Seabiscuit: An American Legend by Laura Hillenbrand


  At first Pollard was too weak to go far, but he gradually built up his endurance. Hour after hour, day after day, Pollard and Pops walked together. When Pollard tired, he would lead Seabiscuit back and leave him off in the hands of his new groom, Harry Bradshaw. Bradshaw was a backstretch legend, a man with such magical skills at tending lameness that once, when a man was negotiating to buy an elite horse in Bradshaw’s care, he refused to take the horse unless Bradshaw was part of the bargain. Smith had made a special effort to get him out to the farm and had given him detailed instructions on how to care for the horse. Bradshaw took his job seriously, staying at the barn day and night to nurse Seabiscuit’s ankle.

  Agnes and Red began their marriage. Red taught her to drive a car along the roads lined with redwoods. He took her out to the barns, helped her up on the backs of the horses, and watched her ride. For Agnes, every moment was stolen time. Red was so frail that she feared his life was still in danger. She discovered that he was already deep into alcoholism. And she learned how he tortured his body to make weight. Horse racing had made him a cripple and an addict. And now he was going back to it.

  Slowly, painfully, horse and rider healed.5 Pollard was soon off his crutches and took to leaning on a cane. He wore weighted shoes to strengthen his wasted leg muscles. The bones of his leg were so weak that he needed to wear a fur-lined metal brace to prevent them from buckling, but they held up. Seabiscuit’s lameness at the walk disappeared. Howard began slipping out to the barn in the morning with Pollard, and one day when the urge was too strong they got out a stock saddle and cinched it on Seabiscuit. Howard gently lifted Pollard into the saddle. The redhead was far too weak to hold the horse, so Howard swung aboard a pinto horse named Tick Tock, took Seabiscuit’s lead rope, and led the two around the meadows, gradually increasing the length and speed of each outing. Soon, Howard had a little track of three eighths of a mile cut out of the flat valley land. He began leading Seabiscuit and Red onto it for long, slow walks.

  Seabiscuit was starting to feel fine. Within hours of his birth, he had known how to run, and speed had been the measure of his life ever since. He knew what the track was for, and it wasn’t walking. He was frantic to run. His whole body gathered up behind the bit, and he skittered around like a downed electrical wire, begging Pollard to turn him loose. Howard had left a bushy gully in the center of his makeshift track, and one morning the sight of the horses and men spooked the deer hiding out inside. They bolted for the hills, streaking past Seabiscuit. “Good Lord!” Howard remembered later. “The first time he spotted one he thought the race was on!” Seabiscuit yanked the reins loose and bounded off after the deer, imitating the animals’ pogo-stick strides. Pollard somehow hung on, Howard kept his grip on the lead rope, and they pulled Seabiscuit to a halt.6

  A few hundred miles south, Tom Smith sat in the sun by the barns at Hollywood Park. His eyes were trained on Kayak, who hung his head out of his half door, surveying the backstretch.

  Smith was in the midst of a trying season. First Seabiscuit was injured. Then Kayak was hurt in a freak accident when something blew across the track and caused him to bolt. He came down wrong, gashed himself badly, and wound up out of training. After a period of convalescence, the horse returned to racing, only to be injured again. All Smith had to cling to was a wild thought that Seabiscuit might someday return.

  Smith’s eyes played over Kayak. A reporter walked up.

  “Wouldn’t it be great,” the newsman said, “if the Biscuit could stage a comeback?”

  Smith slid up in his chair.

  “I suppose,” he said, an edge to his voice, “you think he won’t come back?”

  The reporter, flustered, stammered out something about the rarity of successful comebacks.

  Smith stood up. “The Biscuit will come back,” he said in a voice more emotional than he meant it to be.7 “He’ll come back and fool the whole turf world.”

  Smith seemed uncomfortable. He drew himself together and smiled at the reporter.

  Kayak continued to gaze out the door.

