Seabiscuit: An American Legend by Laura Hillenbrand


  On two of the most fascinating days of my career, Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt, Jr., told me in candid detail how he masterminded one of the most spellbinding sporting events in American history, the meeting between Seabiscuit and War Admiral. Vanderbilt went on to own a magnificent gray horse named Native Dancer, who lost only one race, the Kentucky Derby, by less than a foot. Vanderbilt stayed in racing for two thirds of a century, even after macular degeneration left him unable to see his beloved runners. In November 1999, he spent the last hours of his life at the track, handing out cookies at Belmont Park. I will never forget his eloquence, his wit, and his magnanimity.

  Other generous contributors who passed away before the completion of this book include the brilliant trainer Woody Stephens, who spent a couple of long afternoons telling me about his youth as a jockey; his equally accomplished archrival and friend Charlie Whittingham; Lucien Laurin, trainer of Secretariat; former jockey Sam Renick; former Turf and Sport Digest editor Raleigh Burroughs (“Honey,” he told me a few months before his death, “there is nobody else who is older than I am; I’ve got patina all over me”); and trainer Henry Clark.

  The list of others whose stories fill this book is lengthy. I long ago ran out of words of gratitude for Colonel Michael C. Howard, United States Marine Corps. The great-grandson of Charles Howard and the grandson of Lin Howard, he trusted me with the treasures of his family—scrapbooks, photographs, cards, personal notes, clippings—and gave me immeasurable assistance and encouragement in reconstructing this story. From the beginning of this project to the end, Colonel Howard went to enormous effort to furnish me with the information that has given this story color and depth. His kindness and generosity will always be an inspiration to me.

  I contacted Helen Luther and her husband, Tommy, one of the finest jockeys of his era and the true father of the Jockey’s Guild, in hopes of finding a little information on Red Pollard; I emerged with a lifetime of stories and a set of surrogate grandparents. Abundant thanks also go to Pollard’s daughter, writer Norah Pollard Christianson, and his sister, Edie Pollard Wilde, who entrusted me with intimate and sometimes painful details of the life of the Cougar. Wad Studley, who can talk horse with the best of them, taught me about the wilder side of Tijuana and the stranger nicknames of the racing oval. Bill Buck, who grew up with Red and George, was my greatest source on their bug boy days. Noble Threewitt, without whom Tom Smith and Charles Howard would never have met, told me about rooming in a stall with Smith in Tijuana; Noble’s wife, Beryl, shared her recollections of George. The gifted horsemen Keith Stucki and Farrell “Wild Horse” Jones thrilled me with tales of what it was like to skim over the track aboard Seabiscuit and offered an inside view of the Howard barn. Bill Nichols recreated Ridgewood, where he worked as a ranch hand. Jane Babcock Akins, daughter of Doc Babcock, told me of the day Frankie Howard died. Johnny Longden took me back to George’s school days.

  I am also grateful to trainer Jimmy Jones, who survived the rampage of Tijuana’s manure mountain and the leviathan that was Ten Ton Irwin. Harold Washburn told me about Smith’s homemade bell, the match with War Admiral, and the legend of the Iceman. Joe “Mossy” Mosbacher taught me about life on the road for bug boys. Leonard Dorfman put me in the grandstand as Seabiscuit accelerated alongside Stagehand in the 1938 hundred-grander, a performance so extraordinary and heartbreaking that it brought him to tears. Ralph Theroux, Sr., gave me a glimpse of the Seabiscuit–War Admiral match race from the infield, at least the part he saw before the steeplechase fence he was standing on collapsed. Jack Shettlesworth told me what Red really said to George in their notorious 1938 NBC radio interview. Mike Griffin, disabled in a 1930s racing spill, taught me about the perils of a jockey’s life. Eddie McMullen spoke of Pollard as an older rider. George Mohr and Larry Soroka took me inside the Fitzsimmons barn. Thomas Bell, Jr., reminisced about Tom Smith and his father’s life on the racing circuit. Gerard Oberle described the day Seabiscuit was to meet War Admiral at Suffolk Downs.

  Kathy Gold, R.N., of the Diabetes Wellness and Research Foundation, explained diabetes treatment in the 1930s. George Pratt, Ph.D., of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, instructed me on the physics of the racehorse. Matthew Mackay-Smith, DVM, medical editor of EQUUS, treated me to his boundless wisdom on equine veterinary medicine. Marvin Bensman, Ph.D., University of Memphis (www.people.memphis.edu/~mbensman/welcome.html), answered my questions on the history of radio.

