Seabiscuit: An American Legend by Laura Hillenbrand

  When the horses arrived in the paddock, they were greeted by the nervous faces of their handlers. The Howards fretted; Riddle looked small and old; Kurtsinger had the inward-focused look of someone at prayer. The saddling began. As Smith cinched the girth of Woolf’s kangaroo-leather saddle around Seabiscuit’s belly, Marcela stepped forward, clutching a medal of Saint Christopher, patron saint of travelers.7 Lifting up the horse’s saddlecloth, she pinned the medal to it.

  “This will bring you luck,” she whispered. It was All Saints’ Day.

  Into this edgy scene breezed George Woolf.6 In dazzling contrast to everyone else at Pimlico, the Iceman was utterly relaxed. A lump of chewing tobacco bulged in his cheek. He strode in, smacked Pumpkin on the rump, swung lightly aboard Seabiscuit, and spat in the air.

  There was a nervous stir. The bell on the starter’s stand wouldn’t work.8 The only other official bell at the track was attached to the starting gate. With no other options, the officials asked if they could borrow Smith’s homemade bell. Smith said yes, and someone fetched the odd redwood box for starter Cassidy, who carried it up to his place at the top of the homestretch. Years later, Daily Racing Form reporter Pete Pedersen noted that “Tom’s eyes were sparkling mirrors” when he recalled this incident, making one wonder if the old cowboy had a hand in the bell’s demise.

  Then another snag. Two assistant starters, almost certainly called in by War Admiral’s handlers, showed up to lead the horses to the walk-up. Their appearance was in direct violation of the agreement, and Smith spoke up. For once, he wanted War Admiral to be required to behave himself at the post. Smith traded testy words with the officials, and there was a long delay. “No assistants,” Smith snapped, “or no race.”9 The assistant starters backed off.

  At four o’clock, the two horses parted a sea of humanity and stepped onto the track before a crowd, wrote Grantland Rice, “keyed to the highest tension I have ever seen in sport.”10 “Maryland, My Maryland” wafted over a strangely quiet grandstand. The spectators, wrote Rice, were “too full of tension, the type of tension that locks the human throat.”

  War Admiral walked up the track first, twirling and bobbing. Blunt-bodied Seabiscuit plodded along behind, head down. He looked up once, scanned the crowd, then lowered his head again. One witness compared him to a milk-truck horse. Shirley Povich of The Washington Post thought he exhibited “complete, overwhelming and colossal indifference.” The appearance was deceiving. Woolf could feel it. In post parades, he was accustomed to the smooth levelness of Seabiscuit’s walk, the gentle gait of a horse that puts his hooves down carefully. But this day Woolf felt something new, a gathering beneath him, something springlike. The horse was coiling up.

  As the horses strode up the track, NBC radioman Clem McCarthy grabbed his microphone and turned to run to his race-calling post atop the clubhouse. The crowd was so dense that he couldn’t get through. He struggled in vain against a current of bodies, then gave up, exhausted. He did the best he could, climbing up on the track’s outer rail by the wire and settling in to call the race from there. His voice crackled over the radio waves to an estimated forty million listeners, including President Roosevelt.11, 12 Drawn up next to his White House radio, F.D.R. was so absorbed in the broadcast that he kept a roomful of advisors waiting. He would not emerge until the race was over.

  The reporters massed by the railings in the press box. War Admiral was the toast of the newsmen; every single Daily Racing Form handicapper had picked him to win, as had some 95 percent of the other writers. Only a small and militant sect of California writers was siding with Seabiscuit. Down in the stands, the allegiances were more muddied. War Admiral was the heavy favorite in the betting, but reporters mingling in the crowd found that most racegoers were rooting for the underdog.

  Up in her box, Gladys Phipps gazed down on Seabiscuit with pride. Her hard-tested faith in nasty old Hard Tack had finally paid off. After Seabiscuit began winning with Smith, the renowned Claiborne Farm, which had once politely but firmly rejected Hard Tack, changed its mind. Phipps retrieved her stallion from under the mulberry trees at the little farm where she had left him and shipped him to Claiborne, where the managers boosted his stud fee from nothing to a respectable $250. When Seabiscuit took the East by storm, they doubled the fee. Now, as the Biscuit challenged War Admiral, Hard Tack’s fee was $1,000, comparable to that of some of the nation’s most prominent sires.

  Nearby, Fitzsimmons watched the horses. He held a win ticket. It was on Seabiscuit.

