Seabiscuit: An American Legend by Laura Hillenbrand


  While Seabiscuit steamrolled around the Santa Anita turns, buzzing the infield spectators and scaring the hell out of everyone, Kayak began to come into his own. Smith had known from the beginning that the big black Argentine colt was going to be a hundred-grander horse. As he had done with Seabiscuit in 1936, Smith entered the horse in the Handicap, but was careful not to show the racing secretary too much, running him just eight times, always in middling undercard races, six of which he won.14 Kayak improved rapidly. By the time they got to South Carolina, Kayak and Seabiscuit were waging bitter morning workout battles. Seabiscuit was always faster, but no horse, not even Fair Knightess, had proven so worthy a sparring partner.

  Smith’s plan to keep Kayak’s speed a secret worked. The horse drew just 110 for the Handicap. With the weights out, Smith had no reason to hide him any longer. Kayak roared into Santa Anita with guns blazing, staging an overpowering performance to win a handicap prep race, just missing a track record, running with ears up, tail fanned out behind him. Coming into the 1939 Santa Anita Handicap, Tom Smith was armed to the teeth.

  It was time to get Seabiscuit into a prep race, but something always intervened. He was scratched out of one race because the field was gigantic, and the post position hung him out so far that he was practically starting the race from the parking lot. He was scratched a second time when the rain turned the track slick. January became February. The Handicap was in March, and time was running out.

  Two weeks into February, they entered him in the one-mile Los Angeles Handicap. Their luck held: On race day, the sky came up sunny and the field small. Smith spent the day sitting under the slope of the shed row roof. He was accustomed to the giddy ripples of fear that attended race days, but today they had a darker feel. Waves of uneasiness washed over him. Perhaps, he thought, he was giving too much work to an aging animal. The idea tugged at his head all afternoon. By the time he heard the rhythmic, rising chant of Joe Hernandez’s voice as he called the undercard races, Smith had begun contemplating scratching the horse once again.15

  Out on the track, the racing secretary was surveying the crowd and worrying. Twenty thousand fans milled around the grandstand. Another scratch would be a disaster. Climbing up to the boxes, the secretary found Howard and told him that the horse’s fans mustn’t be disappointed for a third time. A few minutes later, Howard appeared at Barn 38. He and Smith talked about whether or not to run Seabiscuit, and Howard stressed that he didn’t want to ruin another day for Santa Anita and the horse’s fans. Smith could offer no concrete reason to scratch. He swallowed his trepidation and opted to run.

  Smith led Seabiscuit to the track. Woolf met him in the paddock, and Smith gave him a leg up. The Iceman leaned down from the saddle and bent his head toward Howard. “We’ll set up a track record for you today, Mr. Howard,” he said.

  Woolf broke Seabiscuit smartly, rushing to the lead. On his outside, Today, his old rival from 1938, hooked up with him. Down the backstretch the two horses flew, noses together. The duel stretched on: an eighth, a quarter, a half. The fractions clipped off. Woolf was going to be good to his word. The track record was coming down.

  Countless times on that long Santa Anita backstretch Seabiscuit’s legs reached out over the track, stretching to gather up the ground, pounding down into the dirt, then folding up under his belly. With every stride, some two thousand pounds of force came down on the bones and soft tissues of each foreleg.16 Today and Seabiscuit, still moving at record pace, leaned together into the far turn. Seabiscuit switched lead legs, so that his left foreleg was bearing the greatest weight. With each stride, he pivoted on the leg, holding the line of the turn at close to forty miles per hour. Woolf had no idea that beneath him, something was about to go wrong.

  Halfway around the turn, Today began inching away. Seabiscuit was fighting hard but slipping back. Today pushed a full length in front, then shifted down to the rail. Woolf angled Seabiscuit out to go around Today and gave him a whack with his whip. Seabiscuit surged forward, coming down heavily onto his left foreleg.17

  Woolf heard a sharp crack!18

  Seabiscuit took an awkward, skipping step. His head pitched downward. Woolf threw his weight back, snatched up the reins, and held Seabiscuit’s head up as the horse swung his legs forward and caught himself. The horse pulled himself together and resumed running. Woolf held still for several strides, feeling for lameness, but detected nothing. Perhaps, had Pollard been on him, he would have felt the slight catch in the rhythm, like a playing card clicking against the spokes of a bicycle wheel. But Seabiscuit’s stride was hard to read. Woolf felt nothing wrong. He thought Seabiscuit had simply stumbled over a rough part of the track.

