Seabiscuit: An American Legend by Laura Hillenbrand


  Agnes had had enough of lugging her babies through hotels and rental places. They journeyed east and bought a little house in Pawtucket, Rhode Island. He rode with less and less success, winding up back in the bush leagues. He spent part of each year on the road, traveling alone from motel to motel, and the rest booting horses around Rhode Island’s declining Narragansett Park, soon to meet the bulldozer, where he and Pops once raced.

  He continued to endure horrific injuries, falling so often that he quipped about having a “semiannual comeback.” He never received anything but the worst care. He went down one day at Narragansett and was taken to the hospital, but no one ever came to look him over, so he just got up and went home. It wasn’t until much later that he learned that he had walked out on a broken hip. After breaking his back in a spill in Maryland in 1942, he was carried to a hospital in a laundry basket.25 The injury knocked him out of the sport for a year and left him with one leg shorter than the other. A 1945 head injury incurred in a Florida race cost him a handful of teeth and nearly his life. “When I woke up, the parish priest leaned over me and whispered, ‘The Devil has no stall for you,’ so here I am,” he told reporters after awakening. “And I guess I’ll be here forever, me and Methuselah.”26

  He nearly was. His brilliant red hair slowly went gray, his blind eye paled, his battered body aged, and still he rode racehorses. He rode alongside kids who hadn’t even been born when he first offered a sugar cube to Seabiscuit, but he never let the latest teenaged hotshot get the best of him. Shouting, “No room at the bar!” he would cut off the rail route and make some poor kid go around the long way.

  He came home at night and Agnes tended to him. So many phone calls told her of terrible crashes that she came to fear the phone’s ring. On some mornings the back door banged open to reveal a host of muddy racetrackers, carrying a bloodied Red in from another fall. She prayed for his safety every day, but never complained to him. She understood, as would her children, that her husband would have suffocated in any other life. He was in constant and serious pain, but didn’t speak of it. He still carried a rosary and little volumes of poetry in his pocket, and still gave away most of the money he earned. His children grew up knowing to be careful around their father’s game leg, which never fattened up to anything much thicker than a broomstick. Pollard wove his books into his children’s lives but did not try to teach them about horses. He never once brought them to the track to see him ride and didn’t tell the stories of his youth. The closest his daughter, Norah, ever came to the races was to comply with his request to paint a cougar on his helmet.

  By 1955, when he was forty-six, he couldn’t make it any longer. “Maybe I should have heeded the rumble of that distant drum when I was riding high,” he once said.27 “But I never did. Trouble is, you never hear it if you are a racetracker. Horses make too damned much noise.” He called David Alexander from across the country to tell him the news. “I’m hanging up my blouse for good,”28 he said. “I wanted you to be the first to know. You can’t first-past Father Time.”

  “It’s about time,” said Alexander. When the writer paid tribute to him in a lengthy article in Time, Pollard called him up and sang every verse of “You Made Me What I Am Today, and I Hope You’re Satisfied,” then hung up.29

  Pollard wound up sorting mail in a track post office, then working as a valet, cleaning the boots of other riders.30 His racetrack injuries worsened as he aged, and he slowly became a prisoner in his own body. He struggled as hard as he could against his alcoholism but never beat it.31

  One day in the waning years of his life, Red Pollard stopped talking. Perhaps it was a physical problem. Perhaps the old raconteur just didn’t want to speak anymore. When on rare occasions a reporter turned up to ask about Seabiscuit, Agnes answered the questions while Red sat by, mute.32

  In 1980 Agnes was hospitalized with cancer. Though only seventy, Pollard was suffering from so many physical problems that he could no longer get along without her. His children had no choice but to place him in a nursing home. He knew this ground. The home had been built over the ruins of Narragansett Park.33

  The Cougar slipped away one day in 1981, uttering not a word in parting. Agnes was with him when he stopped breathing. His heart kept beating for several minutes, then went still. No cause of death was ever found.34 It was as if, Norah remembers, “he had just worn out his body.”35 Agnes died two weeks later.