  Thanks also to Frank Whiteley, Joe Perrato, Howard “Gelo” Hall, Betty Raines, Bill Boland, Hugh Morgan, Barbara Howard, Michelle and Charles Howard III, Warren Stute, Bart Baker, John Wilke, John Nerud, Rex Henshaw, DVM, Mike Salamy, Daniel Guiney, Bob Nanni, Richard Holland, Bobby DeStasio, Joe Dattilo, Ken Hart, J.R. Buck Perry, Jr., Buddy Abadie, Elmer L. Taylor, Achilles Zephirius Achilles (“Ace”), Dale Duspiva, Fred Dayton, Don Mankiewicz, and Art Bardine.

  Many people assisted me in tracking down facts and sources. The freakishly efficient Tina Hines provided indispensable help as a research assistant, digging up documents at the Keeneland Library; Keeneland’s Cathy Schenck and Phyllis Rogers pored over their archives in search of books and photos. Chick Lang, who knows where all the bodies are buried, scoured the industry to locate interviewees. Jane Goldstein and Stuart Zanville at Santa Anita found sources and photos. Debie Ginsburg, Karen Bowman, Joanne Tober, and Jessica Appleby at the Thoroughbred of California and the Burke Memorial Library mailed reams of information. Patricia Ranft at the Blood-Horse made up an infinitely useful index. Tom Gilcoin and Dick Hamilton at the National Museum of Racing answered racing history questions. Kip Hannon sent terrific archive video of Seabiscuit’s races. Dorothy Ours, who knows the lives of Man o’ War and Samuel Riddle better than anyone on earth, answered a long string of questions.

  Jenifer Van Deinse, Bob Curran, Eric Wing, Joan Lawrence, Howard Bass, and Tom Merritt of Thoroughbred Racing Communications and/or its successor, National Thoroughbred Racing Association Communications, answered questions, located sources, and helped check facts. Lynn Kennelly at the Willits, California, Chamber of Commerce raided her local library archives and emerged with priceless information. Vicki Vinson sent me memorabilia and wrote a marvelous article on this book. Jan Romanowski helped me discover information I’d missed and tracked down one of my most important sources when all my efforts failed. Jane Colihan at American Heritage advised me on obtaining photos. Susan Kennedy picked through Bay Meadows’s records in search of one elusive photo.

  Suzan Stephenson at the Bowie, Maryland, Public Library’s Selima Room, a treasure trove of racing literature, helped me unearth volumes of information; Dian Hain told me of the Selima Room’s existence. John Ball and John Giovanni of the Jockey’s Guild helped me gather facts on the lives of jockeys of the 1930s. Paula Welch, formerly Special Projects Editor of the Daily Racing Form, found articles and helped in the photo hunt. Victoria Keith, founder/editor of Thoroughbred Champions (www.ThoroughbredChampions.com), and researcher/co-editor Kathleen Jones, served as valuable sources of facts and encouragement and sent Triple Crown–themed flowers. Dace Taube at the University of Southern California Library worked late to sift through photos. Joe Hirsch and Jay Hovdey of the Daily Racing Form, Tommy Trotter and Julie Hazelwood of Vessel Stallion Farm, Joseph Martin and Rick Snider of the Washington Times pointed me to excellent sources. Jim Maloney sent clippings. Richard Needles sent his fine artwork of Seabiscuit. Richard Brunner sent racing records.

  Thanks also to Billy Turner, trainer of Seattle Slew; Kit Collins; Diane Brunn at the University of Kentucky Agricultural Library; Arlene Mott at Interlibrary Loan in Rockville, Maryland; Martha Cantarini at the historical racing site Second Running (www.secondrunning.com); Steven Crist, Irwin Cohen, and Logan Bailey of the Daily Racing Form; Mark Shrager; Dale Austin; Ronnie Nichols; Leon Rasmussen; Andrew Beyer of The Washington Post; Tracy Negrin; Sean Lahman; John Thorn; Bob Kaplan; Steve Murtaugh; Cricket Goodall; Debbie McCain; Becky Shields; Dave Hicks of NYRA; Gary McMillen; James Lehr;
Warren Bare; Gary Madieros; and the National Agricultural Library.

  My special thanks go to Richard F. Snow, editor of American Heritage, for helping me get this project off the ground. In the fall of 1996, Richard saw the potential of this story in my query letter and gave me the honor of contributing to his splendid magazine, which has been my addiction for as long as I can remember.

