Seabiscuit: An American Legend by Laura Hillenbrand

  But Smith adapted. He was assigned the duty of handling horses for walk-up starts in relay races and matches. In watching thousands of match races, he learned that in most cases the horse who broke from the start fastest would win. Smith began devising new ways of teaching horses to blow off the line as quickly as possible. For the time being, the knowledge helped keep the Irwin barn solvent. In the long run, it would mean much more.

  The Depression upended Irwin’s business. Workers, at least, were easy to find. He made annual trips through Chicago to buy horses, and to add hands to his roster he simply swung through the masses of unemployed men milling in the Chicago train stations, hauling aboard anyone who wanted a job. But attendance at his show waned, and paying his men became a problem. Eventually, his money gave out altogether. Irwin made speeches to his employees, pledging that he would pay them, but he couldn’t. Irwin’s horses still needed care, so Smith remained on the job. One horse had caught his eye, a hopeless wreck named Knighthood.8

  The horse had quite a history. In the 1920s, Knighthood had been handled by an able conditioner named Bob Rowe, one of only a handful of black horsemen training in that era. Under Rowe’s handling, Knighthood was a holy terror, winning thirty races and $22,000. The horse became an icon of Tijuana’s black community, which turned the horse’s race days into joyful celebrations. But as Knighthood aged, his speed diminished. In 1930 he was placed in a claiming race. Rowe didn’t want to part with him, but he thought that no one would claim an aged veteran of nearly 150 races. He was wrong. To add insult to injury, the claiming trainer was white. Rowe was heartbroken, and the horse’s fans were outraged. After Knighthood changed hands, a rumor began circulating that someone from the horse’s erstwhile rooting section had placed a curse on him. Superstition runs long and deep on the backstretch, and the trainer who had claimed the horse was unnerved enough to sell him without ever racing him. The next owner promptly dropped Knighthood into another claiming race.

  Irwin was not the superstitious sort, and he put in a claim for Knighthood before the race. So did the rueful Rowe, but when a drawing was held to determine who would get the horse, Irwin came out on top. If Knighthood was running under a curse, it worked. In that very race he was badly injured and limped into Irwin’s barn a seemingly ruined horse. Irwin, who was fond of the horse, refused to euthanize him. Knighthood languished in Irwin’s barn, refusing to eat.

  Smith wanted the horse. After two months without pay, he approached Irwin with a proposal: He would call off the debt for past wages if Irwin would give him Knighthood. Irwin at first declined, saying the horse was useless. Smith persisted and prevailed. Smith took Knighthood and disappeared. The horse was gone for so long that everyone on the backstretch assumed he had died. Ten months later Smith showed up in Tijuana with Knighthood in hand and entered him in a race. In racing, a victory by a horse older than seven, even in claiming races, is an extremely rare event; Knighthood was ten. But the horse’s old fans, overjoyed to see him again, rushed the betting windows. In the time it took Knighthood to walk to the post, his betting odds plunged. Knighthood won. His comeback became legend.

  Irwin knew talent when he saw it, and he offered Smith a shot at training his horses. He sent Smith out to a little bullring track in Cheyenne with a string of runners. The trainees won twenty-nine of thirty races, a feat that may be unequaled at any level of the sport. During a losing streak, Irwin shipped Smith off to Seattle to train another string. Again, Smith turned Irwin’s luck around completely.

  In his course from meadows and rangeland to back roads and bullrings, Tom Smith had cultivated an almost mystical communion with horses. He knew their minds and how to sway them. He knew their bodies and how they telegraphed emotion and sensation, and his hands were a tonic for their pains. In his era, racing was a business made rigid by tradition and imitation, superstition and wives’ tales. Even mainstream trainers would drop pennies in mares’ water buckets to halt estrus, or exhaust themselves trying to get a mane that fell to the left—a bad omen—to fall to the right. But Smith was a radical departure from conventional trainers. He followed no formulas, no regimens, no superstitious rituals. The wisdom he harbored was frontier-tested. He approached each horse as a distinct individual and followed his own lights and experience to care for it. Horses blossomed in his care.