  Seabiscuit and Howard grew old together in the slow rhythms of Ridgewood. Howard’s hair thinned; Seabiscuit’s muddy bay coat darkened. Howard kept the horse with Kayak in a handsome red barn and installed a walking ring that led right up to the door of Howard’s house. He hung a sign on the pillared gates to the ranch, out on the Redwood Highway, that read: RIDGEWOOD, HOME OF SEABISCUIT. VISITORS WELCOME.36

  The visitors came, fifty thousand over the years, as many as fifteen hundred at a time.37, 38 Howard erected a little grandstand by his horse’s paddock and ushered the spectators in to watch him. Kayak thrilled the crowds by galloping around his adjacent paddock in all his black splendor. Most of the time, all Seabiscuit did was stretch out on his side, drowsing in the shade of his paddock oak tree.39 Occasionally, he would raise his head and look the spectators over, then drop off to sleep again.40 Once in a while he’d get up and amble over to his admirers, licking their cameras and sticking his tongue out to be scratched.

  With each spring the foals came. Howard doted on them as if they were his own children. “They are the finest foals I have ever seen,” he said when the first crop came, “and I am not prejudiced when I say this.” They all had their father’s amiable personality, and most of them had his homely little body too. Nearly all were homebreds, the products of Howard’s moderately bred mares; the ranch was more than six hundred miles from the nearest major breeding farm, and few breeders wanted to subject their mares to such a long haul. So Howard used his own mares, pampered and overfed their babies, and sent them into training fat and happy.

  When the “Little Biscuits” reached racing age and went south to the tracks, the public flocked in to see them. Thousands of admirers came out to watch their workouts, and on race days full houses packed in to cheer for them and for proud old Howard. The owner issued Christmas card photos of Seabiscuit standing with his foals. The cards became hot items across the nation. One racetrack, Chicago’s Arlington Park, recreated one in a giant mural.

  A few of the Seabiscuits could run. Sea Sovereign and Sea Swallow became stakes winners, as did a chip off the old block, a grandson named Sea Orbit, who ran sixty-seven times, winning twenty-two, including a long list of elite stakes races in California. One of Fair Knightess’s foals, Phantom Sea, became stakes-placed. But most of the Seabiscuits were poor racehorses, and because Howard refused to let them suffer the indignity of running at their ability level, in claiming races, few of them won anything on the track. Howard didn’t seem to notice. After an advisor talked him into selling an especially slow one, Howard quietly bought him back. “You don’t understand,” he explained. “This one used to eat sugar cubes out of my hand.”

  Hollywood took the tale of Seabiscuit’s life, deleted everything interesting, and made an inexcusably bad movie, The Story of Seabiscuit, starring Shirley Temple. They cast one of Seabiscuit’s sons in the title role. When they set up to film the War Admiral match race, they deliberately chose a woefully sluggish horse to play War Admiral. Unfortunately, the Seabiscuit son was even slower. Every time they tried to shoot the race, the colt playing War Admiral beat the colt playing Seabiscuit, no matter how hard the jockeys tried to prevent it. Eventually, they gave up and substituted film of the actual race.

  Seabiscuit settled well into his retirement. Knowing he needed activity, Howard taught him how to herd cattle.41 The horse loved it, nipping at the animals’ rumps and torturing them as he had once tortured War Admiral and Kayak. Every day the ranch hands rode him out with Pumpkin on a five-mile jaunt, trotting up and down the California hills, cantering alongside the lake,
pausing to graze on the mountain grass. He became very fat—1,250 pounds—and blissfully happy. Every fall he would pose for family portraits, sometimes with Marcela aboard, and Howard would have the photos printed in huge numbers and mailed to everyone he knew.

  When the war came, Howard looked into building a bomb shelter for the horse but eventually gave up the idea.42 He worked to help the war effort, donating an ambulance to the British Red Cross, which named it Seabiscuit.43 Howard printed patriotic messages on all the Seabiscuit Christmas cards and mailed Seabiscuit’s shoes off to bomber pilots as good-luck charms. Two bombers were named for the horse. The navy’s Seabiscuit bomber was painted with the horse’s smoke-breathing likeness.44 The air force’s Seabiscuit, which was shot down off the coast of China in 1944, had the horse’s name painted across its nose.45

  As Seabiscuit aged, Howard faded. His heart began to fail him, and his life slowly contracted. Marcela, who adored him to the last, nursed him through his final years. He showered her in flowers and little love notes, written in a wavering hand. He found one last success on the track, this time with the great Noor, winner of the Santa Anita Handicap and conqueror of Triple Crown winner Citation. “Guess you’ve got another Seabiscuit on your hands,” said a reporter after Noor’s greatest win. Howard, thin and unsteady, straightened up and raised his chin. “Sir,” he said, “there will never be another Seabiscuit.”46

