Seabiscuit: An American Legend by Laura Hillenbrand


  The final race time lit up the tote board. A second roar erupted from the crowd. Seabiscuit had run the mile and three sixteenths in 1:56 ⅗. No horse in Pimlico’s fabled and lengthy history, through thousands of races dating back to just after the Civil War, had ever run the distance so fast.

  Woolf turned Seabiscuit and cantered him back into the mob. He was wrung out, “all in for breath,” said McCarthy, “and he’s almost as white as the sleeves of his jacket.” Woolf pulled Seabiscuit up to the grandstand, and the crowd enveloped them, shouting, “Georgie! Georgie!” McCarthy shoved his way up to the horse and propped a microphone on Seabiscuit’s withers. Woolf bent to it.

  “I wish my old pal Red had been on him instead of me,” he said in his easy drawl.30 “See ya, Red.”

  Hundreds of hands touched Woolf’s legs and stroked Seabiscuit’s coat. The horse stood quietly in the center of the chaos, his tail in the air and his ribs heaving in and out as the waves of fans pushed up to his sides.31 Smith elbowed his way up, and someone asked him for a statement. “I said mine on the track,” the trainer said.32 The police fought their way in to them, then formed a square and drove the crowd outward, leaving Smith standing beside his horse. Pumpkin bulled in with a stable hand on his back. The police opened a narrow avenue into the winner’s circle. Smith grasped Seabiscuit’s rein and led his grand little horse down the avenue of guards. Smith kept his eyes straight ahead, chin up, his face proud and sober. He led Seabiscuit to Howard, who patted the horse’s nose and beamed.

  In the winner’s circle, the police cordon gave way and the reporters and fans pressed in again, wedging Seabiscuit and his handlers into the corner. Smith lifted a blanket of yellow chrysanthemums over the horse’s neck. Unperturbed by the near riot around him, Seabiscuit began gently plucking flowers off the wreath and eating them. Howard tugged a single chrysanthemum from the blanket. The crowd begged for souvenir blossoms. Smith pulled a flower out for himself, and in a rare moment of exuberance, heaved the whole blanket into the crowd. A happy yell went up, and the flowers vanished.

  Kurtsinger steered War Admiral around the celebration and pulled him up in front of the grandstand. Kurtsinger sagged in the saddle. War Admiral had run the greatest race of his life, running by far his fastest time for the distance, but he had not been good enough. Conway pushed his way through the fans and emerged in front of his colt. He examined his legs, found them sound and cool, then turned away. A reporter asked him for a statement.

  “No! No!” he said. “Nothing to say.” Dazed, he disappeared into the mob.

  Kurtsinger smiled bravely and slid from the saddle. He uncinched it and pulled it from War Admiral’s back, then stood and looked at his horse for a moment. He stepped forward and whispered something in the horse’s ear, then walked away.33 A groom threw a black-and-yellow blanket over War Admiral’s back. The police cleared a path for him, and War Admiral, his head low, was led back to the barn to the lonely clapping of a handful of fans. He would run in two more minor races, winning both, then go on to become one of the breed’s great sires.

  Woolf slid to the ground and stood with one hand on his hip, smiling confidently, as Vanderbilt handed Howard the silver victory vase. Someone dragged Smith over to the mike, and he muttered something about credit being due to horse and rider. The final odds lit up the board, and Howard burst out laughing. The crowd applauded.

  It took fifteen minutes to clear a path wide enough for Seabiscuit to get out of the winner’s circle. As Howard whirled off with the reporters, Woolf and Smith picked their way back to the jockeys’ room, trailed by well-wishers. They stopped in the doorway. Kurtsinger was already inside. “I hate to beat Kurtsinger,” Woolf said, “the cleverest jockey I ever competed against.” The reporters buzzed around him with questions about Seabiscuit. “He’s the best horse in the world,” he said. “He proved that today.”

  Smith allowed himself a small smile. Woolf turned to him. “If only Red could have seen Biscuit run today,” he said.34

  “Yeah,” said Smith, his smile fading. “But I kinda think the redhead was riding along with you, George.”

  Woolf went into the jockeys’ room. Down the bench, Kurtsinger was pulling off his boots and quietly crying. Someone gently asked him what happened.