  Pollard had learned a thing or two about training from Smith, and he managed Seabiscuit’s rehabilitation carefully. By early summer, walking turned to a gentle canter, first a mile, then two, then three. Seabiscuit kept pulling, but Pollard never gave in; the turns on the little track were too tight, the leg too delicate. Howard walked out to the barn every morning with a quiver in his gut, afraid that they might make a mistake and reinjure Seabiscuit. But the horse kept getting stronger and sounder. An idea was working around in the heads of everyone at Ridgewood. Howard and Smith might be right. Seabiscuit might make it back to the races. Outside the ranch, it was considered an absurd idea. Inside, it seemed somehow possible.

  Everyone went to work. Bradshaw began strapping Seabiscuit into a fur-lined muzzle to get the extra pounds off him, and they weighed the horse every week. When a groom was caught sneaking carrots to Seabiscuit, Pollard ran him off with a pitchfork and the groom was summarily fired. Seabiscuit took to stomping and bellowing for food day and night. His moans rang off the barn walls and worked on everyone’s nerves, but no one gave in. “The whole ranch became centered on the job,” Howard said.8 “Even the pigs quit grunting at him and the chickens kept out of his way.”

  By summer’s end, Seabiscuit had made surprising progress. He was now soundly negotiating five miles a day. Beneath Pollard, there was something different. Seabiscuit was developing a new stride.9 No longer did he stab out with a foreleg as he ran, producing the curiously choppy duck-waddle gait that so many observers had mistaken for lameness. He now folded his legs up neatly under him when airborne, directing all of his motion forward and back, not side to side. It was a beautiful, smooth gait, and probably a sounder one. Seabiscuit was in fighting trim and hard as rock, and Pollard, though still a wreck, was at least strong enough to handle him.

  “Our wheels went wrong together, but we were good for each other,” he said.10 “Out there among the hooting owls, we both got sound again.”

  On her trips to the barn, Marcela also noticed something new. Seabiscuit was pacing around his stall, as he had done in his days with Fitzsimmons. When he paused, he directed his gaze at the horizon, distracted. Howard saw that look and knew what it meant. “You knew he wanted to race again,” he said, “more than anything else in the world.”11

  In the fall Howard called Smith in. The trainer motored up to the ranch and silently watched as Seabiscuit, looking blocky in his winter coat, was galloped in front of him. Smith scrutinized the horse from head to toe. He was deeply impressed with the work Pollard had done with him.

  They were all thinking the same thing. Seabiscuit was ready to take another run at the Santa Anita Handicap.

  The idea was outlandish. The comeback, if successful, would be unprecedented.

  No elite horse had ever returned to top form after such a serious injury and lengthy layoff.12 Few great horses have competed beyond age five or through more than forty races; in a couple of months Seabiscuit would be a bewhiskered seven years old, more than twice the age of many of the horses he would be facing, and he had already raced eighty-five times. When word got out, the Howard team would be widely ridiculed. But Smith, Howard, and Pollard believed he could do it.

  Pollard wanted to go with him. He had never lost his belief that he could ride in races again, though no one who looked at him as he leaned on his cane, his leg grotesquely thin and discolored, his body weak and emaciated, would have agreed with him.

  His desire became urgency. Agnes began experiencing unusual symptoms and paid a visit to her doctor. He told her that she was pregnant. She thought he had to be wrong. She was certain that Red was too weak to be capable of fathering a child.13 But the doctor’s verdict was unequivocal: Agnes was going to have a baby.

  For Pollard, the news was at once wonderful and terrifying. He was still living on the Howards’ good graces. He had no money, no home, no career. He had only Seabiscuit. He told Howard he wanted to go back to th
e track with the horse. Howard was frightened for him. Doc Babcock had said that Pollard was never to go near a horse again. One bump, one twist, and he could lose his ability to walk forever. All Howard would agree to was to let him come along. On a cool day in the late fall of 1939, Pollard and Seabiscuit set out for Santa Anita to chase the one dream that had eluded them.

  At Seabiscuit’s stall, Pollard awaits Howard’s decision, December 1939.