  Woolf backed off. He would catch Today in the stretch. He banked into the homestretch, swung out to go around Today, and made the biggest mistake of his career. He reached back and struck Seabiscuit across the hip with the whip.

  Seabiscuit accelerated, and something gave under him. Woolf could feel it now, the jar in the stride: pain. He stood in the irons and began pulling the horse up. Seabiscuit crossed under the wire, finishing second by slightly more than two lengths. Today had set a record.

  Seabiscuit reeled down the track. Woolf wanted to get his weight off of his mount’s back, but he was going too fast. If he jumped off now, Seabiscuit, obedient to equine instinct to flee pain, would probably tear over the track, exacerbating his injury. Woolf had to control the horse’s deceleration. He leaned against the reins. By the time he reached the turn, he had slowed the horse enough to bail out. Woolf kicked off his stirrups, leaned his weight on his hands, swung his right leg over Seabiscuit’s rump, and pushed himself into the air. He hit the ground running and hauled the reins back, dragging the horse to a halt.

  He looked down at the leg. There was no blood, and the limb appeared structurally normal. Woolf led Seabiscuit forward a few steps. The horse’s head nodded, his left foreleg hovering in the air. An outrider, a mounted attendant assigned to catch loose horses and assist injured ones, galloped up and grabbed Seabiscuit’s bridle. Slowly, gently, the outrider led Seabiscuit back toward the stands. Woolf walked back alone.

  Up in the clubhouse, Smith and Howard were running. Smith was ahead, slamming into people and shoving them out of the way. Howard followed him. They crossed onto the track and sprinted toward Seabiscuit.

  The outrider drew Seabiscuit up before Smith. Seabiscuit held the leg up. Smith bent over it. Woolf stood and stared at his mount. His lips were white. Howard rushed up, looked at Seabiscuit, and then wheeled on Woolf. He was near panic.

  “Why did you do it?” he shouted.19 “George, why did you do it?”

  Woolf said something about having believed that the horse had simply stumbled. He said he had had no idea that the horse was injured. He watched them tend to Seabiscuit, then walked back to the jockeys’ room and sat down, heartsick. He called trainer Whitey Whitehill in, asked permission to be taken off his last mount.

  A horse ambulance sped up. Smith straightened and waved it away. He needed to see Seabiscuit’s gait. Howard held the reins while a groom threw a blanket over his back. They started walking the horse toward the barns. His head nodded with every step. Howard fell in beside him. Smith dropped far behind, frowning and dipping his head to study his horse’s stride. He could see that it was the ankle that had gone wrong.

  The grim procession filed past the grandstand. The shocked fans watched him go.

  At the Howard barn, there was shouting and running.20 Grooms dashed everywhere, rushing for ice, Epsom salts, and liniment. Seabiscuit was led up and halted. A groom dipped bandages in ice water laced with Epsom salts and wound them around the left foreleg. The Howards stood and watched, their faces fallen. Behind them, horsemen gathered in silent attendance. A groom walked Seabiscuit around and around the barn. The horse had run a mile at nearly a world-record clip, and injured or not, he had to be cooled out. Seabiscuit’s head continued to nod. Periodically, the groom stopped him and poured ice water inside his leg
bandage while the horse slurped water from a bucket standing on a bench. Howard walked up and looked the leg over. “He never deserved such hard luck,” he said.

  Marcela stood nearby. “The Handicap doesn’t matter,” she said. “He’s got to be all right.”

  “Remember,” Smith told Howard, “he went lame at Belmont.”

  “Yes,” Howard responded, “but I never saw him pull up that way. Never before.”

  Smith had no response. A mournful hush fell over the barn, broken only by the long, low moans of a saddle pony who missed his absent stable companion. All evening long, the deep, sad sound drifted out from the shed rows.

  When Seabiscuit had cooled out, Smith went over the leg. There was no disturbed hair, no broken skin. They led him back into his stall. He had stopped limping. A veterinarian went in the stall with him, and a ring of stable hands watched from the door while he worked. The veterinarian examined the leg, then painted it in liniment, packed it in mud, and wrapped it loosely in fresh bandages soaked in ice water. He emerged to the forlorn collection of grooms but offered no verdict. He said the injury needed time to declare itself. It could be as bad as a broken bone or a blown suspensory ligament.21 Or it could be as minor as a kick bruise. Whatever it was, the vet thought Smith was wrong. It was in the knee, he said, not the ankle.

