Seabiscuit: An American Legend by Laura Hillenbrand

  Like all athletic greats, Woolf was a driving perfectionist. He abruptly sold his tack and announced his retirement in disgust over a ride he thought was poor. After being briefly suspended for making a mistake in a race at Tijuana in 1930, he stomped up to the jockeys’ room, cleaned out his locker, lugged everything outside, heaped it into a big pile, and set the whole mass on fire.32 “Me, ride again?” he said. “No siree.” He then jumped into his convertible, sped all the way to Canada, stopped at the first Mountie station he found and tried to enlist. Rejected for his diminutive stature, he sequestered himself in the Canadian wilderness, “a-huntin’ and a-fishin’.” Months later he reappeared in the jockeys’ room and went back to riding the hide off of every jockey in town.

  As Woolf matured and honed his craft, his moments of self-loathing gave way to quiet, unwavering confidence. He was greatness fully realized, and he knew it. Where other elite athletes betray their doubts about their capacities with displays of touchy egotism, Woolf was utterly insouciant. He could not be rattled. “George,” remembered racing official Chick Lang, “was a guy that you could put on a street corner, and two cars would have a head-on collision right in front of him, and he would say, ‘Gee, look at that,’ while everybody else would be running in all directions.” He seemed devoid of fear. On the track, while other riders flailed and winced and scratched their way around, the Iceman “sat chilly,” as loose as water, his legs and hands supple and still. Photographers shooting races would record jockeys in various attitudes of strain; in the middle of it all would be Woolf, smiling the way a man does when he humors a child. While other riders dragged themselves to the barn to gallop horses at 4:00 A.M. seven days a week, compelled by a biting fear that their skills would wane or trainers would forget them, Woolf slept in, rarely showing up at the track before noon.30 “He was a better rider than most of us, and he knew it,” remembered fellow jockey Mosbacher.33 “So he just kind of took the easier way.”

  Woolf was an uncensored man, in word and deed. “As a jockey,” wrote Red Pollard’s friend David Alexander, a columnist for the Morning Telegraph, “Woolf is noted for doing exactly the right thing at exactly the right time. He is also noted for saying what some persons consider the wrong thing at the wrong time.”34 When asked a direct question, he could be counted on to say something so bald—and undeniable—that he would leave everyone around him gaping. After losing one major race on a highly regarded runner, he flatly told the national press, surely to the horror of the owner, that the horse just wasn’t any good. On the night after Woolf won a top stakes race, the owner of the winning horse called to invite him to a postrace soirée with the moneyed set. “You tell ’em,” Woolf replied, kicking back with a big steak, a long, cool beer, and a group of his roughneck friends, “that if the horse had got beat, they wouldn’t invite us over. We got a party of our own.”35

  “Woolf,” remembered his close friend Bill Buck, “done what Woolf wanted to do.” Throughout his career, if he felt like taking a day off, he’d just pack up and go, leaving his exasperated agent and jilted trainers hunting for him. On one occasion, after he failed to appear for several potentially lucrative races, his agent found him starring in a bull-riding exhibition. He once vanished without a trace a few days before the Preakness Stakes, throwing the entire Maryland racing community, including an owner who wanted him to ride one of the race favorites, into an uproar. He glided back to civilization three days later, tanned and happy. While driving through Pennsylvania he had simply happened upon a beautiful lake, pulled over, and taken an impromptu fishing vacation in perfect serenity. When he disappeared on another afternoon, horsemen eventually found him in a crowd watching a visiting Montana rodeo.36 A trick rider had claimed that he could jump a car while riding two horses simultaneously, “Roman” style—a foot in one stirrup of each. Woolf called his bluff and volunteered his gleaming new Cord roadster for the job. The horses nicked the car up pretty good but made it over. Woolf felt the spectacle was worth the price of new paint and a furious agent.