  As the track was one mile around and the race a mile and three sixteenths, the starting point was at the top of the homestretch, with the horses set to circle the course roughly one and one quarter times. As War Admiral walked to the line alongside the flagman and starter Cassidy, Woolf worked to fray the Triple Crown winner’s famously delicate nerves.13, 14 He put Seabiscuit into a long, lazy warm-up, sailing past his skittering rival and galloping off the wrong way around the track. Cassidy ordered him to bring his horse up. “Mr. Cassidy,” Woolf called back cheerily, “I have instructions to warm Seabiscuit up before the start.” Cassidy barked that he had not been forewarned of this. Woolf shrugged and kept right on going. He and Seabiscuit swung around the far turn and into the backstretch.15

  At the five-eighths pole, Woolf stopped Seabiscuit and turned him toward the grandstand. For a long moment, man and horse stood out on the backstretch. It was quiet. The infield crowds massed up against the rail by the grandstand, leaving the backstretch oddly vacant; most everyone thought the only time the horses would run together would be in that first trip down the homestretch, before War Admiral’s speed put Seabiscuit away. Seabiscuit gazed at the throng, stirring gently in the sunshine; Woolf studied War Admiral, watching him unravel at the starting line, whirling in circles.

  After an agonizing interval, Woolf cantered Seabiscuit back to the top of the homestretch. He drew up alongside War Admiral. The flagman raised his arm, and Cassidy poised his finger over the button of Smith’s bell. Seabiscuit and War Admiral walked forward together, each rider watching Cassidy. The immense crowd drew its breath.

  At the last moment, something felt wrong to Woolf. He jerked his right rein and pulled Seabiscuit out. Kurtsinger reined up War Admiral, who bounced up and down in frustration. They lined up again and stepped forward, but this time it was Kurtsinger who reined out. The two horses trotted back to the turn. As they aligned for a third try, Woolf called over to Kurtsinger.

  “Charley, we’ll never get a go like this.16 We can’t watch the starter and our horses at the same time. Let’s walk up there watching the horses, and when we get even, let’s break away ourselves. Cassidy will see us in line and will have to bang the bell.”

  Kurtsinger nodded. The two walked up a third time, each jockey watching the nose of his rival’s mount. Woolf tightened his left rein, cocking Seabiscuit’s head toward War Admiral to let him focus on his opponent.

  The horses were perfectly even. Woolf knew that this was it. As they approached Cassidy, Woolf suddenly blurted out, “Charley, look out because the Biscuit kicks like hell and I don’t want you or your horse to get hurt.”17

  Kurtsinger stared at Woolf in befuddlement, then cleared his mind and trained his eyes back on Seabiscuit’s nose. The flagman’s hand hovered high in the air. Up in the Howard box, Marcela squeezed her eyes shut.

  The two noses passed over the line together, the flag flashed down, and the hushed track clanged with the sound of Smith’s bell. War Admiral and Seabiscuit burst off the line at precisely the same instant.

  The gathering Woolf had felt in Seabiscuit vented itself in a massive downward push. Lines of muscle along the horse’s back, flanks, and belly bulged with the effort, cutting sweeping stripes into his coat. His front end rose upward. Woolf threw himself forward as ballast, thrusting his feet straight back. Seabiscuit reached out and clawed at the ground in front of him, then pushed off again. Beside him, War Admiral scratched and tore at the track, hurling himself forward as hard as he
could. Seabiscuit drove over the track, his forelegs pulling the homestretch under his body and flinging it back behind him. Woolf angled him inward, keeping him close to War Admiral, letting him look at his rival. For thirty yards, the two horses hurtled down the homestretch side by side, their cutting, irregular strides settling into long, open lunges, their speed building and building.

  A pulse of astonishment swept over the crowd. War Admiral, straining with all he had, was losing ground. Seabiscuit’s nose forged past, then his throat, then his neck. McCarthy’s voice was suddenly shrill. “Seabiscuit is outrunning him!” War Admiral was kicking so hard that his hind legs were nearly thumping into his girth, but he couldn’t keep up.

  An incredible realization sank into Kurtsinger’s mind: Seabiscuit is faster. Up in the press box, the California contingent roared.

  After a sixteenth of a mile, Seabiscuit was half a length ahead and screaming along. He kept pouring it on, flicking his ears forward. The spectators were in a frenzy. As the horses were midway down the first pass through the homestretch, the crowd suddenly gushed over the infield retaining fence ten feet inside the track rail. Thousands of fans surged toward Woolf and Seabiscuit. Caught at the infield rail, they bent themselves over it, pounding and clapping and flailing their arms in Seabiscuit’s path. Seabiscuit, his ears flat and eyes forward, didn’t even seem to see them.