  “What can I say? We just couldn’t make it,” he said. “The Admiral came to him and looked him in the eye, but that other horse refused to quit. We gave all we had. It just wasn’t good enough.”35

  Smith went back to the barn to see his horse. He spent a few quiet moments with him, his arm thrown over his neck, the horse’s head by his chest. Woolf dressed and joined them. He stood by the stall door, watching Seabiscuit settle in. The horse felt good. He trotted around the stall, playing. Woolf thought he looked as if he hadn’t run the race yet.

  The Howards packed up carloads of reporters and brought them all to their hotel room. In exactly two months, Seabiscuit would turn six, relatively old for a racehorse and an age at which most stallions were already at stud. The newsmen wanted to know if Howard was ready to retire his horse. Howard shook his head. Beating War Admiral had always been a secondary ambition. Charles and Marcela’s greatest wish was for Seabiscuit to win the Santa Anita Handicap. The horse would stay in training.

  When Howard finally let them go, the reporters went home and filled out their ballots for championship honors. Seabiscuit was, at last, Horse of the Year.

  Smith arrived at the barn at four the next morning.37 The reporters, drowsing in the barn aisles, jumped up when they saw him. For once in his life, Smith couldn’t stop smiling. “That War Admiral is a better horse than I thought he was,” he quipped as he walked into the shed row. “I had been sure we’d beat him by ten lengths, and it was only four. It’s funny that nobody’d believe me when I said this horse could run.”

  As he approached Seabiscuit’s stall, he fell silent, walking tiptoe. He gently opened the door and peered inside. Seabiscuit was a dark lump half buried in the straw, dead to the world. Smith stepped back and quietly closed the door.

  “He’s earned his rest, all right,” he breathed.

  Up in Massachusetts, Pollard greeted reporters with a rhyme:

  “The weather was clear, the track fast

  War Admiral broke first and finished last.”36

  David Alexander came in with congratulations.

  “Well, what did you think of it?” Alexander asked.

  “He did just what I’d thought he’d do.”

  “What was that?”

  “He made a Rear Admiral out of War Admiral.”

  An envelope from Woolf arrived. Inside was $1,500, half the jockey’s purse.38

  PART III

  Moments after injuring his left foreleg at Santa Anita, Seabiscuit is attended by Howard (far right) and his grooms, February 14, 1939.

  (© BETTMANN/CORBIS)

  Chapter 20

  “ALL FOUR OF HIS LEGS ARE BROKEN”

  In mid-November, after five months in bed, Pollard emerged from Winthrop Hospital, stabbing at the ground with his crutches and swinging his legs along. He returned to the world a changed man. His body was still wasted. His face was withered and old. His career was dead. He was homeless. And because he had no insurance, he hadn’t a cent left to his name.

  The Howards asked him to come live with them at Ridgewood. Pollard accepted. His doctor drove him to the airport, and Agnes rode along with them. Pollard promised her that once he was established, he would send for her and they would marry. Agnes watched him bump up to the plane and wondered if he would live to see her again.

  When Pollard arrived in California, he went to Tanforan to see the racetrackers again. His appearance stunned everyone. On the backstretch, his old contract trainer, Russ McGirr, saw the young man whom he had once purchased as a bug boy for a bridle, a saddle, and a few sacks of oats. McGirr burst into tears as they embraced.

  Pollard settled in at Ridgewood. He was determined to heal and get back to riding, so he tossed away his c
rutches and tried to walk. It was a mistake. On one of the Ridgewood hills, he set his foot down wrong in a ditch hidden in the grass. The leg came down at an oblique angle and snapped.1

  The Howards rushed Pollard to the hospital Charles had built in memory of his lost son and called Doc Babcock, the same country physician who had tried in vain to save Frankie. In examining Pollard’s leg, Babcock discovered that the Massachusetts doctors hadn’t managed the setting and rehabilitation of Pollard’s leg properly. The leg would have to be rebroken, but this time, he felt, it would heal. Pollard knew what suffering lay in store for him but didn’t hesitate. He underwent the procedure.2

  Soon afterward, Woolf drove from Maryland back to California, where he arrived at Tanforan to general applause. Someone told him that Pollard had again been hospitalized, and Woolf was crestfallen. He got back in his car and headed north to Willits, where he spent several days visiting with Pollard.

