Seabiscuit: An American Legend by Laura Hillenbrand

  Red, Agnes, David Alexander, and Yummy spent the evening in The Derby, a tavern Woolf had bought in preparation for his retirement.37 The place was vintage Woolf, decorated floor to ceiling in flamboyant cowboy memorabilia.

  They gathered around a table and talked. Outside, the Depression was playing itself out, and with it would go the world that had been shaped by it. War was coming, and America was turning its long-averted face upward. It would soon be dawn.

  Red Pollard sipped his scotch and reminisced about Seabiscuit and quietly slipped out of history. The smoke from his cigarette curled up from his fingers and slowly faded away.

  Smith slept briefly, then woke. Before the sun fingered over the tips of the San Gabriels, his stiff, gray form passed down the shed row at Barn 38. The air carried the hushed sound of stirring straw, and the horses shook the sleep from their bodies. In the darkness, they didn’t see Smith coming, but they knew he was there.

  Charles Howard and Seabiscuit


  1 This is no exaggeration. The six-furlong split time for the race was as fast as, or faster than, the winning time of seven of the ten previous runnings of the nation’s most prestigious six-furlong stakes race, the Toboggan. Though the Santa Anita racing surface was probably somewhat faster than the Belmont surface, the Toboggan was run over a straight course, not around turns, as the Santa Anita Handicap was; as horses almost always slow down to negotiate turns, times in straight-course races tended to be considerably faster than those held around turns. Indeed, the Santa Anita split time was actually faster than the 1940 winning times of many of the nation’s most prominent sprint races, including the Fall Highweight Handicap, the Jamaica, Hialeah Inaugural, the Interborough, the Roseben, the Paumonok, and the Capital.

  2 In the race’s aftermath, some observers argued that Kayak was robbed of victory. The reasoning was as follows. Before the race, Howard had Seabiscuit “declared to win,” meaning that if Kayak and Seabiscuit were running one-two, Kayak could be held back so Seabiscuit could win. This was legal because they were coupled as a single betting interest. In the race, Buddy Haas, aboard Kayak, didn’t whip his horse in the final yards, and Seabiscuit won by a length. Some spectators believed that if ridden harder, Kayak might have passed Seabiscuit. Later, Haas stated that he could have won. Thus the speculation began.

  Under closer scrutiny, Kayak’s case falls apart. Though Haas did state that he could have won, he also repeatedly stated that he couldn’t have won. “I let Kayak run all the way,” he said, “and he simply couldn’t have caught Seabiscuit.” What did he really believe? Howard said he asked Haas privately to tell him the truth, assuring him that he loved both horses and would be happy either way. Haas replied that Kayak couldn’t have beaten Seabiscuit.24

  Even if Kayak had more to give, it doesn’t automatically follow that he could have outkicked Seabiscuit. The Biscuit was a ferocious competitor famous for slowing down to let challengers catch him, then annihilating them with dazzling bursts of speed, even after setting world record fractions. “It may have seemed that [Kayak could have won], but you have to ride Seabiscuit to know him,” said Pollard. “No horse is ever going to pass him once he gets to the top and the wire is in sight.… A horse racing alongside him just makes him run all the harder.”

  Many others, including most of the jockeys and prominent reporters from the San Francisco Chronicle, Daily Racing Form, Thoroughbred Record, Los Angeles Examiner, and other major publications, agreed. David Alexander, who knew both horses better than any other journalist, wrote, “Had [Kayak] ever got to Seabiscuit’s saddle girth, Seabiscuit would have come on again and won anyway.” When asked if Kayak could have won, George Woolf, who had ridden both horses, laughed and said, “If Kayak had charged at him … [Seabiscuit] would have bounded away.… That fellow never saw the day when he could take the champ.” Asked the same question, Tom Smith said, “Kayak never saw the day when he could beat Seabiscuit, at ten yards or ten miles.”

