Seabiscuit: An American Legend by Laura Hillenbrand


  With a ready plan for a $3-million racing Xanadu, built on the site of the vast Rancho Santa Anita at the apron of the San Gabriel Mountains just outside Los Angeles, all Strub needed was the cash. He couldn’t find a bank to back him, so he went door to door in search of private investors. Strub was turned away from many homes, but when he called on Charles Howard, he was invited in. Howard, his close friend Bing Crosby, and several other wealthy Californians handed Strub a hefty sum to build his Santa Anita Park.

  Strub spent the money well. He built a track like none other on earth, a cathedral to the Thoroughbred so resplendent that writer David Alexander described his first sight of it as one of the most stirring visual experiences of his life. Strub’s mountain-flanked racecourse opened on Christmas Day, 1934. It was an immense, immediate success with the public, and in consequence, the state, which raked in millions in new revenue. It was just as popular with horsemen, for Strub had the brilliant idea of inaugurating a signature race for the track, the Santa Anita Handicap, to be held every year in late winter, beginning in 1935.46 Unlike the Kentucky Derby, which was limited to three-year-old horses, the handicap would be open to any mature horse, three years old and up. But it was the purse that stopped traffic. In 1934 American marquee races carried a net value to the winner of between $6,000, and, in rare cases, $50,000. In contrast, Strub’s purse was staggering: $100,000, plus a few thousand dollars in entry revenue, to the winner. It was the biggest purse in the world. Offered in a year in which the average per capita income in the United States was $432, Strub’s purse caused a national sensation.45 The pot was so distracting that hardly anyone referred to the race by its actual name. The Santa Anita Handicap became, in the parlance of racetrackers, the hundred-grander, or “hunnert-grander.”47

  Strub had created the race at the perfect moment. States all over the nation were relegalizing racing under the pari-mutuel system, resulting in a 70 percent increase in the number of tracks. Racing was rapidly becoming far and away America’s most heavily attended sport.48 From 1934 on, millions of new racing fans turned their eyes to Santa Anita to see who would claim Strub’s pot. The hundred-grander became an overnight classic. Everyone wanted to win it. Including Charles and Marcela Howard.

  Perhaps it was Giannini’s urging, perhaps the example of Bing Crosby, who was investing heavily in racehorses, or maybe the spellbinding vision of the track their money had built. Whatever the reason, the Howards, especially Marcela, hung their hearts on winning the big race. In 1935, shortly after San Francisco’s new Bay Meadows Racecourse opened, Howard assembled a group of modestly talented racehorses and hired a crack young trainer named Buster Millerick to condition them. The stable was registered under Marcela’s name. She designed the silks that would become legendary: crimson-and-white cap, white sleeves, and a crimson vest emblazoned with the Ridgewood cattle brand, an H inside a large white triangle. The horses were fairly good, but Howard had his sights on better things. That summer, he and Marcela bought fifteen yearlings at a Saratoga, New York, auction. In keeping with his love of lost causes, Howard bought only the worst-looking horses at the sale, animals who lingered in the ring, attracting few, if any, bids. Millerick was a very good young trainer, but for his new yearlings and the hundred-grander-caliber horses he planned to have soon, Howard wanted the best. In 1935 he went looking for him.

  Tom Smith

  (AP/WIDE WORLD PHOTOS)

  Chapter 2

  THE LONE PLAINSMAN

  Several hundred miles south of Charles Howard’s estate, an old horseman named Tom Smith was spending 1935 at a Mexican racetrack, living on a cot in a horse stall. He was a stark man, square-built, with a hard mouth. Ever since he had materialized at the track from somewhere on the frontier—no one knew exactly where—none of the racetrackers had known what to make of him.

  As a general rule, Smith didn’t talk. He had a habit of walking away when anyone asked him questions, and he avoided social gatherings because people expected him to speak. A journalist who had watched Smith for years described him thus: “He nods hello, shakes hands goodbye, and hasn’t said a hundred words in all.”1 One man swore that he had seen Smith accidentally chop off his own toe with an axe; the sum of Smith’s response had been to shake the amputated digit out of his boot and say, “My toe.”2 The men on the backstretch assumed that anyone who made such a point of saying so little had to have something to hide, something shady or, perhaps, something immodestly valiant. They filled his biographical vacuum with suitably large Wild West myths: knocked-over banks, rodeo stardom, daring exploits in the Indian wars. None of it was true, but it made for good, salty rumor, and it made Smith pleasingly terrifying. The truth about Smith was a lot more interesting, but he never let anyone in on his secrets.