  Perhaps the greatest privilege I have enjoyed in producing this book has been the opportunity to work with my agent, the exceptionally skilled, kind, invincible Tina Bennett. A woman with the perfect solution to any dilemma, Tina helped me transform an article into a book proposal, then into a manuscript, assisting me in shaping my thoughts, offering valuable criticism, and making my dream of telling this story to the world a reality. My eternal gratitude goes to Isaac Barchas for introducing me to Tina. Thanks also go to Tina’s assistant, Svetlana Katz.

  Susan Avallon read at least ten drafts of one section of this book, but never complained, and her criticisms improved the work enormously. My EQUUS editors, Emily Kilby and Laurie Prinz, pored over my rough draft and gave me the benefit of the expertise that has made their magazine a paragon of excellence. Professor Megan Macomber, who has been gently guiding my work since my freshman year at Kenyon in 1985, once again treated me to her marvelous instinct for words. Journalist Susie Hiss Thomas did a careful reading of the first stabs at this story and offered her wisdom. Thanks also to my mother, Elizabeth Hillenbrand, who helped in innumerable ways to get me through this long and sometimes difficult process.

  I am deeply indebted to my editor at Random House, Jonathan Karp, who saw the promise in this story and gave me the best possible forum in which to tell it. Jon was always enthusiastic, made house calls when I could not come to him, and studied the manuscript with a sharp eye. My work is vastly better for his keen judgment. I also send thanks to Jon’s assistant, Janelle Duryea.

  Since the day in 1996 when it first occurred to me that a book should be written about these men, Borden Flanagan has given his unwavering support, infinite patience, and tireless assistance. He has set aside much of his own life to pore over each of my drafts, offer insights, and smooth my prose. My manuscript has benefited immeasurably from his command of language and ideas. Without him, this story would have remained untold. He has my most profound gratitude.

  My final thanks go to Tom Smith, Charles and Marcela Howard, Red Pollard, and George Woolf for living lives of singular vigor and grace, and for giving us the incomparable, unforgettable Seabiscuit.

  Laura Hillenbrand

  September 2000

  NOTES

  A note on sources: As I researched my subjects for this book, Colonel Michael C. Howard, great-grandson of Charles and Marcela Howard, generously gave me access to the private scrapbooks of Charles and Marcela Howard. These books included a wealth of newspaper and magazine clippings, photographs, telegrams, and letters, some of which do not include complete publishing information. In the following section, I indicate these incompletely annotated sources with the abbreviation SB. In a few cases, it is unclear whether the dates on these materials indicate the dates on which the articles were filed by their authors, or the dates on which they appeared in print. In instances in which the date specified is a filing date, I have used the abbreviation FD. In most cases, articles appear in print on the day after they are filed.

  PREFACE

  1 the year’s number-one newsmaker: “Looking ’Em Over,” San Francisco News, SB, January 1939; B. K. Beckwith, Seabiscuit: The Saga of a Great Champion (Willfred Crowell, 1940) p. 33.

  2 forty million listeners: “Seabiscuit Stands Out,” The Pay Off, November 1938.

  3 seventy-eight thousand people witnessed his last race: There They Go: Racing Calls by Joe Hernandez, album released by Los Angeles Turf Club, n.d.

  4 population was less than half its current size: Irvine, E. Eastman, ed., World Almanac 1938 (New York: New York World-Telegram, 1938) p. 241; Robert Famighetti, ed., The World Almanac and Book of Facts 1997 (New Jersey: K-III Reference Corp., 1996), p. 377.

  5 attendance comparable to Super Bowl: Jorgen Lyxell, “Super Bowl” online article (San Francisco: Jorgen Lyxell; accessed September 13, 2000); www.acc.umu.se/~lyxell/superbowl/.

  6 forty thousand fans see workout: “40,000 See Howard’s Champion,” The Baltimore Sun, November 2, 1938.

  7 fifty thousand exhausting railroad miles: M. A. Stoneridge, Great Horses of Our Time (New York: Doubleday, 1972), p. 34.

  CHAPTER 1

  1 21 cents: “Charles S. Howard,” San Francisco Chronicle, June 7, 1950, p. 1.

  2 cavalry: Michael C. Howard, telephone interview, January 18, 1997.

  3 racing bicycles: Terry Dunham, “The Howard Automobile Company,” manuscript from the papers of Marcela Howard, July 1975.

  4 “devilish contraptions”: “My Thirty Years in the Press Box,” San Francisco Chronicle, February 6, 1937.

  5 Anti-automobile laws: Floyd Clymer, Those Wonderful Old Automobiles (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1953), p. 30.