  (USC LIBRARY, DEPARTMENT OF SPECIAL COLLECTIONS)

  Chapter 22

  FOUR GOOD LEGS BETWEEN US

  Charles Howard knew something about making an entrance. In the predawn hours of one December morning in 1939 the Seabiscuit crew came whooping and hollering into Santa Anita in a manner only a man as spectacular as Howard could have pulled off. Their vehicle was a streamlined “palace” horse van painted in Howard crimson and white and featuring two musical horns, eight headlights, fourteen cigar lighters, and a luxurious stall with kapok-stuffed walls. The back doors dropped open, and Smith and Seabiscuit emerged. Smith took the horse straight down the shed rows, pulled him up at the Kaiser Suite, and evicted Kayak. “Have to give the better horse preference,” he grunted. The first fans arrived at daybreak. All morning long, hundreds of them streamed into Barn 38 to greet the old warrior. Among them was Woolf. Seabiscuit came to the door and rubbed his face against the jockey’s fedora.

  Smith, knowing that returning the horse to racing was controversial, took the offensive with the press. With a host of newsmen congregated outside, he led Seabiscuit out and stood him in an open space between the barns. He announced that anyone who was suspicious of the horse’s soundness could step right up and have a look. He asked the photographers to take close-up shots of the horse’s left ankle. “If anybody thinks I am training a cripple,” he said, “I want these pictures definitely to prove otherwise.”1

  The 1940 hundred-grander was on March 2, giving Smith about three months to prepare the horse. He got to work. He had Seabiscuit’s heavy winter coat clipped off and took him to the scales. The horse weighed in at 1,070, twenty pounds too much. Smith was worried that the load would strain the leg, so he pulled out the yellow sweating hood and gave the horse slow gallops. In the barn they strapped the horse into a muzzle each evening to stop him from eating his bedding. Seabiscuit put up a fight, but the groom managed to get it on without losing any fingers. Gradually, the weight vanished from the horse’s ribs.

  On December 19 Smith felt the horse was ready to be tested. He tacked him up and took him out for his first fast workout since the injury. As the grooms watched and fretted, Smith waved the exercise rider on. Venting months of frustration, Seabiscuit burned rubber off the line and sped past the grandstand. He came back perfectly sound. The grooms sagged with relief.

  The mood didn’t last long. Late that afternoon Smith went into the track secretary’s office to see the weight postings for the Santa Anita Handicap. He couldn’t believe his eyes: Though he had been idle for a year, Seabiscuit had been assigned 130 pounds; Kayak, 129. As he ran his eyes down the list, the highest number Smith saw for any other horse was 114.

  Smith lit up like a firecracker. He stormed around the office and shouted about the irresponsibility of the handicapper. A gathering of horsemen gaped at him. Silent Tom’s tirade lasted a full five minutes. After giving vent to his anger, he pulled himself together and stalked off.

  “So what?” he grumbled. “We’ll run one-two anyway.”2

  The year 1940 rolled in with heavy black clouds. Snow brushed over the tips of every peak up in the San Gabriels, but down on the track there was only rain and slippery mud. Smith tucked Seabiscuit away in the barn and waited for a break in the weather. It didn’t come. Day after day, the rains kept falling. Over and over again, Smith postponed Seabiscuit’s workouts. He spent every minute with the horse, sleeping in the barn, watching him eat, personally wrapping his legs in stall bandages, but he wouldn’t let him out to work. Pressure began to build. Seabiscuit was entered in several races, and each time he had to be scratched. The crowds booed and the press picked at Smith and Howard. “If Seabiscuit is scratched again,” wrote a reporter, “he will be an etching.” The whole barn was in a funk. Kayak was trounced in his first race of 1940. Not a single Howard runner won.

  Seabiscuit may have been trapped in the barn, but his idleness didn’t hurt his celebrity. He was the hottest name in the nation. Fans thronged into the Uptown Theater in Pasadena to see The Life of Seabiscuit, a compilation of the horse’s newsreel footage. The film relegated a much anticipated Jimmy Stewart movie to second billing. The stylish “Seabiscuit” ladies’ hat, with a fishnet veil, was all the rage in department stores on Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue. The hat was the first of myriad lines of signature products: toys, commemorative wastebaskets, two varieties of oranges. All kinds of businesses from hotels to laundries to humor magazines were using the horse’s likeness in their ads. The horse even had his own parlor game, the first of at least nine.