  He was fifty-six but he looked much older. His jaw had a recalcitrant jut to it that implied a run-in with something—an errant hoof or an ill-placed fence post—but maybe it was the only shape in which it could have been drawn. He had a colorless translucence about him that made him seem as if he were in the earliest stages of progressive invisibility. On the rare occasions when he took off his gray felt fedora, you had to look hard at his threadbare head to tell where his gray hair ended and his gray skin began. When photographed hatless, he had an unsettling tendency to blend with the sky, so that his eyes hung disembodied in space. Some photographers gave up and drew his head into the picture by hand, guessing at his outline. When they were lucky enough to catch him head-on, all his features but that big shovel of a jaw vanished in the shade of his hat brim, so that all that appeared above his mouth were his spectacles, the lenses reflecting the photographer’s image back at him. Smith almost never looked at cameras anyway. He was always looking at his horses.

  He appeared to have reached the end of the road. His training stable consisted of just one horse who would never be better than ordinary. The old cowboy ate his meals alone in the track kitchen and spent the rest of his time with the horse. For a time he provoked a smattering of discussion over ham-and-egg breakfasts on the backstretch benches. Eventually, the racetrackers grew accustomed to his silence, and he was forgotten.

  In Tom Smith’s younger days, the Indians would watch him picking his way over the open plains, skirting the mustang herds. He was always alone, even back then, in the waning days of the nineteenth century. He talked to virtually no one but his horses, and then only in their vernacular of small gestures and soft sounds. The Indians called him “Lone Plainsman.”3 White men called him “Silent Tom.” People merely brushed up against him. Only the horses seemed to know him well.

  They had been the quiet study of his life. He had grown up in a world in which horsemanship was as essential as breathing. Born with a prodigy’s intuitive understanding of the animals, he had devoted himself to them so wholeheartedly that he was incomplete without them. By nature or by exposure he had become like them, in their understatement, their blunt assertion of will. In the company of men, Smith was clipped and bristling. With horses, he was gracefully at ease.

  His history had the ethereal quality of hoofprints in windblown snow.4 He came from the prairies, where he had tamed countless mustangs for the British cavalry’s effort in the Boer War. Before that, his career with horses stretched back to boyhood, with stints as a deer hunter, sheep-ranch foreman, mountain-lion tracker. In childhood, he rode in the last of the great cattle drives; at thirteen, he was already a skilled horse breaker. The wheres and whens are lost, but always there were horses and empty land. He had a wife, but her presence seems to have been detected only by inference: A son named Jimmy turned up later in Smith’s company, prompting his friends to conclude that the boy “must have come from somewhere.”

  As the century turned he rode out of the wilderness and into Grand Junction, Colorado. He was in his early twenties. The British cavalry didn’t need him anymore, so he had been forced to leave the mustangs and find a new job. He and his horse strayed onto the vast continuity of Colorado’s Unaweep Cattle Range. He had h
eard that a ranch needed a foreman.

  He won the job and stayed for twenty years. He was a jack-of-all-trades, breaking the sturdy little cow ponies, treating their injuries and illnesses, trimming their hooves, and bending over an anvil to forge their shoes. He lived day and night in their company, warming himself against their skin as he wandered over the range, sleeping at their feet under the Colorado mountains.

  Change was coming. As Smith passed his days in the Unaweep, the West that had formed him was making a long, painful retreat. Modernity, led by the automobile, was perforating the frontier. Horses, and all the ways of life that had grown up around them, were slowly being pushed out. Perhaps on his rare sojourns into civilization, Smith had passed the Howard Automobile Company dealerships springing up. He didn’t need to see them to know that there was less and less use for skills like his. All around him, men were redefining themselves for the new world, and a vast pool of knowledge and tradition was evaporating. A myth of what the frontier had been, the Wild West legend, was taking hold in the popular imagination, and it would not be long before people defined Smith by it.