  Kayak was a grand athlete, but the idea that he was robbed of the race isn’t very plausible. To speculate about Kayak is to miss what is by far the most important fact about the race: By any measure, Seabiscuit delivered an astounding performance, running a vastly better race than Kayak or any other horse. The early pace was extraordinarily fast, and Seabiscuit helped to set it. Any race run with such a fast pace is tailor-made for closers, exhausting the front-runners and leaving the way open for late-runners to charge up from behind to win. While Seabiscuit burned his energy in a fierce speed duel, Kayak lay last, preparing to pounce when the front-runners grew weary. As the speed collapsed and closers like Kayak got going, Seabiscuit, remarkably, sustained his speed, clocking the second-fastest ten furlongs in American racing history. He did it at age seven, carrying highweight of 130 pounds, returning from serious injury. Nothing Kayak did that day, or any other, compared to that.

  3 Officially, there were two ten-furlong times that were faster than Seabiscuit’s, but the American record of 2:00, set by Whisk Broom II at Belmont in 1913, is almost universally regarded as inaccurate, the result of a timer that malfunctioned and recorded a far faster time than the horse ran. The true American record was held by Sarazen, who ran ten furlongs in 2:00⅘ at Kentucky’s Latonia Racecourse in 1924.


  On a soft April day in 1940, Smith led Seabiscuit out of the Kaiser Suite for the last time. There had been countless requests for appearances—the promoters of the Golden State International Exhibition, having secured the attendance of F.D.R., wanted to host “that other great American, Seabiscuit”—but Howard declined them all. It was time to let the horse rest. Howard had preceded Seabiscuit up to Ridgewood and had coaxed every reporter, newsreel man, admirer, and friend in his address book into driving up to attend the horse’s homecoming. He proudly introduced everyone to Seabiscuit’s first foal, still wobbling on new legs. The owner passed out cigars and showed off the sacks of fan mail addressed to “Daddy Seabiscuit” and “Pappa Seabiscuit.” The foal delighted Pollard in particular; he was a redhead. Howard named him First Biscuit.

  Smith wasn’t going to join the celebration. He preferred to say his good-byes at the track. He slipped his fingers into Seabiscuit’s halter and led him down the shed row. A somber group of newsmen, spectators, and horsemen quietly parted to let them pass. Seabiscuit paused and looked toward the track, and Smith’s eyes clouded over. He led his horse up the ramp and disappeared into the darkness. A moment later, he emerged alone.1


  The men who handled Seabiscuit quietly scattered. Woolf continued his dizzying ascent, becoming the leading rider in America. On the day in 1942 when he rode Triple Crown winner Whirlaway to break Seabiscuit’s earnings record, Pollard was up in the stands cheering him on with his usual lack of restraint, bouncing around the box, rooting himself hoarse, and drawing the stares of everyone nearby. Dismounting, Woolf was swamped by reporters asking him to confirm that “Whirly” was the best horse he had ever ridden. Woolf was as impolitic as ever. “Seabiscuit,” he said, “is the greatest horse I ever rode.”2

  On a January day in 1946, Woolf rode into the Santa Anita starting gate for a weekday race. At thirty-five, he was preparing to end one of history’s greatest athletic careers. He was struggling with his diabetes, and friends had noticed that he was unusually thin that winter.3 That afternoon, Woolf wasn’t feeling well enough to ride, but a friend needed a jockey for a horse named Please Me. Woolf didn’t need to think about it. “There was one thing special you can say about George,”4 Smith would say of him. “He remembered the little fellows who were his friends when he needed them. He never forgot about his friends. Say that about George.” Please Me was an ordinary horse in an ordinary race, so Woolf used weekday tack. When he walked out to the paddock, he left his lucky kangaroo-leather saddle in his trunk.5

  For George Woolf, the last sensations of life were the sight of Santa Anita’s russet soil and the curve of Please Me’s neck, the c
oarse feel of mane in his hands, the smell of the horse’s skin, the deep roll of his breathing. As Woolf and his mount passed the grandstand and banked into the first turn, some witnesses thought they saw Please Me stumble. But most saw Woolf sink from the saddle, unconscious, his dieting and diabetes finally taking their toll. He slid into the air.6 There was the awful dissonance of a lone horse galloping riderless. There was terrible speed and terrible, sudden stillness.

  The sound of the Iceman’s head striking the track carried over the crowd.7 Woolf’s friends turned away.8

  Fifteen hundred people came to say good-bye to Woolf.9 Genevieve, widowed at thirty-two, sat in a front pew. Gene Autry sang “Empty Saddles in the Old Corral,” his voice wafting out over rows and rows of faces, spilling back to the church’s opened doors, down the steps, and filling the street. Pollard was among them, sobbing for his best friend. “I wonder who has Woolf’s book?”10 he said later. “Saint Peter, or some other bird?”