  When Pollard hung up his tack in the Santa Anita jockeys’ room, he found the riding colony in an uproar. Just before the track’s season had begun in December, Pollard’s old colleague Tommy Luther had sat down for coffee in the Santa Anita golf club with a handful of other riders. They began chatting about the alarming number of jockeys who had been wiped out by injuries, including Pollard. Luther had never gotten over the death of poor little Sandy Graham, thrown from a horse Luther was to have ridden. He had an idea: Why not ask each rider to contribute 10 cents for every ride, plus $20 a year, to a community fund that could help injured riders? The five riders liked the idea and agreed to have a second meeting at the golf club, each man bringing two riders with him.

  The next morning, when Luther arrived to pick up his jockey’s license for the track’s winter meet, he was called before old Pink Whiskers, steward Christopher Fitzgerald, who asked about the meetings. Luther explained his fund idea. Pink Whiskers accused him of starting a union. Luther denied it. Pink Whiskers promptly banned him from riding for a full year for his “defiant and threatening attitude.”3 The ban was upheld everywhere in the country.

  Luther refused to back down. He rallied the jockeys around him, and each week the riders streamed across the street to the golf club. Woolf was there, as were Spec Richardson and Harry Richards. But Pollard refused to go.4 No man in the riding colony needed a community fund more. He had twice narrowly escaped dying in riding accidents that had landed him in the hospital for months on end, wiped him out financially, and caused near crippling injury. Now he was forcing himself back into the saddle at the risk of his leg because he hadn’t a cent to his name to support a coming baby. Red Pollard should have been the community fund’s poster boy.

  But all he could think of was Charles and Marcela Howard. With the jockeys’ efforts widely perceived as the formation of a union against stewards, owners, and trainers, Pollard feared that he might offend the Howards by crossing the street and walking into the golf club. To the exasperation of his fellow riders, Pollard stayed away.

  For Pollard, it was a season of incredible strain and humiliation. Before arriving at Santa Anita, he had tried to resume his career at Tanforan. At first he found a few trainers who wanted to help him get back on his feet. The result was nearly catastrophic. He had come away hopping from two horses, in obvious pain. He had looked very weak, and everyone, including the newsmen, had noticed. And he hadn’t won a race.

  He came down to Santa Anita resolving to do better. Yummy, still as fiercely loyal as he had been back in their Thistle Down days, joined up with him again and promised to get him mounts.5 Red and Agnes settled into a little rental house near the track. Pollard built his strength, hit the sack early, and rose well before dawn to head back to the track. But his declarations of readiness were received with awkward silence. Everyone knew what had happened at Tanforan. Yummy scoured the backstretch for trainers willing to put the Cougar on their horses. He didn’t find one. Every trainer on the grounds believed Pollard was finish
ed, and no one wanted to be responsible for crippling him.

  The biggest disappointment was Howard. Even when he had been at the top of his game with Seabiscuit, Pollard had never established himself with any other major stable, so Howard was his only real hope. Smith wanted Pollard on the horse for the hundred-grander. Howard wanted to grant the redhead his wish, but both he and Marcela were tormented by the thought of what it would cost him. He let Pollard ride Seabiscuit in slow gallops but kept him off the horse’s back for most of his fast workouts. At first, Howard would not allow Pollard to ride in races on any of his horses. Then, one afternoon in late January, he finally relented and assigned the jockey the race mount on a filly. But when the track came up muddy, Howard abruptly snatched Pollard off the horse and put someone else in his place, fearing that the filly might slip and jar the jockey’s leg.6 From then on, when jockeys’ names were posted for Howard’s horses, Pollard was never among them. In a sport in which men are measured by their toughness, he must have felt humiliated.

  Pollard was left with nothing to do. His anguish deepened. He sat in Pops’s stall, thinking about Agnes’s pregnancy and wondering how he would find the money to support the baby. He told Howard again and again that he was fit to ride in the hundred-grander, but got nowhere.

  The truth was that Pollard couldn’t even convince himself. The leg didn’t feel right in his boot. The bones felt like matchsticks. He was sure that it wouldn’t take more than a light bump to shatter them. A secret terror began to rack his mind: What if Howard let him ride and his leg snapped in midrace?7

 
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