  Neither did Woolf. He had his eyes on the tractor wheel imprint, but War Admiral was on it. Woolf had to get far enough in front to cross ahead of War Admiral and claim it. He let Seabiscuit roll. By the time he and his mount hit the finish line for the first time, they were two lengths in front. Woolf looked back left and right, cocked back his left rein, and slid Seabiscuit across War Admiral’s path until he felt the firm ground of the tractor imprint under him. He flattened his back, dropped his chin into Seabiscuit’s mane, and flew toward the turn.

  Behind him, Kurtsinger was shell-shocked. His lips were pulled back and his teeth clenched. In a few seconds, Woolf and Seabiscuit had stolen the track from him, nullifying his post-position edge and his legendary early speed. Kurtsinger didn’t panic. War Admiral, though outfooted, was running well, and he had a Triple Crown winner’s staying power. Seabiscuit was well within reach. Conway had spent weeks training stamina into the horse, while Smith had not done much for Seabiscuit’s endurance. Seabiscuit was going much, much too fast for so grueling a race. He couldn’t possibly last. Kurtsinger made a new game plan. He would let Seabiscuit exhaust himself on the lead, then run him down. He eased War Admiral over until he was directly behind him, dragging off him, his mount’s nose caboosing Seabiscuit’s tail. He took hold of his horse and waited.

  As the two horses banked into the first turn, Woolf remembered Pollard’s advice to reel Seabiscuit in. He eased back ever so slightly on the reins and felt the horse’s stride come up under him, shortening. His action was little more than a faint gesture, but it meant that Kurtsinger had to either slow down or commit to the outside. Kurtsinger chose the latter, nudging War Admiral out.

  Seabiscuit cruised into the backstretch on a one-length lead, with Woolf holding his chin down. War Admiral chased him, his nose nodding up and down behind Seabiscuit’s right hip. The blur of faces along the rail thinned, then vanished altogether, and the din from the crowd quieted to a distant rumble. War Admiral and Seabiscuit were alone. With nothing but the long backstretch ahead of him, Woolf carried out Pollard’s instructions. Edging Seabiscuit a few feet out from the rail, he tipped his head back and called back to Kurtsinger: “Hey, get on up here with me!18 We’re supposed to have a horse race here! What are you doing lagging back there?”

  Kurtsinger studied the ground ahead. Woolf was dangling the rail slot in front of him, inviting him to take it. Kurtsinger measured the gap between Seabiscuit and the rail and saw that War Admiral was narrow enough to get through. But Kurtsinger knew the Iceman well. He knew that the instant he drove his horse up to full speed and pointed him to the hole, Woolf would drop in toward the rail and slam the door on him, forcing him to change course and lose momentum. Kurtsinger tugged his right rein and moved War Admiral outside.

  In a storied career of twenty-three races, through the Triple Crown and virtually every fabled race in the East, no one had ever seen all War Admiral could give.19 Kurtsinger asked the colt for the full measure. With five furlongs to go, he reached back and cracked War Admiral once across the hip. War Admiral responded emphatically. A shout rang out in the crowd, “Here he comes! Here he comes!” Woolf heard the wave of voices and knew what was happening. In a few strides, War Admiral swooped up alongside him, his head pressing Seabiscuit’s shoulder. A few more, and he was even. Kurtsinger thought: I’m going to win it. The grandstand was shaking.

  Woolf loosened his fingers and let an inch or two of the reins slide through. Seabiscuit snatched up the rein, lowered his head, and accelerated. Pollard’s strategy, Woolf’s cunning, and Smith’s training had given Seabiscuit a chance in a race he otherwise could not have won. From here on in, it was up to the horse. He cocked an ear toward his rival, listening to him, watching him. He refused to let War Admiral pass. The battle was joined.

  The horses stretched out over the track. Their strides, each twenty-one feet in length, fell in perfect synch. They rubbed shoulders and hips, heads snapping up and reaching out together, legs gathering up and unfolding in unison. The poles clipped by, blurring in the riders’ peripheral vision. The speed was impossible; at the mile mark, they were nearly a full second faster than a fifteen-year-old speed record. The track rail hummed up under them and unwound behind.

