Seabiscuit: An American Legend by Laura Hillenbrand

  Smith came up, working a strip of buckskin in his fingers.

  “He’s right as rain, Mr. Smith,” said Bradshaw.

  “Wrong word, Harry.”

  The trainer stood back to let the horse eat. Seabiscuit heard his voice and nosed over his half door. Smith lay the flat of his hand on him.

  “Today’s the day,” he said.

  At eight o’clock Howard’s stable agent stepped into the track secretary’s office, scrawled the name Seabiscuit onto an entry slip, and dropped it into the entry box. He was the first horse entered. Then the agent dropped Kayak’s name in. Rain or shine, both horses would run.

  The sun was still straining to clear the east end of the grandstand when the Howards pulled up to the barn. Pollard was already there. Howard looked anxiously at the jockey’s leg, the brace swelling the boot, and put his hand over Pollard’s shoulder. Pollard assured him that he’d be okay. Smith swung Pollard up on Seabiscuit to stretch his legs. Howard got up on his saddle horse, Chulo, Smith got on Pumpkin, and the sextet trotted out to the course for a prerace blowout.5 Marcela walked with them to the track apron and watched them go, her hands tight on the rail. The track was dry and fast. Smith signaled to Pollard, and Seabiscuit broke off and kicked over the track. Pollard talked in Seabiscuit’s ear as they whirled through a quarter mile in a scorching twenty-two seconds. Seabiscuit was ready to go. Pollard dismounted and went home to spend a few hours with Agnes.

  People had begun gathering by the track gates just after dawn. By nine-thirty, the parking lot was already swollen with cars. Many people had driven across the nation to see the race; virtually every state in the union was represented by a license plate. They threw the gates open at ten. Five thousand fans gushed into the grandstand and clubhouse, staking out their territory with blankets and spring jackets. “It looked,” wrote Thoroughbred Record correspondent Barry Whitehead, “like the Oklahoma landrush.” The fans found Santa Anita decked out in all its splendor.6 In the clubhouse and turf club, arches of acacias, columns of jonquils, and giant gardenias with fifteen hundred blossoms stretched overhead, while peat beds of irises, white primroses, peach blossoms, and tulips lined the entire interior.

  By ten-thirty, the grandstand was filled to capacity. By noon the parking lot couldn’t fit another car, and the overflow spilled out onto the track’s decorative lawns. A horse-loving priest from the church across the street opened his yard to let fans park there for free. Still the cars kept coming, snarling every local road for the entire day. Trains chugged up all afternoon; one of them, from San Francisco, had all seventeen cars filled to bursting with Seabiscuit fans. Up in the press box, reporters from all over the world arrived. Over the next few hours they would churn out half a million words on the Morse wires, Teletypes, and typewriters.7 The clubhouse roof and the top of the tote board were lined with newsreel cameras. In the luxury boxes, celebrities filed in: Clark Gable and Carole Lombard, Jack Benny, Sonja Henie, James Stewart, and Mervyn LeRoy. Bing Crosby had stayed up all night recording at Universal so he could have the day off, and came with Mrs. Bing, rooting for yet another hopeless long shot from their barn, Don Mike.

  By midafternoon, seventy-eight thousand people had crammed into the track, more than ten thousand in the infield alone. It was officially the second-largest crowd ever to attend a horse race in America, but because the record tally, at the Kentucky Derby, was famously exaggerated, the attendance at this hundred-grander was undoubtedly the largest.9 Radios all over the world were tuned to the broadcast from Santa Anita. The town of Willits was at a standstill. Up in Flint, Michigan, Howard had arranged to have the loudspeakers in the Buick salesroom rigged to broadcast the race.

  The afternoon ticked on. The race approached.

  At home, Pollard made his final preparations. Agnes strung a Saint Christopher medal onto a necklace and gave it to him.8 He slipped it on under his shirt. Before he left, he promised Agnes that he’d bring her flowers from the winner’s wreath.

  The first big gust from the crowd came as Seabiscuit was led from the barn to the paddock. Marcela, who had stood with him in the barn, stayed behind. “I’d seen Johnny’s leg,” she said.10 “I just couldn’t watch it.”

  When Pollard walked into the paddock, he was greeted by Doc Babcock, who had flown down from Willits. The doctor carefully unrolled Pollard’s leg bandages.