  6 automobile ban at Stanford: “Charles S. Howard,” San Francisco Chronicle, June 7, 1950, p. 2.

  7 “Accessories”: “My Thirty Years in the Press Box,” San Francisco Chronicle, February 6, 1937; Clymer, Those Wonderful Old Automobiles, p. 67.

  8 refueling at pharmacies: William M. Klinger, “Pioneering Automobile Insurance” online article (San Francisco: Museum of the City of San Francisco, accessed February 24, 1998); www.sfmuseum.org.

  9 “windshield hats”: Clymer, Those Wonderful Old Automobiles, p. 22.

  10 road signs … erected … by insurance underwriter: Klinger, “Pioneering Automobile Insurance.”

  11 “picnic parties”: Ibid.

  12 Automobile-repair shops: Ibid.; Michael C. Howard, telephone interview, January 18, 1997.

  13 first American race: Clymer, Those Wonderful Old Automobiles, p. 57.

  14 The European race … halted due to “too many fatalities”: Ibid., p. 26.

  15 Howard gains Buick franchise: Dunham, “The Howard Automobile Company.”

  16 three Buicks: “Automotive Highlights,” Los Angeles Times, March 24, 1940, p. 3.

  17 housed automobiles in parlor of bicycle-repair shop: Tom Moriarty, “California Sportsman,” Rob Wagner’s Script, March 18, 1938, p. 8.

  18 four city blocks per hour: Louise Herrick Wall, “Heroic San Francisco” online article (San Francisco: Museum of the City of San Francisco; accessed February 24, 1998); www.sfmuseum.org/1906/06.html.

  19 “We suddenly appreciated …”: Emma Burke, untitled article, Outlook, June 1906.

  20 Van Ness as firebreak: Wall, “Heroic San Francisco.”

  21 blew up shop: Moriarty, “California Sportsman,” p. 8.

  22 cars used as ambulances: Michael C. Howard, telephone interview, January 18, 1997; Dunham, “The Howard Automobile Company.”

  23 day’s rental of a horse and buggy: Wall, “Heroic San Francisco.”

  24 Robert Stewart: Michael C. Howard, telephone interview, January 18, 1997.

  25 auto racing in 1906 San Francisco: Klinger, “Pioneering Automobile Insurance.”

  26 Howard racing cars: “Charles S. Howard,” San Francisco Chronicle, June 7, 1950, p. 2; Dunham, “The Howard Automobile Company.”

  27 Howard advertises wins: Dunham, “The Howard Automobile Company.”

  28 “horse is past …”: Ralph Moody, Come On Seabiscuit (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1963), p. 22

  29 sold eighty-five White Streaks: “Charles S. Howard,” San Francisco Chronicle, June 7, 1950, p. 2.

  30 Durant gave Howard sole distributorship: Dunham, “The Howard Automobile Company.”

  31 GM bailout: “Charles S. Howard,” San Francisco Chronicle, June 7, 1950, p. 2; “Yea, Verily,” SB, fall 1937.10

  32 Charles S. Howard Foundation: “Howard, Charles Stewart,” National Cyclopedia of American Biography, p. 27.

  33 expedition to Galápagos: Dunham, “The Howard Automobile Company.


  34 Frank’s accident and aftermath: “Frank Howard Killed,” The Willits News, May 14, 1926, p. 1; Jane Babcock Akins, telephone interview, November 12, 1999.

  35 Howard cries over painting: Bill Nichols, telephone interview, January 14, 1998.

  36 Tijuana: T. D. Proffitt, III, Tijuana: The History of a Mexican Metropolis (San Diego: San Diego University Press, 1994), pp. 190–98; Wad Studley, telephone interview, February 6, 1999.

  37 target practice: Wad Studley, telephone interview, March 2, 1999.

  38 Three hundred tracks had been operating: Tom Biracree and Wendy Insinger, The Complete Book of Thoroughbred Horse Racing (Garden City, New York: Doubleday & Company, 1982), p. 143.

  39 departing Hollywood film crew: Sonny Greenberg, telephone interview, December 24, 1999.

  40 Howard to Tijuana: Carter Swart, “The Howards of San Francisco,” Northern California Thoroughbred, fall 1981, p. 111.

  41 Howard loses interest in automobiles: Tom Moriarty, “California Sportsman,” Rob Wagner’s Script, March 18, 1938.

  42 Meeting Marcela: Swart, “The Howards of San Francisco,” p. 111.

  43 Blooey: “A Blue Monkey Visits New York,” New York American, SB, 1935.

 
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