  People around him moved on, but Smith stayed where he was for a little longer, quietly becoming a relic. He knew no other life, and probably could imagine none. His mind had been shaped by the prairies and ranges, and until the day he died, he would make order of the world with lessons learned from cow ponies, jagged land, and wide-open sky.

  In 1921 the cattle ranch on the Unaweep was sold, leaving Smith unemployed. He drifted into a Wyoming county fair, where he found a job working for an obscure firm that supplied decrepit horses to rodeos for use in relay races. Smith was put in charge of training and shoeing six racehorses. He did a superb job, nursing the horses’ ailments while honing their speed. It was strictly small-time racing, but Smith’s horses were winning. A giant of a man named Irwin noticed.

  “Cowboy Charlie” Irwin ran two businesses: a raucous Wild West show in summer and an even more raucous racing stable in winter.5 Irwin was a colossus, in form and personality. His weight, thanks to a glandular disorder and 50-pound tumors, swung from a comparatively petite 400 pounds to 540 pounds, packed mostly in a monstrous quaking belly that won him the nickname “Ten Ton” Irwin. His immediate surroundings had to be remade to accommodate his girth. He ran his business from the overburdened back of a freakishly oversized Standardbred horse wearing a superwide saddle. Because Irwin didn’t come within 200 pounds of fitting through a standard car door, he drove a customized sedan outfitted with a wide-load rear hatch through which he wiggled in and out.

  Irwin was incurably newsworthy. At the hanging of his friend, convicted killer Tom Horn, he made national headlines by stepping up to the gallows and belting out “Life’s Railway to Heaven.” When notorious fugitive Bill Carlisle robbed a train on the Union Pacific Railroad, Irwin galloped off with the posse that hunted him down, then recounted his story of how he “bagged the gamest train robber that ever pulled a hold-up in the West” in blazing prose in The Denver Post. As an agent for the Union Pacific, he single-handedly saved Colorado’s wool trade during a blizzard by ramming locomotive plows through snowdrifts to open the tracks for trains bearing sheep feed.

  Important people were always hovering around him, from General John Pershing to Will Rogers. Teddy Roosevelt once bailed out Irwin’s show when it went broke and got stranded in Sheepshead Bay. Charlie paid him back with a pinto pony and a long friendship. Irwin greeted newcomers with bone-crushing handshakes and tooth-shattering back-slaps. He smothered men in broad smiles, fast talk, and wild stories. He was bold, innovative, blessed with an instinct for promotion, slick, unscrupulous, and completely magnetic. Some of his neighbors, traditional live-stockers, didn’t like him much, but he was the prototype of the new breed of western man. Invariably, those who knew him summed him up with the phrase used by former jockey Mike Griffin, who never forgot a brief riding audition he made for Irwin: “the biggest man I’ve ever seen.”

  Irwin saw what Smith could do with a horse, and he needed as many good horsemen as he could find. He offered Smith a job as a foreman, farrier, and training assistant. Irwin was a very hard man to refuse, and Smith had few choices. He said yes.

  The Lone Plainsman had signed on to a turbulent life.6 In summer he clattered around the nation by rail, pulling into towns to put on the show under circus tents Irwin had bought cut-rate from the Ringling Brothers outfit when it merged with Barnum & Bailey. The acts were a curious mix of history and myth, everything from cowboy-Indian fights, Pony Express rides, cavalry rescues, and stagecoach robberies to Roman-style chariot racing, relay races, women’s steer wrestling, and mounted rope tricks and gymnastics. The supporting cast was mostly disenfranchised Indians, Mexicans, and cowpunchers, all of whom possessed horsemanship and livestock skills honed on the vanishing frontier.

  The headliners were Irwin’s windblown daughters, Frances, Joella, and Paulene, all fearless horsewomen. As a pigtailed child, Joella had once ditched school to compete in, and win, a horse race against legendary Arapahoe riders. She came home to a whipping from her mother and a new horse from her beaming father. Smith worked mostly behind the scenes but occasionally came into the ring to hold relay horses for Irwin’s daughters. Irwin oversaw it all from the back of his huge yellow horse, galloping around the center field with his feet jutting out to the sides, hat waving, booming encouragement to his cowgirls. The nation couldn’t get enough of it, and the show was a sellout from coast to coast.