  Yummy, who was there at the start, was there for the end. David Alexander was with him. Yummy, Alexander remembered, “sidled up to me like some character out of a spy novel.”11

  “I’ve got it,” Yummy whispered.

  When Alexander asked what he had, Yummy flashed a little bottle of bow-wow wine, secreted away in his coat pocket. He told Alexander about his promise to Pollard: If he won, Yummy would sneak it to him.

  Pollard strode over to his mount. Smith pulled the saddle over Seabiscuit’s withers and tightened the girth. Marcela’s Saint Christopher medal shone against the saddle cloth. Howard was beside himself with anxiety. When he was nervous he was talkative, and he had spent the afternoon calling Marcela at the barn over and over again and chattering at her. Now he prattled on at Pollard, giving him every needless detail of how to ride the race. Pollard humored him, then turned to Smith. The old cowpuncher lifted Pollard onto Seabiscuit’s back.

  “You know the horse, and the horse knows you,” said Smith, winking.12 “Bring him home.”

  Howard tapped out a cigarette and tried to light it. His hands were trembling so much that his match went out. He lit a second match, then a third, and they too sputtered out. Alexander wished him luck.

  “You’re shaking like a leaf,” he said, watching Howard work on the fourth match.

  “I guess I’m a little nervous,” Howard replied, smiling.

  Seabiscuit and Pollard stepped down the long lane toward the track. Howard was whispering, “I hope he can. I hope he can. I hope he can.” His jaw quivered.

  As Seabiscuit stepped onto the track, swinging his head left, then right, the fans erupted in a massive ovation, drowning out the bugler playing “Boots and Saddles.” There was no question about the crowd’s allegiance. In the paddock the horsemen, virtually to a man, were hoping that if they didn’t get it, the old Biscuit would.13 “I’d like to see Seabiscuit win,” said a rival owner, “even though I’m running against him.” Up in the press box, Jolly Roger and all the other Wise We Boys had dropped their objectivity. Even Oscar Otis was up there, cheering Pollard on.

  Alexander looked up at Pollard as he passed. The Cougar, Alexander later wrote, had “the old impish go-to-hell grin” on his face. Alexander thought of Huck Finn.14

  Seabiscuit walked to the gate, the applause building and building. In the hush of the barn, Marcela suddenly changed her mind. She ran down the shed row, cut out into the daylight, and rushed toward the track. She knew she couldn’t get to the grandstand in time. She spotted a water wagon parked ahead, track workers perched up on top of it, and ran toward it.15 Her dress whipped in the wind.

  The bell rang in Pollard’s ears, and he felt Seabiscuit drop and push beneath him, hammering the track and powering forward. There was the rushing sound of seventy-five thousand voices and the tumbling motion of horses and the flight of wind and dirt and the airy unreal feeling of mass and gravity slipping away.

  They rolled down the homestretch for the first time, and Pollard felt the rightness of Seabiscuit’s stride, the smooth strumming under him. Whichcee had the lead. Pollard let Seabiscuit hunt him. They bent through the first turn, Pollard holding his mount one path out from the rail, an open lane ahead. A splendid spot.

  Pollard could sense the pace as they straightened down the backstretch: blistering fast. But he knew Whichcee had stamina, and he couldn’t let him steal away. He had to drive Whichcee hard to break him. He held Seabiscuit a half length behind him, keeping just far enough out from the rail to give himself clear running room. Whichcee strained to stay ahead. The two horses blazed down the backstretch together, cutting six furlongs in 1
:11⅕; though they were set to run a grueling mile and a quarter, the fastest sprinters on earth would have been drained to the bottom to beat such a time.1, 16 Whichcee screamed along the rail, stretching out over the backstretch, trying to hold his head in front. Seabiscuit stalked him with predatory lunges. Wedding Call tracked them, just behind and outside of Seabiscuit as they pushed for the far turn. They clipped through a mile in 1:36, nearly a second faster than Seabiscuit and War Admiral’s record-shattering split in their 1938 match race. Seabiscuit still pushed at Whichcee. Pollard, up in the saddle, was a lion poised for the kill.

  They leaned around the final turn, and Seabiscuit pulled at Pollard’s hands, telling him he was ready. The rail spun away to the left, and Whichcee’s hindquarters rose and fell beside them. Wedding Call made his move, throwing his shadow over them from the right. Pollard stayed where he was, holding his lane one path out from the rail, leaving himself room to move around Whichcee when the time came.