  Perhaps Smith spoke so infrequently because he was listening so hard. Horses speak with the smallest of motions; Smith heard and saw everything. “Hotwalkers” leading horses around the shed row to cool them out after workouts would see him squatting down on the floor, staring straight ahead, turning the horses over in his mind.9 The grooms could circle the barn and come around again, and there he’d be, exactly as he was before. Sometimes he would become so absorbed in watching a horse that he wouldn’t move for hours.10 At times he wouldn’t leave the horses, not even to go over to the grandstand to watch the races, for weeks on end. He built ingenious training devices out of whatever was lying around, brewed up homemade liniments, prepared his horses in exactly the way they said he shouldn’t. He carried a stopwatch, but left it in his pocket; he had an uncanny ability to judge a horse’s pace by sight, and he resented any distraction that might make him miss a nuance of movement. “I’d rather depend on my eye than on one of those newfangled timepieces,” he said.11 “They take your attention off your horse. I got a watch and it works, too, but the eye is better.”

  For Smith, training was a long, quiet conversation. He was baffled by other people’s inability to grasp what he was doing. “It’s easy to talk to a horse if you understand his language,” he once said.12 “Horses stay the same from the day they are born until the day they die.… They are only changed by the way people treat them.” He believed with complete conviction that no animal was permanently ruined. Every horse could be improved. He lived by a single maxim: “Learn your horse.13 Each one is an individual, and once you penetrate his mind and heart, you can often work wonders with an otherwise intractable beast.”

  The cow ponies, the broncs, the show horses, and the weary racers: All had helped to craft Smith into the complete horseman. He was waiting for the right horse.

  An early spring sun hung in the Mexican sky on March 21, 1934, when Ten Ton Irwin shimmied his 425 pounds through the giant rear door of his sedan and pushed off for Cheyenne. The “meet” (racing session) was over at Northern Mexico’s Agua Caliente Race Track and Irwin was due back in Wyoming to tend to his livestock leasing business. He drove north, making his way over the Wyoming border. On a lonely road fourteen miles outside Cheyenne, a tire blew. The car veered out of control and plunged into a ditch. Rescuers found Irwin in the wreckage with chest and head injuries. Two days later he was dead.

  Irwin’s barn was dissolved. Smith wound up on his own at Seattle’s Longacres Racetrack. After briefly training a few of Irwin’s old horses, he ended up working as a foreman for an old rodeo trick rider turned trainer named Harry Walters. That, too, was short-lived; the owner Walters trained for soon retired from the racing business. Knowing that he was putting Smith out of work again, the owner gave him a gift. It was a horse, a well-traveled $1,500 claimer named Oriley.14 It was a dubious present: The horse was lame.

  As with Knighthood, Smith settled in to work on the horse. After a period of recuperation, he brought Oriley back on the track, sound and fit. The horse began winning. Soon Smith was bumping the horse up in class, and he kept finding the winner’s circle.

  Sometime in the latter half of 1934, Tom Smith brought his one-horse stable down to Agua Caliente. Oriley did passably well, but Smith was barely making it. The trainer was living out of a horse stall, sharing it with another struggling horseman.15 He found no clients. He was a few dollars short of flat broke and only marginally employed at the depths of the Depression.

  He was saved by a remarkable coincidence. Noble Threewitt, the young horseman who was sharing the horse stall with Smith, happened to be training horses for George Giannini, Charles Howard’s close friend. While vis
iting the barn to oversee his horses, Giannini noticed how Oriley was flourishing under Smith’s care. He realized that wasting away on this Mexican backstretch was a brilliant horseman. Giannini contacted Charles Howard.

  “Now,” he told his friend, “you can have the best trainer in the country.”16

  Tom Smith and Charles Howard came face-to-face. The two men stood in different halves of the century. Smith was the last of the true frontiersmen; Howard was paving Smith’s West under the urgent wheels of his automobiles. Howard was driven by image; Smith remained the Lone Plainsman, forbidding and solitary. But Howard was blessed with an uncanny ability to see potential in unlikely packages, and he had a cavalryman’s eye for horsemen. He took one look at Smith and instincts rang in his head. He drove Smith to his barn and introduced his horses to their new trainer.