  In the winter, the Irwin racing stable got rolling. Thanks to the wagering ban, the only places for it to go were seedy tracks, backwater ovals so small they were called “bullrings,” and dirt roads, but this was Irwin’s kind of racing. On this circuit, Ten Ton Irwin was king.

  The Irwin racing outfit was a little city on railroad tracks. When the bigger tracks—Tijuana, nearby Agua Caliente, or Omaha’s Ak-Sar-Ben (Nebraska spelled backward)—were running, Irwin’s railcars would rattle into town. The workers would pull the horses and tack off the cars, throw up the Ringling Brothers tents and seats, open up “all you can eat, pitch till you win” kitchens inside horse stalls, and settle in for an assault on the racing community. Irwin’s stable was probably the largest in America at the time, and may have been the largest ever, but most of the horses would have been hard-pressed to outrun Irwin himself. The vast majority were relegated to claiming races, rock-bottom events in which any competitor can be purchased for a set, low price before the race. Irwin took a shotgun approach, throwing as many horses as he could into claiming races in the hope that a few would hit pay dirt, then reloading the ones who hadn’t been claimed for another go in a day or two.

  When the big tracks closed, Smith and the Irwin crew piled back on the railcars and began endless loops of smaller towns, stopping off in big cities like Kansas City and crossroads like Laramie, Medicine Bow, and Sheridan, Wyoming. Indian reservations were also on the itinerary; Irwin would schedule his arrivals for the day after government checks came to be sure that everyone had betting money.7 Upon arrival in the town or reservation, Irwin would trot the horses off the railcars and straight to the nearest back road or bullring, where he would implement a nearly fail-safe betting system. He would talk the locals into racing their horses against his for side bets, with a forfeit fee of about $10. He would accept all comers sight unseen, but in the interim between the deal and the race, he would spy on the training of the local horses. If he thought they’d whip his runners, he’d fork over the forfeit fees and skip town, often “forgetting” to pay his hotel bill on the way out. If the local horses were clearly inferior to his, he’d talk their owners into betting all of their cash. When the cash ran out, he’d work on them until they had staked practically everything they owned, right down to their horse blankets. Irwin’s horses almost always won, and Irwin would clean out the locals, pack the horses back on the trains, and leave. “Irwin would put a guy out,” remembered Hall of Fame trainer Jimmy Jones, who cut his teeth running horses against Irwi
n’s. “The minute [a man] got any money, Irwin would rob him of it. He was an old racketeer in a way.”

  This was a rough life for man and beast. For a wage of about $60 a month, Smith slept and ate in horse stalls and struggled to keep up with the farriery needs of fifty-four horses. And Irwin was no easy boss. He had a contract jockey named Pablo Martinez, who worked on a set salary instead of being paid per ride. To save himself the $5 fee a replacement rider would cost him, Irwin once hauled poor Martinez out of a hospital bed and made him ride a race. Though he was down with pneumonia, Martinez somehow managed both to live through the afternoon and to win the race before wheezing his way back to the hospital.

  The horses fared worse. Irwin was known to pack thirty horses onto a single four-door railcar, ship them to a race, yank them off the car, and run them without giving them water or letting them warm up. His racing schedules were barbaric. In an era in which one race a week was considered a full calendar, he ran a mare named Miss Cheyenne sixteen times in twenty-one days. He ran another unfortunate horse every day for eight straight days. Rival trainers who claimed horses from Irwin sometimes found them so exhausted that they had to give them long layoffs before they were capable of running again. The hardship paid off for Irwin, who became the winningest trainer in the nation, but it took a toll on the animals. Smith patched them together, soothed their ailments, and learned.

  It must have been humiliating for Smith, tending to horses run into exhaustion and watching men and women whose skills had once been so vital prancing around for an audience that had already forgotten their fading world. It is hard to imagine Tom Smith surrounded by the artificialities of show business, standing in a glitzy showring, loosing horses to run in chaotic sprints, and not think that something precious was being squandered.

 
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