  The field was gathering, and the space around them compressed. Horses were all around, their bodies elongated in total effort. Then, in an instant, they came inward with the synchronicity of a flurry of birds pivoting in the air. Wedding Call clattered up against Seabiscuit, bumping him toward the rail behind Whichcee. The path ahead closed.

  Seabiscuit felt the urgency and tugged at the reins. Pollard had nowhere to send him. He rose halfway up in the saddle, holding Seabiscuit back, his leg straining under his weight. Whichcee and Wedding Call formed a wall in front of him. A terrible thought came to Pollard: There is no way out.

  A jockey in the pack heard a deep, plaintive sound rise up over the shouts from the crowd. It was Pollard, crying out a prayer.17 A moment later, Whichcee wavered and sagged a few inches to his left just as Wedding Call’s momentum carried him slightly to the right. A slender hole opened before Seabiscuit. Pollard measured it in his mind. Maybe it was wide enough; maybe it was not. If Pollard tried to take it, it was highly likely that he would clip his right leg on Wedding Call. He knew what that would mean. He needed an explosion from Seabiscuit, every amp of his old speed and more. He leaned forward in the saddle and shouted, “Now, Pop!”18

  Carrying 130 pounds, 22 more than Wedding Call and 16 more than Whichcee, Seabiscuit delivered a tremendous surge. He slashed into the hole, disappeared between his two larger opponents, then burst into the lead. Pollard’s leg cleared Whichcee by no more than an inch. Whichcee tried to go with Seabiscuit. Pollard let his mount dog him, mocking him, and Whichcee broke. Seabiscuit shook free and hurtled into the homestretch alone as the field fell away behind him. Pollard dropped his head and rode for all he was worth. Joe Hernandez’s voice cut over the crowd, calling out Seabiscuit’s name, and was instantly swallowed in the uproar from the grandstand.19 One of the stable hands yelled to Marcela that Seabiscuit had the lead. She shrieked.

  In the midst of all the whirling noise of that supreme moment, Pollard felt peaceful. Seabiscuit reached and pushed and Pollard folded and unfolded over his shoulders and they breathed together. A thought pressed into Pollard’s mind: We are alone.20

  Twelve straining Thoroughbreds; Howard and Smith in the grandstand; Agnes in the surging crowd; Woolf behind Pollard, on Heelfly; Marcela up on the water wagon with her eyes squeezed shut; the leaping, shouting reporters in the press box; Pollard’s family crowded around the radio in a neighbor’s house in Edmonton; tens of thousands of roaring spectators and millions of radio listeners painting this race in their imaginations: All this fell away.21, 22 The world narrowed to a man and his horse, running.

  In the center of the track, a closer broke from the pack and rolled into Seabiscuit’s lead, a ghost from his past. It was Kayak, charging at him with a fury. Pollard never looked back. He knew who it was.

  Pollard felt a pause. For the last time in his life, Seabiscuit eased up to tease an opponent. Kayak came to him and drew even. Up on Kayak, Buddy Haas had never heard such thunder as was pouring from the grandstand and infield.23 He drilled everything he had, he said later, at Seabiscuit.

  Pollard let Seabiscuit savor this last rival, then asked him again. He felt the sweet press of sudden acceleration. A moment later, Pollard and Seabiscuit were alone again, burning over the track, Kayak spinning off behind, the wire crossing overhead.2

  The world broke over Santa Anita. Howard ran from his box with his fist in the air. Smith went with him. Yummy banged around the winner’s circle, jumping up and down. Agnes stood in the throng, sobbing. All around them, men and women hurled their hats in the air, poured onto the track, drummed on the rails, and slapped one another on the back. Hundreds of spectators were weeping with joy.25 “Listen to this crowd roar!” shouted Hernandez.26 “Seventy-eight thousand fans going absolutely crazy, including this announcer!” Virtually every journalist reported that he had never heard shouting so loud and sustained.