  Howard and Smith spent the night on their knees in Seabiscuit’s stall, taking turns pouring ice water onto the horse’s leg. Sometime in the night Seabiscuit folded up and sank down beside them. He drifted off to sleep, his legs stretched straight out. They kept working while he slept.

  When Seabiscuit’s eyes opened in the morning, Howard and Smith were still there. The horse raised his head and rolled his weight onto his chest, preparing to stand. Howard and Smith held their breath. Seabiscuit pulled his haunches up under him, straightened his forelegs, and pushed. In a moment Seabiscuit was up. He stood normally on the bad leg and dove into his feed bucket. Then he lowered his head to snatch hay off the floor of his stall. It was his habit to lean onto his left leg when he did so, letting his right knee bend so he could get his mouth to the floor. They watched as he dropped his nose. His right knee bent, just as it always had, and he leaned to the left, onto the bad leg. Howard and Smith exhaled.

  They led him out into the shed row and eased him into the walking ring. A crowd gathered to see him walk. Looping in big circles, the horse didn’t take a lame step. Then Smith asked him to turn sharply left, a trick he had learned to test the suspensory ligaments. The horse bobbled. Smith was right: It was the ankle, not the knee. The veterinarian took radiographs, which would take a while to develop. All they could do now was wait. The Howards spent their time sorting through myriad sympathy notes from fans, some of whom enclosed bottles of remedies for the horse. The X rays came back. There was no fracture. The injury was in the suspensory ligament. Maybe it was ruptured; maybe it was only bruised. The veterinarian said that if it was ruptured, the horse’s career was over. Time would tell.

  Days passed, and Seabiscuit improved dramatically. Smith walked him every day and studied his gait. The horse had no trace of lameness at the walk, not even when Smith turned him sharply. After three days there was no sign that he had been hurt at all. A few days later Smith took him out for a long, slow, riderless trip around the track, leading him from Pumpkin’s back. Several hundred spectators came to see it. Howard stood by the rail and watched through binoculars. Again, the horse seemed perfectly sound and cooled out well. Smith began inching him back into work, giving him easy gallops. It appeared that he had only stung the leg, not incurred a deeper injury. Seabiscuit, they declared, was going to make the hundred-grander.

  Meanwhile, the stable got a little insurance. Kayak won the San Carlos Handicap, nailing Specify at the wire and breaking the track record. And a curious dispatch came in from the San Francisco World’s Fair. Fair promoters wanted Seabiscuit to be an exhibit. They offered to build a special paddock and walking ring and give Howard a handsome cut of the 50-cent viewing fee they would charge spectators. Howard declined, citing a most unlikely reason: “We do not care to commercialize Seabiscuit.”

  On February 23 Smith took Seabiscuit back to the track to continue his preparation. The horse sped over the track, level and even. Then there was a bobble. The rider abruptly stood up and threw his weight against the reins. The head nodded again. Smith and Howard didn’t need to say much to each other. They both knew.

  Seabiscuit’s suspensory ligament was ruptured. Howard, his shoulders sagging with disappointment, stood at the clubhouse rail and told reporters that they weren’t going to make it.

  Smith pulled himself together and went on. He moved the special safety door from Seabiscuit’s stall to Kayak’s. Howard brought a man to the barn to make plaster casts of Seabiscuit’s hooves for the production of souvenir ashtrays. The horse stood there calmly for an hour and a half as the man fooled with his feet. Howard stood by and watched. Neither he nor Marcela could muster any enthusiasm for the hundred-grander.

  A week later it was Kayak, not Seabiscuit, whom Smith escorted to the track for the Santa Anita Handicap. Reporters queried him on his chances without Seabiscuit. “Watch my smoke,” he said. On the way out, he stopped briefly before Seabiscuit’s stall. Outside, a grandstand swollen with spectators awaited him. Several million people were tuned in to the radio broadcast. Buenos Aires was at a standstill: Kayak was Argentine.22 In the midst of the crowd at Santa Anita sat Charles and Marcela Howard, forced smiles papered over their faces.