  November rolled through Maryland, bringing with it sheets of ice.3 The track at Pimlico became a virtual skating rink, and Smith limited Seabiscuit’s outings to walks around the shed rows. The ice didn’t melt, and the horse began gaining weight.

  On December 1 Smith walked out of the barn and stooped over the dirt racecourse. The track was glazed in ice. He stood there a while, quietly humming, “I Hear You Calling, Caroline.” Behind him, Seabiscuit fidgeted in his stall, fat and impatient, having not felt a saddle on his back for ten days. It was time to go. Smith went back inside and consulted with Howard. The next night, the trainer loaded the entire Howard barn onto train cars for a trip south, to Columbia, South Carolina. There they could train in warm weather and on safe tracks.

  The choice of South Carolina was a strategic one. Seabiscuit was nominated for the Santa Anita Handicap, to be run in March, but Howard had also named him for the Widener Challenge Cup at Florida’s Hialeah Race Track. The races were to be run on the same afternoon. It is highly unlikely that he was considering passing up the hundred-grander for the Widener, but he thought the pretense might help in the touchy matter of weights. Santa Anita, undoubtedly because of Seabiscuit, had eliminated the 130-pound weight maximum for the handicap. The weights would be announced that winter, and given the results of the match race, the track racing secretary would obviously be inclined to assign Seabiscuit the biggest impost of his career. So Howard parked his horses between the two tracks and began playing one against the other, hoping to pressure Santa Anita out of giving Seabiscuit an excessive impost. Whenever he could, he made good use of his omnipresent entourage of newsmen. Sitting within earshot of a group of reporters at the Giants–Green Bay football game at the Polo Grounds in New York, Howard wondered aloud which race he would choose.

  Even in the bucolic surroundings of Columbia, Seabiscuit could not escape the carnival atmosphere. Though the horse was not going to race in the state, carloads of fanatically devoted admirers drove hundreds of miles and swamped the town just to see him gallop in his morning workouts.4 Each time he cantered around the little training track, a happy whoop went up from his rooting section. Cameramen from the Universal Newsreel Company were crawling all over the town, creating a short-subject film of the horse’s life. People were flooding the track every time Seabiscuit showed his face.

  Late in December, Seabiscuit overstepped in a workout and kicked himself in the left foreleg, dinging the suspensory ligament. His leg came up with a little swelling, so Smith backed off on the workouts. Again, Seabiscuit began gaining weight.

  The reporters came and went. Seabiscuit, bandaged to the elbows, frisked them from over his stall door. Over and over again, Smith was asked why Seabiscuit was bandaged, and over and over again, he explained that the wraps were merely protective. Just before Christmas, the umpteenth local reporter from the umpteenth little paper eyed the bandages and asked Smith for the umpteenth time what they were for. Smith kept an absolutely straight face: “All four of his legs are broken.”5

  The shocked reporter rushed to his editors and banged out a story breaking the news: Seabiscuit had fractured all four of his legs, and he would never run again. The ridiculous story might have lived out a brief life in Columbia had the paper not put it out on the national wire, thinking it was the scoop of the season. The next day papers across the nation were reporting the stunning course of events.

  Up in Burlingame, California, Howard had just arrived from the East. Seabiscuit had elevated him to superstardom. He was mobbed everywhere he went. While he attended the races at Tanforan with Bing Crosby, the crooner found himself abandoned as fans and autograph-seekers smothered Howard. The owner settled back into town to await the hundred-grander impost announcement. He killed time by mailing blown-up match race photographs to reporters and taking out ads celebrating the win.

  On the day Smith made his statement about Seabiscuit’s legs, Howard read the story in his evening paper, shrugged it off, and went to bed. He was by now all too familiar with false reports and knew that had anything happened to Seabiscuit, Smith would have been on the phone to him in minutes. But Howard didn’t sleep well. Reporters and distraught fans phoned his house all night long.