  Smith and Seabiscuit


  Chapter 3


  Prosperity, in the form of a fat salary from Howard, had found Tom Smith. He had invested a little in the outer man. Gone were the overalls, the big plaid work shirts, the muddied boots, the chaps, the cap. He began showing up at the barn in neat gray suits, dark vests, whipcord trousers, wing tips, and on race days a restrained Republican tie.1 He had even purchased a camel-hair coat. Topping off the ensemble was, of course, the utterly unremarkable gray felt fedora. Head and hat were inseparable. Given that Smith was not a man of particularly noteworthy appearance, it was probably the hat, not his face, that people recognized. A couple of years later, during a stable trip to New York, Smith decided that he had just about worn the hat to death and left the barn in search of a replacement. He stomped back in, brushing past Howard, four hours later. On his head was an exact replica of the old hat. Obviously in sour spirits, he muttered that he had spent the entire morning scouring the town trying to find a hat for $2.50.

  “Couldn’t find one,” he grumbled. “Had to get this one.”

  Howard asked him how much the new hat had set him back.

  “Three dollars.”2

  The new raiment fit him. Tom Smith had arrived. He had taken Howard’s ill-bred yearlings, worked with them in solitude for a year, then slipped them into Barn 38 at Santa Anita and hung out his shingle. Right from the start he attracted curious glances. Someone saw him wrapping up an alarm clock in a towel and burying it in the straw of a filly’s stall, letting her get used to the ticking.3 Then, while everyone at the track was speculating about what he was up to, Smith tacked up the horse, fished out the clock, and went to the track. He loaded the filly in the gate, set off the clock alarm, and let her rip. He brought her back and did it again and again until she was primed to jackrabbit down the track when she heard a bell.

  Pretty soon, people were coming around just to watch Smith. No one had ever seen a trainer work like this. The Howards motored down and watched, too, feeding sugar cubes to their horses and surely wondering what they had gotten themselves into. But then the races began and Smith’s horses started winning. Not just a little; Smith owned the place. The horses were almost all long shots, because no one trusted what Smith was doing, but that just made the payoffs for Howard’s bets all the greater. The filly trained with the alarm clock, a 70-1 long shot, smoked a giant field right out of the gate to win the biggest juvenile race of the season, paying $143.60 for every $2 bet, a meet record. Smith won so much that he started to make the papers almost daily. The racetrackers were soon calling the winner’s circle “Howard’s Half Acre,” and Barn 38 was the track’s runaway leader in wins.

  Howard and Smith came to an understanding. Howard called his trainer Tom; Smith, without fail, called his employer Mr. Howard. The Howards came to the barn almost every morning, and Charles stayed on, sometimes for fourteen hours at a stretch. He brought in a big truck of a saddle horse named Chulo so he could ride out with Smith on the track. But he knew his place. He didn’t mess with Smith’s business. For a hands-on executive like Howard, the urge to tinker must have been strong, but he was smart enough to recognize superior understanding, no matter how bizarre the training practices looked. “Mr. Howard pays me for results,” Smith once said. “He doesn’t ask questions.” In turn, Smith put up with Howard’s love of the spotlight, the long stream of friends and reporters he brought to the barn, his need to be in the center of things. To a point. If Howard’s friends got too close to his horses, Smith would snap at them to get back. The union had its rough points, but it worked.

  Howard was hungry for more winning. As the spring waned, they decided to take the show on the road. The horses would go to a little track in Michigan called the Detroit Fair Grounds. Smith was sent on alone, farther east, on a different mission. Howard wanted some mature horses to augment his fleet of juveniles. Howard had the kind of money to turn the head of any major-league owner, and he could have used it to acquire a ready-made stable of proven runners. But Howard didn’t want to take the easy route. He wanted a bargain animal whose talent had been overlooked by the old-money lords of eastern racing. He knew he had the trainer who could find him. In June 1936 Smith arrived in Massachusetts. He traveled from track to track, looking at hundreds of cheap horses, but he couldn’t find the one he sought. On the sweltering afternoon of June 29, at Boston’s Suffolk Downs, the horse found him.