  Sun Beau’s money-winning record had finally fallen. Seabiscuit had clocked a new track record that would stand untouched for a decade: a mile and a quarter in 2:01⅕. It was the second-fastest ten furlongs ever run in American racing history.3

  Galloping out in the backstretch, Pollard lingered over his last few moments of solitude with Seabiscuit. Then he turned him and quietly cantered him back. He rode back into the world sitting tall and regal in the saddle, his back straight, his head up, his face gravely dignified. Tears were cutting down his face and streaming to his chin. He looked, someone said, like “a man who temporarily had visited Olympus and still was no longer for this world.”27

  He walked Seabiscuit through the masses of shouting fans to the winner’s circle. The horse was strutting like a prizefighter. “Don’t think,” Pollard said later, “he didn’t know he was the hero.” Howard rushed up to him, slapping his horse and shouting to Pollard. They led Kayak into the winner’s circle with Seabiscuit, the camera flashes playing off of them like lightning. The winner’s blanket of roses fell over Pollard’s lap. Beneath it, he felt Yummy’s hand in his, slipping the flask of bow-wow wine into his hand. Pollard dropped his head as if to smell the roses. “Best-smelling drink I ever tasted,” he would later say.28 The horse stood calmly, serenely, plucking the roses off the blanket as souvenir hunters yanked hairs from his tail.

  Pollard, his hair running with sweat, pulled the blanket over his shoulders and slid down from Seabiscuit’s back. Yummy, still pouncing up and down, jumped onto him. The blanket was torn from Pollard’s back, dragged away, and shredded by eager hands before he could pull out Agnes’s promised blooms. Howard never even saw it. Pollard uncinched his saddle and walked up the track to a chorus of wild cheering, tears still flowing over his cheeks. Fans were fighting to get close to him, to shake his hand. He slipped into the jockeys’ room and pulled off his silks. Agnes’s Saint Christopher medal glinted against his chest.

  Woolf stood across the room. Whatever had separated him from Pollard had vanished. Both knew it. The redhead was whisked off to the press room. He bummed cigarettes off of the reporters as he praised Smith and Bradshaw and old Doc Babcock, then took a few shots at Woolf again, as he always used to.29

  There was no trace of bitterness in Woolf’s voice when he spoke of the race. He didn’t mind losing. “There was just too much Seabiscuit,” he said. “Just the greatest horse I ever saw.”

  Long after the horses and their handlers had left the track, the din died away and the crowds trickled out. Workmen crisscrossed the grounds. A lone fan still stood at the east end of the grandstand. As the sun dropped in the winter sky, the man called out to the empty track.

  “Ha-ray for Seabiscuit!30 Hoo-ray for Seabiscuit!”

  His voice carried up to the press box, where the reporters were banging out their stories. The room was still ringing with the sensation of what had happened.

  “Oh,” wrote Jolly Roger, “that I lived to see this day.”31


  Back at the barn, the Howards gathered to watch the horses cool out. Howard was wheeling all over the grounds, singing out, “Wh
at a race! What a horse! It was perfect!”

  Smith barely looked up from Seabiscuit.

  As dusk fell, Pollard walked up. Smith put his hand out to him.

  “Red, you put up a great ride today.”32

  “I got a great ride,” Pollard said. “The greatest ride I ever got from the greatest horse that ever lived.”

  “Little horse, what next?” a newspaper would read the next morning.33 In six years, Seabiscuit had won thirty-three races and set thirteen track records at eight tracks over six distances. He had smashed a world record in the shortest of sprints, one half mile, yet had the stamina to run in track record time at one and five-eighths miles. Many of history’s greatest horses had faltered under 128 pounds or more; Seabiscuit had set two track records under 133 pounds and four more under 130 while conceding massive amounts of weight to his opponents. He was literally worth his weight in gold, having earned a world record $437,730, nearly sixty times his price.34

  Howard wavered on whether or not to race him again. Pollard urged retirement. When asked about it, Smith said, “Seabiscuit is Mr. Howard’s horse.35 I will abide by whatever decision Mr. Howard makes.”

  Later, someone heard him whisper under his breath, “I hope he doesn’t race anymore.”

  Howard heeded his trainer’s wishes. The partnership was over.

  Charles and Marcela whirled off to the Turf Club Ball at the Ambassador Hotel Fiesta Room, where they laughed and celebrated and slurped champagne from a gigantic golden loving cup. Howard’s eyes scanned the faces of the revelers, searching for Smith. He was hoping that this one time the trainer would show up. He had a 1940 Buick Estate wagon that he wanted to give him. But Smith never came. Sometime in the evening, Howard snuck away to a telephone.36

  The phone rang in Smith’s room. Howard’s voice bubbled over the line, begging him to join the festivities. Smith declined; he was already in bed. Howard accepted it. He wished the trainer good night, put down the telephone, and returned to his element.

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