  They ripped out of the backstretch and leaned together into the final turn, their strides still rising and falling together. The crowds by the rails thickened, their faces a pointillism of colors, the dappling sound of distinct voices now blending into a sustained shout. The horses strained onward. Kurtsinger began shouting at his horse, his voice whipped away behind him. He pushed on War Admiral’s neck and drove with all his strength, sweeping over his mount’s right side. War Admiral was slashing at the air, reaching deeper and deeper into himself. The stands were boiling over. A reporter, screaming and jumping, fell halfway out of the press box.20 His colleagues caught his shirttails and hauled him back in. In the crowd below, several dozen spectators fainted from the excitement.21

  The horses strained onward, arcing around the far turn and rushing at the crowd. Woolf was still, his eyes trained on War Admiral’s head. He could see that Seabiscuit was looking right at his opponent. War Admiral glared back at him, his eyes wide open. Woolf saw Seabiscuit’s ears flatten to his head and knew that the moment Fitzsimmons had spoken of was near. One horse was going to crack.

  As forty thousand voices shouted them on, War Admiral found something more. He thrust his head in front.

  Woolf glanced at War Admiral’s beautiful head, sweeping through the air like a sickle. He could see the depth of the colt’s effort in his large amber eye, rimmed in crimson and white. “His eye was rolling in its socket as if the horse was in agony,” Woolf later recalled.22

  An instant later, Woolf felt a subtle hesitation in his opponent, a wavering. He looked at War Admiral again. The colt’s tongue shot out the side of his mouth.23 Seabiscuit had broken him.

  Woolf dropped low over the saddle and called into Seabiscuit’s ear, asking him for everything he had. Seabiscuit gave it to him. War Admiral tried to answer, clinging to Seabiscuit for a few strides, but it was no use. He slid from Seabiscuit’s side as if gravity were pulling him backward. Seabiscuit’s ears flipped up. Woolf made a small motion with his hand.

  “So long, Charley.”24 He had coined a phrase that jockeys would use for decades.

  Galloping low with Woolf flat over his back, Seabiscuit flew into the lane, the clean peninsula of track narrowing ahead as the crowd pushed forward. A steeplechase fence in the infield had collapsed, and a line of men had crashed through the line of police and now stood upright on the inner rail near the wire, bending down towar
d Seabiscuit and rooting him on.25 Clem McCarthy’s voice was breaking into his microphone. “Seabiscuit by three! Seabiscuit by three!” He had never heard such cheering. Arms waved and mouths gaped open in incredulity as Seabiscuit came on, his ears wagging. Thousands of hands reached out from the infield, stretching to brush his shoulders as he blew past.

  When he could no longer hear War Admiral’s hooves beating the track, Woolf looked back. He saw the black form some thirty-five feet behind, still struggling to catch him. He had been wrong about War Admiral; he was game. Woolf felt a stab of empathy. “I saw something in the Admiral’s eyes that was pitiful,” he would say later. “He looked all broken up.26 I don’t think he will be good for another race. Horses, mister, can have crushed hearts just like humans.”

  The Iceman straightened out and rode for the wire, his face down. Seabiscuit sailed into history four lengths in front, running easy.

  Behind him, pandemonium ensued. Seabiscuit’s wake seemed to create an irresistible vacuum, sucking the fans in behind him. Thousands of men, women, and children vaulted over the rails, poured onto the track, and began running after him.28 Police dashed over the track, but the fans simply ran past them, leaping and clapping. Ahead of them all, Woolf stood like a titan in the irons. He cupped his hand around his mouth and shouted something back at Kurtsinger.27 His words were lost in the cheering.

  Up in the Howard box, Marcela’s eyes opened and filled with tears. Howard, completely overcome, stood up and whooped. They smiled and bowed as hundreds of voices called out to them.

  In his box nearby, Samuel Riddle lowered his binoculars, turned to the Howards, and smiled weakly. His eyes were wide and shining with the shock of it. He hurried from his box. “It was a good race,” he said.29 The crowd solemnly cleared a path for him. One or two people put a hand on his shoulder as he passed.

  Marcela sank back down, disconcerted. Howard wanted to take her to the winner’s circle, but she decided to stay where she was. Tears were streaming down her face. She sat, drying her eyes with a handkerchief and laughing at herself. Howard burst out of the box and sprinted downstairs as fast as he could go, babbling and shaking hands with everyone he saw. He dashed onto the track and immediately disappeared in the swirling masses of revelers. Smith and Vanderbilt joined him, and the three of them fought to stay on their feet as reporters and fans pushed and pulled on them. Howard, unable to control his jubilation, jumped up and down with the fans. Police ran every which way.

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