  Three years later a wistful bugle cry carried over the empty track at Santa Anita, and sixteen thousand people gathered by the paddock to witness the unveiling of the George Woolf memorial statue. Much of the price had been footed by Please Me’s owner, Tiny Naylor, who sold a horse at auction and donated the proceeds to the statue fund. The rest had come from the California Turf Writers Committee and countless contributions from trackers and fans the world over. Genevieve joined Charles Howard in the center of the paddock to hear a eulogy delivered by Joe Hernandez, the man who first called Woolf “Iceman.” The jockeys lined up in silent attention before Woolf’s veiled likeness, their hats over their hearts. The cloth was slid from the statue.

  Woolf’s handsome face looked out across Santa Anita once again. He stood just as he always had in life, hand on hip, chin up, radiating insouciance, the kangaroo-leather saddle over his arm. His gaze fell to the east end of the paddock and rested on the life-sized bronze image of Seabiscuit that Howard had placed there.

  “George Woolf is at Santa Anita, there near the paddock, facing [sculptor Tex] Wheeler’s magnificent figure of Seabiscuit,” wrote the Thoroughbred Times’s Jack Shettlesworth.11 “He’ll be there as long as Santa Anita stands. Santa Anita will be there as long as people feel anything about anything in racing.”

  Howard lobbied to get Smith named champion trainer of 1940, but Smith would never have the respect he deserved. Owner and trainer continued to work together until the spring of 1943, when Smith underwent back surgery and wound up in a yearlong convalescence that forced Howard to replace him. They parted amicably, and Smith went, of all places, to the East, signing on as trainer for cosmetic queen Elizabeth Arden Graham.12

  Graham was a woman of famously dubious sense, and working for her was a tall order. She demanded that her trainers apply her beauty products to her horses. Prone to premonitions, she once dreamt that her filly had climbed a tree and called her trainer in the middle of the night to see if the dream had come true. “I climbed all the way up in that tree,” replied the much abused trainer, “and if [the filly] was up there, she got back in that stall all right.” She was also famous for firing workers for absurd reasons; she once dismissed an exercise boy because his hair was “remarkably bushy and profuse.” She went through trainers like chewing gum. But once she found Smith, she was sold. She loved the way he nurtured her horses. “There’s something about Tom Smith,” she said, “that gives you confidence.” He humored her insistence that stalls be perfumed and horses be slathered in cold creams, trained just as he wanted, and won everything in sight. “I try not to hurt her feelings,” he once said, “and yet do it my way.” He soon became the leading trainer in America.

  Smith was sitting in Graham’s box one afternoon when an ancient man hobbled up to him. It was Samuel Riddle, easing down in his last years of life. For years, Riddle had burned with resentment over War Admiral’s loss to Seabiscuit, turning his head away when he saw Smith, never speaking a word. But this day Riddle halted in front of Smith and directed his first words to him since the race.13 “Tom,” he said, “you and that George Woolf are the only ones who ever outdid me.”

  On November 1, 1945, one of Smith’s horses, a claimer named Magnific Duel, was being prepared for a New York race when a Jockey Club official saw a groom spraying something up the horse’s nostril.14 The atomizer he took from the stall contained 2.6 percent ephedrine, a decongestant. Smith was in deep trouble. New York did not allow any medications in racing horses. Though Smith was not present when the incident occurred and there was no evidence that he knew what his groom was doing, by racing law he was responsible for anything his employee did. The Jockey Club suspended him immediately, pending a hearing. Smith was aghast. “I am absolutely innocent,” he said.

  At the hearing, pharmacologists testified that the dosage in the atomizer was far too low to have any effect on the horse’s performance. The horse had tested negative for any trace of the drug. In a quarter century of training, Smith hadn’t received a single black mark on his record. It made no sense that, while training the leading barn in America, winner of half a million dollars in purses in 1945, he would have had any interest in tampering with a $1,900 claimer. From a betting standpoint, he had even less to gain; the horse was a heavy favorite, and would have paid only a few cents on the dollar. His defense convinced nearly everyone in racing and the public that he was not deserving of punishment, but it was not enough for the Racing Commission.15 In an extremely controversial decision, Smith was banned from racing for one year.