  When his heart became too frail for him to endure the thrill of seeing his horses run, Howard came to the track anyway, sitting in the parking lot and listening to race calls on the radio in his Buick.47 In what is believed to be the last photograph ever taken of him, he was at the racetrack, standing in the winner’s circle. After leaving the track, he would go back to Ridgewood to be near the horses. On beautiful days, he would throw a saddle over Seabiscuit, and together they would walk into the hills to lose themselves in the redwoods.48

  ———

  On the morning of May 17, 1947, Marcela met her husband at breakfast and told him his rough little horse was gone, dead of an apparent heart attack at the relatively youthful age of fourteen.49 The onetime bicycle repairman, whose own heart would fail him just three years later, was beside himself with grief. “I never dreamed,” he said, “the old boy would go so quickly.”50 Someone broke the news to Pollard, who was plugging away on claimers at Suffolk Downs. His mind rolled back over all those years. “It seems only yesterday,” he said.

  Howard had the body carried to a secret site on the ranch. After Seabiscuit was buried, the old owner planted an oak sapling over him. Howard, a vigorously public man, made his last gesture to his horse a private one. He told only his sons the location of the grave and let the oak stand as the only marker.51 Somewhere in the high country that once was Ridgewood, the tree lives on, watching over the bones of Howard’s beloved Seabiscuit.

  ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

  “NUDE PHOTOS AID SCIENCE”

  If you found yourself in a red-light district in the spring of 1951 and you had a spare quarter, you could purchase SIR! A Magazine for Males and read the story behind this cover headline. The magazine was the strangest of hybrids, a girlie gazette straining to pass itself off as a scientific journal. As pornography, it was a crashing failure. The featured model in an article on “Latin Quarter Lovelies” is shown hopping around in nothing but four one-quart-capacity Egyptian fezes—only one of which is on her head—with pasties stuck to the bottoms. The cover story asserts that corpulent people tend to be jolly and helpfully offers shots of nude models as proof. In another piece, “PURE SCIENCE UNCOVERS ANCIENT VICE,” the life’s labors of a University of Chicago classics professor are distilled into a discussion of how “The Antics of the Ancient Greeks Would Make Modern Playboys Drool with Envy.” Somehow the magazine endured, thanks to advertising from “rupture control” companies and a pharmaceutical outlet that sold thirty days’ worth of “genuine Male Sex Hormones” in a plain brown wrapper for $5.

  SIR! came to grace my bookshelf after I typed the name George Woolf into an Internet auction search engine and turned up the magazine as a match. I didn’t have much hope for it, but the mystery of how an unpornographic, unscientific jockey landed in a pseudo-scientific porn magazine got the best of me. I shelled out $2.50 and gave SIR! a home. When it arrived, I flipped through and discovered, sandwiched between the trusses and jolly jiggling women, a wealth of tales of the Iceman’s exploits: setting his tack on fire, sleeping on the jocks’ room roof, riding pantsless down a homestretch before a grandstand full of fans. I called Woolf’s old friends and asked them about the stories. They verified all of them and even provided details the magazine had missed. SIR! had merit after all.

  Writing this book has been a four-year lesson in how history hides in curious places. I obtained the narrative’s basic framework from the usual suspects—newspapers in the Library of Congress and other archives, official track chart books, racing histories, magazines. But the narrative they offered, though intriguing, was incomplete. The textures of my subjects’ personalities, their complex relationships, motives, fears, thoughts, and secrets, all remained elusive, as did the small but telling details that give historic figures immediacy and resonance in the imagination. My subjects had long since died, but I was convinced that they must have left behind some detritus. I began prowling Internet search engines, memorabilia auctions, and obscure bookstores, writing letters and placing “information wanted” ads, and making hundreds of calls to strangers in hopes that someone or something could illuminate what seemed to be a lost past.