  The next morning, when he emerged from the barn, Smith was enveloped by a herd of agitated newsmen. Smith denied again and again that the horse was lame. “Some dumb farmer of a reporter saw Seabiscuit with his usual after-exercise bandages on and drew the wrong conclusion,” he said.6 It took two weeks for the corrected story to make the rounds.

  Howard’s squeeze play didn’t work. The track secretary at Santa Anita loaded Seabiscuit with 134 pounds. Howard swallowed hard. On the day after Christmas, Smith and Howard talked over the phone. The trainer wanted to bring Seabiscuit home from South Carolina without waiting for the Hialeah weights to be announced. Though the injury to the rapped leg was not serious—the horse was not even lame—he had always worried about that left front suspensory ligament and wanted to be at his home base if trouble developed. They had surely never seriously considered going to Florida anyway. Smith made his case to Howard. Howard wired him back: COME ON.

  Seabiscuit would go in the hundred-grander. “One hundred and thirty-four is a lot of weight,” said Howard, “but Biscuit is a lot of horse.”7

  The next night, the town of Columbia gathered in the darkness to see Seabiscuit off on what would be the final cross-country journey of a career that spanned 50,000 railroad miles. The whistle sounded, the fans shouted their good-byes, and the train ground forward. For five days it pressed westward, parting oceans of fans and newsmen at each stop.

  Somewhere along the railways in the heart of the country, Seabiscuit slipped out of 1938. That year, no individual had known fame and popularity that was as intense and far-reaching. At year’s end, when the number of newspaper column inches devoted to public figures was tallied up, it was announced that the little horse had drawn more newspaper coverage in 1938 than Roosevelt, who was second, Hitler (third), Mussolini (fourth), or any other newsmaker.8 His match with War Admiral was almost certainly the single biggest news story of the year and one of the biggest sports moments of the century. “The affection that this inarticulate brown horse had aroused,” journalist Ed Sullivan would write, “was a most amazing thing.”9

  Fans scurried all over the unloading platform as Seabiscuit arrived at Santa Anita.10 The train-car door slid open, and the dogs Match, Silver, and Pocatell bounced out, followed by Pumpkin and Seabiscuit. A host of newsreel and newspaper men pushed forward. A line of exercise boys and horsemen stood with them. Smith leaned out the door with the horse, eyeing the crowd with disdain.

  “We’re back for more,” he said blandly.

  Howard dashed forward. “Tom!” he practically shouted. “He looks grand. And happy new year!” He trotted up to greet the horse.

  “Someone ought to put a shank on Charlie and cool him out,” a trainer cracked. “He’s more excited than the hoss.”

  Smith and Howard walked off together, radiating pride. Seabiscuit, feeling his oats, bucked a little.
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  They had reason to feel good. Seabiscuit was sound and happy. He had no trace of lameness, and his speed was honed. The only hitch was his weight. He’d been idle in his stall for much of the time since the match, and his weight had crept up. Smith stripped him of his blankets on the morning after his arrival and walked him to the scales. Seabiscuit had gained thirty pounds. So Smith buttoned him into a bright yellow sweating hood and took him to the track at Santa Anita. Since the War Admiral race was over and the weights for the Santa Anita Handicap had been announced, the trainer was no longer trying to hide his horse’s workouts. Smith’s protectiveness had given way to confident magnanimity. “No longer will there be any secrecy to Seabiscuit’s moves,” he said.11 “We figure he is the people’s horse, and we propose to train him in the open.” The people loved the idea. Every time the horse set foot on the course, someone would cry out, “Here comes the Biscuit!” and the track would come to a dead standstill.12 Each of his workouts was attended by ten thousand or more spectators.

  They were treated to a show. Smith had never seen the horse so good. His workouts were the fastest of the meeting. He careened around the turns with such reckless speed that Smith began to fear that he would be unable to hold his arc and would tumble over sideways. He took the horse back to the barn and pulled off all of his shoes. While Howard gathered up the old shoes to have them cast into silver ashtrays to give to reporters, Smith got a farrier to design special new turn-gripping shoes.13 “He’s been working so fast,” said Smith, “we’re afraid he’ll run right out of his hide. Already he has to run a bit sideways to keep from flying right in the air.”

 
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