  The colt was practically sneering at him. Smith was standing by the track rail, weighing the angles and gestures of low-level horses as they streamed to the post, when a weedy three-year-old bay stopped short in front of him, swung his head high, and eyed him with an arch expression completely unsuited to such a rough-hewn animal. “He looked right down his nose at me,” Smith remembered later, “like he was saying, ‘Who the devil are you?’” Man and horse stood on opposite sides of the rail for a long moment, sizing each other up.4 An image materialized in Smith’s mind: the Colorado ranges, a tough little cow horse. The pony boy leading the colt to the post tugged him on his way. Smith watched the animal’s rump swing around and go. Thin, yes, but he had an engine on him.

  Smith flipped to the horse’s profile in the track program. The colt was a descendant of the mighty Man o’ War through his sire, the brilliantly fast, exceptionally handsome Hard Tack, but his stunted build reflected none of the beauty and breadth of his forebears. The colt’s body, built low to the ground, had all the properties of a cinder block. Where Hard Tack had been tall, sleek, tapered, every line suggesting motion, his son was blunt, coarse, rectangular, stationary. He had a sad little tail, barely long enough to brush his hocks. His stubby legs were a study in unsound construction, with squarish, asymmetrical “baseball glove” knees that didn’t quite straighten all the way, leaving him in a permanent semicrouch. Thanks to his unfortunate assembly, his walk was an odd, straddle-legged motion that was often mistaken for lameness. Asked to run, he would drop low over the track and fall into a comical version of what horsemen call an eggbeater gait, making a spastic sideways flailing motion with his left foreleg as he swung it forward, as if he were swatting at flies. His gallop was so disorganized that he had a maddening tendency to whack himself in the front ankle with his own hind hoof. One observer compared his action to a duck waddle.5 All of this raggedness was not helped by his racing schedule. His career had been noteworthy only in its appalling rigor. Though only three years old, he had already run forty-three races, far more than most horses contest in their entire careers.

  But somehow, after throwing a fit in the starting gate and being left flat-footed at the bell, the colt won his race that day. While being unsaddled, he leveled his wide-set, intelligent eyes on Smith again. Smith liked that look, and nodded at the horse. “Darned if the little rascal didn’t nod back at me,” Smith said later, “kinda like he was paying me an honor to notice me.” He was a horse whose quality, an admirer would write, “was mostly in his heart, and Tom Smith had been the first to recognize it.”6 A man for whom words were encumbrances, Smith didn’t take note of the horse’s name, but he memorized him nonetheless. He
spoke to the horse as he was led away.

  “I’ll see you again.”7

  The horse’s name was Seabiscuit, and for a bent-backed trainer on the other side of the backstretch, the brief exchange of glances between the horse and Tom Smith was the beginning of the end of a long, pounding headache. In 1877, when James Fitzsimmons was three, the Coney Island Jockey Club annexed his family’s Brooklyn neighborhood and literally built a track around his house, leaving it standing in the infield while the racing world revolved around it.8, 9 “Sunny Jim,” as admirers called him, was thus entangled in the racetrack from the beginning of his conscious life. He never escaped it. “All I ever wanted to do,” he once said, “was be with the horses.” At age ten he worked as a dishwasher in the track kitchen. He moved on to a harrowing career as an exercise boy, then became a jockey. “I was vaccinated for jockey,” he liked to say, “but it didn’t take.” He survived a rocky reinsman’s career, then hung it up to try his hand at training. He had found his niche.

  Fitzsimmons soon established himself as the most successful conditioner of Thoroughbreds in the nation. That June he was sixty-one and imprisoned in a body so ravaged by arthritis that his upper spine was slowly collapsing forward, driving his head so far downward that in time he would have to learn to identify his horses solely by their feet. He coaxed a phenomenal amount of work out of his rigid body, laboring so hard over his horses through the week that he had to sleep straight through Sunday to recover. The work paid off: Fitzsimmons had cultivated the talents of myriad champions, including Gallant Fox and Omaha, two of the first three horses to sweep the Kentucky Derby, Preakness Stakes, and Belmont Stakes—the Triple Crown. His greatness was beyond question. His was a household name across America, and trainers regarded him with profound reverence. Tom Smith was no exception. Fitzsimmons was apparently the only man whom Smith ever regarded with awe.

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