  A few minutes later Kayak cannonballed down the homestretch to win the 1939 Santa Anita Handicap. Marcela and Charles broke into tears. Someone asked Charles for a comment. “Oh, gosh, it was grand—” he said, his voice catching in his throat. He turned his back and hid his face among his closest friends, who ringed around him. “Kayak II is a good horse,” he whispered. “But gee, it wasn’t Seabiscuit …”23

  After the ceremonies, the Howards hurried from the track. That night they attended the Turf Club Ball. As always, Howard tried to get Smith to come, but the trainer never showed up. Santa Anita officials presented Howard with the traditional golden winner’s trophy, then gave him a cup commemorating Seabiscuit.

  “I am extremely proud of the horse,” Howard said of Kayak, “but I can’t help saying I would have been happier had Seabiscuit been the winner.”

  The Howards returned home. Marcela felt hollow.24

  Marcela and Charles Howard visit Seabiscuit at Ridgewood.

  (COL. MICHAEL C. HOWARD)

  Chapter 21

  A LONG, HARD PULL

  Agnes Conlon joined Red Pollard’s strange world on April 10, 1939. Back in Willits, Doc Babcock had finally set Pollard’s leg properly, and it was beginning to heal. He limped out of the hospital in early spring. Babcock sent him out with a stern warning: His leg would not stand the rigors of riding. If he went back to racing, he could be crippled for the rest of his life. He must never mount a horse again. Pollard smiled. “Then I reckon I’ll have to find somebody to boost me up,” he said.1

  Pollard took up residence at Ridgewood and immediately called for Agnes to come marry him. With no money to spare, they planned for a quiet, private weekday wedding and a modest honeymoon, and then Pollard would begin his long journey back to the saddle. Red wanted to be sure that she got the wedding gift she wanted most—a diamond watch—so he mailed her what little money he had so she could pick it out herself. Instead of buying the watch, Agnes bought an extra ticket west so her mother could see her marry. She had wanted to wear her sister’s elaborate wedding dress, but their pennilessness called for something less formal. She packed up a simple navy pinstripe suit, hat, and sandals and embarked on her journey to California.

  She was in for a surprise. Pollard greeted her with a beautiful wedding, undoubtedly financed and planned by Marcela. The ranch was decorated for the occasion, and legions of Pollard’s friends, including Yummy, Spec Richardson, Doc Babcock, and a host of hospital staffers, were in attenda
nce. Pollard, still underweight, was bundled into a double-breasted black suit, the left pant leg slit over his cast. Agnes was stunned by the preparations and a little mortified that all she had brought was the navy suit.

  Under the sunlight in Willits, Agnes and Red Pollard spent their first married moments standing together, hearing the good wishes of their friends. Agnes smiled demurely, pressing the tips of her fingers into Red’s palm and averting her eyes from the Associated Press photographer who was covering the wedding. Red stood by her, his bad leg angled out.

  It was a melancholy season at Ridgewood. Smith, preparing to take his Kayak east, vanned Seabiscuit to Ridgewood, said his good-byes, and left him in Pollard’s care. The horse was led into his new home, a handsome stall adjoining his own private paddock. He was not ready for retirement. He was bred to seven mares, including Fair Knightess, but it didn’t do much for his mood. Restive, he stalked the fences on his lame leg. Howard’s spirits mirrored those of his horse. In Seabiscuit’s racetrack days, Howard had made a habit of coming to the track every morning. Now he stopped going altogether.2 He and Marcela spent much of their time at the stallion barn, petting Seabiscuit. At times Howard lingered there for several hours. The papers referred to Seabiscuit as “retired,” but Howard wouldn’t use that word. He was hanging on to the idea that somehow the horse might race again.

  Red and Agnes returned from a honeymoon on Catalina Island, and the broken-legged jockey began the period of his life that he would call “a long, hard pull.”3 Red would go up to the barn, hitch a lead rope onto Seabiscuit, and head off into the meadows, swinging painfully along on his crutches while Seabiscuit limped beside him. “We were a couple of old cripples together,” Red said, “all washed up.4 But somehow we both had a pretty good idea that we’d be back.” Howard’s friends stood on the hills and watched them go, shaking their heads at the sad sight of two athletes whose bodies had failed them. Sonny Greenberg came out to look the horse’s leg over. There is no way, he thought, that they’ll get this one back on the track.

 
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