  In his seventy years, Smith had never known a life apart from horses. He had nowhere to go. He came to Santa Anita, but officials wouldn’t let him in. He spent his days sitting alone out on Baldwin Avenue, just outside the track fence, watching his sport go on without him. Graham may have been the strangest of eccentrics, but she was loyal. She paid for a prominent lawyer for Smith, hired his son Jimmy to train in his place, and gave him back his job the minute he was reinstated in 1947.16 He repaid her by promptly winning the Kentucky Derby with her horse Jet Pilot.

  But the damage had been done. Unquestionably one of the greatest trainers who ever lived, Smith was excluded from racing’s Hall of Fame for more than forty years after his death. His reputation was ruined; racing officials tailed him around after his reinstatement, trying to catch him in some nefarious act. Smith was bitter for the rest of his life. He toyed with the officials, pretending to hide things in the hay and sending his pursuers on wild-goose chases, hoping to be accused again so he could be exonerated and make fools of the officials. When Time asked him to speak about the Racing Commission, Smith was typically pithy. “Those bastards.”17

  He descended into obscurity just as he had risen from it. He eventually parted with Graham and wound up training a single horse at Santa Anita.18 When he was seventy-eight, a stroke stilled him. His family nursed him at home until his worsening condition made home care impossible. He was sent to live his last days in the antiseptic confinement of a sanatorium, where his family sat with him through his final hours. At Forest Lawn in Glendale, California, on a cold day in 1957, they buried the man the Indians called the Lone Plainsman. Almost no one came.19

  Pollard had exhausted every physical and emotional reserve to get himself back to the Santa Anita Handicap, and he emerged near collapse. Agnes was afraid for him. They finally had some money, so the two left town immediately for a long vacation. There Pollard coped with what he called his “nervous reaction” to the strain, and the two of them discussed their future. When Pollard came back, he had an announcement to make. “My pal’s quit racing,” he said. “I’m not getting any younger, and I’ve had more than my share of serious accidents. Maybe I won’t be lucky in escaping with nothing worse than broken bones next time.”

  “I’ll never throw a leg over another horse,” he said, “unless it’s for a canter in the park.”20

  Howard offered him a job as his stable agent. Impressed with the work Pollard had done to get Seabiscuit back to the track, Howard hoped to have the
redhead succeed Smith when the old trainer finally took down his shingle. Pollard took the job.

  One day in early May 1940, Pollard limped down the shed rows at Santa Anita in his best impersonation of a run. Agnes was in labor, and he was desperate to find someone with a car. He found a teenaged kid who could drive, dragged him out to his car and pressed him into service. Pollard reached the hospital a few minutes later and promptly fainted from the excitement. He was hospitalized alongside his wife, who delivered a little girl that Pollard named after his sister Norah. Pollard would have known her anywhere; her voice, even as a baby, was a deep baritone like his. In a few years, a son, John, would follow.

  Eventually Pollard took out a trainer’s license and tried to do for a barnful of horses what he had done for Seabiscuit in 1939. It didn’t work out. Describing himself as “a barnacle on the wheels of progress,” he quit.21 With nothing better to do, he took out a jockey’s license, strapped his fur-lined leg brace back on, and returned to riding. This time he had a safety net. Evidently with Howard’s blessing, he had joined the newly established Jockeys’ Guild, the final realization of Tommy Luther’s community-fund insurance idea. He was voted onto its first board of directors.

  The war came down on Santa Anita a few months later. The horses were shipped out and men and women and children were shipped in, Japanese-Americans interned in stalls meant for animals. The Kaiser Suite became home to an entire family, the Satos.23 When the Satos and their unfortunate brethren were moved out in 1943, the track became Camp Santa Anita, a massive ordnance storage site and open-air Army barracks for thousands of soldiers.

  Seized by patriotic fervor, Pollard galloped off to join the military.24 Due to his innumerable injuries, he was deemed such a spectacularly unfit soldiering prospect that all three services rejected him. He went back, once again, to race riding.

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