. It was from Pollard: THERE IS ONE SURE WAY OF WINNING WITH THE BISCUIT. YOU RIDE WAR ADMIRAL.27

  Across the country that day, the ballots for year-end honors in Thoroughbred racing began arriving in journalists’ postboxes. The writers collected them, leaving the spaces for Horse of the Year blank. They would wait until Tuesday evening to fill them in.

  That night, Baltimore glittered and rang with exuberant prerace parties, the next day’s racegoers singing out “Maryland, My Maryland” as they passed outside the track. Inside the Pimlico gates, it was hushed. A lone figure walked out onto the Pimlico dirt, clutching a flashlight. It was Woolf. The rainwater had not fully drained from the track, and he was concerned that Seabiscuit might struggle over the dampness. “Biscuit likes to hear his feet rattle” was how he put it. Turning down the lane, the jockey weaved back and forth, sweeping his flashlight beam from side to side, hunting for the driest, hardest path.

  At the top of the homestretch Woolf stopped, testing the footing. In the soil beneath his feet, he could feel a firmer strip, the print of a tractor wheel that had lately rolled over the surface.28 The path was obscured by harrow marks. Walking the full length of the track, Woolf found that it circled the entire oval, a few feet from the rail.

  He knew what he would have to do when the bell rang the following afternoon. “I figures to myself,” he said later, “‘Woolf, get on that lane and follow it.’” In the darkness of the last night of October 1938, George Woolf walked the course until he had memorized the path of the tractor print. Then he quietly stepped off the track.

  “I knew it,” he said later, “like an airplane pilot knows a radio beam.”

  Midway through what is still widely regarded as the greatest horse race in history, Seabiscuit and War Admiral turn out of the backstretch and drive for the wire, November 1, 1938.


  Chapter 19


  Beneath a translucent scrim of clouds at eight o’clock in the morning on November 1, 1938, Maryland Racing Commission chairman Jervis Spencer stepped out onto the smoky brown oval of Pimlico. With his hands pushed into the pockets of a gray overcoat, Spencer circled the track on foot, moving by a palette of colorful barns and turning leaves.1 Horses galloped past him. Vanderbilt stood in the winner’s circle, awaiting the completion of the circuit. The course was rimmed in faces, all eyes on Spencer. Riddle and Howard had agreed that the chairman would be the final judge of the condition of the track; only if it was dry and fast would the race go. The issue was somewhat in doubt. As Woolf had noted in the darkness the night before, the week’s rains had soaked into the dirt. But several days of crisp fall air and heavy labor by Vanderbilt’s men had dried the surface well.

  At eight-thirty Spencer stopped outside the winner’s circle, looked up at Vanderbilt, and nodded. He turned to a microphone, cleared his throat, and spoke.

  “In my judgment, there is no question that the track will be fast for the race this afternoon. The race is on.”

  As if somehow linked to the emotions of all present, the sun spilled out, bathing the overcoated men in warm Maryland sunshine. The coats came off and every man headed his own way. Vanderbilt walked out onto the track with a bucket, burning off a little nervous energy by picking up loose pebbles and clumps of dirt. Marcela Howard went off to host a prerace luncheon. A friend presented her with an exuberant Dalmatian as a gift. They named him Match in honor of the occasion and sent him over to the barn to cavort with Pocatell and Seabiscuit’s guard dog, Silver. Up in the track secretary’s office, a telegram arrived for Howard: PLEASE BET $200 FOR ME. OUR HORSE WILL WIN BY 5—POLLARD.2 Howard placed the bet for him, tossing in $25,000 of his own money for good measure.3

  He went to the backstretch and strolled around with Woolf. Somewhere along the shed rows, they came across Sunny Jim Fitzsimmons and stopped to talk about the race. Fitzsimmons liked Pollard’s strategy of pushing for the early lead, but like Smith,
Woolf, and Pollard, he believed that the match was not going to be determined by speed. The deciding factor would be resolve.4 One of the horses was going to crack in the homestretch. The other would come home the undisputed champion of American racing.

  Vanderbilt had hoped that scheduling his race for a Tuesday would keep attendance within Pimlico’s sixteen-thousand-seat capacity. It didn’t. By 10:00 A.M., six and a half hours before the race, a vast, agitated throng was already banging up against the fences. Vanderbilt swung the gates open and unleashed a human stampede. All morning long, automobiles and special trains disgorged thousands and thousands of passengers from every corner of the nation and the world; the assembly of foreign dignitaries alone equaled a normal day’s attendance. By midday, the grandstand and clubhouse were glutted, so Vanderbilt redirected fans by the thousands into the infield. The crowds kept coming in.

  At three-thirty the horses began the long walk down the center of the track to the saddling paddock. War Admiral appeared first, spinning around in a white blanket, yellow ribbons in his tail. Two minutes later Smith and Pumpkin appeared with Seabiscuit, who was covered to the ears in a red blanket emblazoned with a white H. Thirty thousand people watched the horses from the grandstand and clubhouse. Ten thousand more teemed in the infield, lining up behind a small retaining fence about ten feet inside the track rail. Dozens of fans bristled over the tops of the steeplechase fences, leaving them teetering under the weight. A thick line of police fanned out to hold the masses back. Outside the track, some ten thousand fans who couldn’t get in gathered ten-deep around the track fence and stood upon every rooftop, fence, tree limb, and telephone pole as far as a mile from the start, hoping to catch a glimpse of the race.5

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