  The story wasn’t lost. It was scattered all over North America, tucked in back pockets and bottom drawers. A remarkable quantity of information came from an odd assortment of memorabilia, most purchased, some borrowed from a proselytizing sect of collectors. A few items were bad investments—a disco tribute to Seabiscuit springs to mind—but most yielded something of value, sometimes a note that gave an added dimension to a man, sometimes a forgotten anecdote or a critical explanation. In faded magazines and moldy newspapers I discovered rare photos, long interviews with my subjects, conversations between them, and exhilarating eyewitness accounts of events in their lives. My subjects’ private lives and the world they inhabited unfolded in the pages of almost a dozen forgotten autobiographies of horsemen stretching back to 1913 Kentucky Derby–winning rider Roscoe Goose. On a crackling audiotape I heard George call out to Red from the back of Seabiscuit, standing in the midst of a roaring throng. A 1945 Jockey’s Guild yearbook found in a Virginia bookshop yielded details on Frenchy Hawley and the stomach-turning mechanics of reducing. I unearthed Seabiscuit’s signature board games, pinball machine, wastebasket, postcards, and “endorsement” ads for two beer brands, two lines of Seabiscuit oranges, whiskey, a hotel, a humor magazine, a dry-cleaning service, and ladies’ hats. I was the only bidder in an auction for what turned out to be a rare film of the Seabiscuit–War Admiral match race, one of a half-dozen race films and newsreels I was able to obtain.

  My greatest source was living memory. An ad placed in the Daily Racing Form on Breeders’ Cup day yielded a stack of letters. At least ten were written on the backs and in the margins of tip sheets and racing programs. One was composed in crayon on a slip of paper torn into a rough hexagon. Nearly all were penned in the sweeping Victorian script of a lost age. I picked up the phone and started calling these people and the hundred or so potential sources I found through racing contacts. Once or twice, my call wasn’t well received. “How old do you think I am?” snapped an angry octogenarian when asked if he had known any of the Seabiscuit crew (he died of old age a few months later). Some were a little too eager to talk. “You sound like a young girl!” a gravely ninety-something man thundered into the phone. “I like young girls!” Some told me more than I ever imagined, like the aged horseman who described his bodice-ripping romps with the Molino Rojo girls, then asked me not to print his name “’cause my ex-wives might not like it.” Most of the time, my interviewees welcomed me into what one sour
ce called “those dear, dead days” and allowed me to linger as long as I wished.

  The luxury of researching those who achieve the extraordinary is that their lives play out before many observers. I spoke with people who saw Red Pollard hitch his toboggan to his pony, tumble down under Fair Knightess, spout Shakespeare and throw fists in the jocks’ room, draw his last breaths in a nursing home built on the ruins of a track on which he once rode. I followed Woolf through the memories of friends, from a grade school classmate to a man who saw him die and sat vigil over his body on the day of his funeral. I found a groom who handled Seabiscuit for Fitzsimmons, the boys who galloped him for Smith, and several dozen witnesses to his races. I was even contacted by a nearly hundred-year-old former groom living in a telephoneless trailer in the desert, who is evidently the last person on earth who recalls the Lone Plainsman telling of his youth on the mustang ranges. The Detroit cemetery worker; the wife speaking for a husband muted by a stroke; the ancient trainer living through his last summer tethered to an oxygen tank; the clerk at a mail-order seafood company; the operator of the Seabiscuit liquor store in Hercules, California: each had something to contribute. Again and again, when I was able to check their testimony against records kept at the time, the accuracy of their statements was verified: the color of War Admiral’s blanket, the precise time of Seabiscuit’s half-mile split, a quip Red made seventy years ago. Ultimately, I gathered an almost uninterrupted memory record of the story I wished to tell from those who recall the sound, the smell, the feel of it, and who divulged secrets, such as Red’s blind eye, that finally solved mysteries more than half a century old.

  The completion of this book is tinged with sadness, as several of those who helped create it didn’t live to see it in print. Among them was Sonny Greenberg. A bug boy with Red Pollard and George Woolf, Sonny was, he cheerfully admitted, a pathologically bad jockey, once steering a horse around a turn with such ineptitude that he “lost more ground than when the Indians sold Manhattan for a string of beads and a bottle of whiskey.” Sonny may not have had Woolf’s skill, but he was an astute observer of life in the Howard barn and racing in its golden era. Putting up with at least seven hours of my questions, Sonny animated life in Seabiscuit’s time—the purr of Woolf’s blue Cord roadster, the torment of reducing and the taste of jalap, the wicked, misunderstood humor of Tom Smith. Sonny, who in racetrack lingo told me that his advanced age left him “on the ‘also eligible’ list—I could draw in at any time,” drew in on May 6, 2000. It was Derby day.

 
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