  Only his contract trainer, Whitey, was unfazed by his jockey’s behavior. This needled Woolf. To raise Whitey’s blood pressure a bit, Woolf started delaying his horses’ rallies until the last possible second.37 He would send a friend to sit nearby and watch the color drain from Whitey’s face as Woolf waited, and waited, and waited before driving for the lead just when it seemed too late. Whitey surely whitened a little more with every closing kick, but the Iceman knew what he was doing. Incredibly, Woolf’s timing was so good that he rode for more than a decade before he was beaten in a photo finish of a stakes race.38

  Woolf was fanatical about clean riding. He never initiated any rough riding tactics, and took justice into his own hands when anyone fouled him. He was known to haul off and crack offending riders right in the mouth with his whip, then frankly tell the stewards exactly what he’d done when a lie could have gotten him out of trouble. He rode claiming races with as much zeal as he rode the Santa Anita Handicap. He was also not above a little playful heckling; a few choice words from the Iceman could spook his rivals into blowing their game plans.

  George Woolf, from the very beginning, stood a rung above Red Pollard. While Pollard bedded down in a horse stall at night and grazed out of the track kitchen, Woolf lived in the comfort of Whitey’s house, eating home-cooked meals. Pollard would never escape Woolf’s shadow, but he was not a jealous man. “I know George,” he would laugh. “Big head, little ass, and roars like a lion.”39 Pollard, famously, tried to take credit for giving Woolf the nickname Iceman, explaining it thus: “In all the smoking-car stories I have ever heard, icemen and traveling salesmen were very immoral characters. George does not have a pleasing enough personality to be a traveling salesman.”40

  Woolf replied in the same vein. “You don’t have to be an athlete to be a jockey,” he told a reporter. “Why, Red Pollard is one of the smartest jockeys in the country today, and he doesn’t have the strength to blow out a candle.”41

  In those early days, Pollard and Woolf found common ground in their quick minds, cerebral riding styles, and keen senses of humor. On the backstretch of Vancouver Race Course in the summer of 1927, a friendship was forged in the crucible of the racetrack and adolescence. It would endure long into manhood and bind them together in history.


  Fatally injured when his horse collided with another runner, jockey Wallace Leischman lies on the track at Bay Meadows Racecourse, 1939.


  1 In 1991, George Pratt, Ph.D., of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology used high speed cameras, race films, and computer analysis to gauge the speed of high-class quarter horses at Los Alamitos Racecourse, recording a top speed of 52½ miles per hour for one horse. According to Pratt’s analysis, quarter mile world record setter Truckle Feature had a peak speed of just under 80 feet per second, or 54 mph. Note that this reflects top speed, not average speed over a distance, which would be slower.

  Chapter 5


  On a Saturday afternoon in July 1938, a half-starved teenager wandered into a bus station in Columbus, Ohio, appearing confused and disoriented. A policeman approached and tried to speak with him, but the boy seemed not to know his own name. In his pockets the officer found $112, a bus ticket for Petersburg, Illinois, and documents that identified him as Thomas Dowell, an obscure local jockey.1 Seeing that Dowell was in profound distress, the officer took him to the police station, where a police surgeon sat with him and tried to find out what was wrong. Dowell remained mute but appeared deeply shaken. Concerned that the boy might get hurt if released, the doctor sat him down in a holding cell and left to telephone his mother.

  While the officer was gone, Dowell slipped his belt off, coiled it around his neck, and hanged himself.

  When word of the suicide made its way to the backstretch, no one seemed surprised. In his brief career Dowell had learned what Red Pollard, George Woolf, and countle
ss other riders had long since known. A jockey’s life was nothing short of appalling. No athletes suffered more for their sport. The jockey lived hard and lean and tended to die young, trampled under the hooves of horses or imploding from the pressures of his vocation.

  For three years Dowell had known the singular strain of the jockey’s job, torturing his body to keep it at an inhumanly low weight, groveling for mounts in the mornings and enduring punishing violence in the afternoons, waiting in vain for the “big horse” that would bear him from poverty and peril. Dowell was no anomaly, and everyone on the backstretch knew it. His was a life no different from that of almost every other jockey. Under its terrific weight, Dowell had come undone.

  They called the scale “the Oracle,” and they lived in slavery to it. In the 1920s and 1930s, the imposts, or weights horses were assigned to carry in races, generally ranged from 83 pounds to 130 or more, depending on the rank of the horse and the importance of the race. A rider could be no more than 5 pounds over the assigned weight or he would be taken off the horse. Some trainers trimmed that leeway down to just a half pound. To make weight in anything but high-class stakes races, jockeys had to keep their weight to no more than 114 pounds. Riders competing in ordinary weekday events needed to whittle themselves down another 5 pounds or so, while those in the lowest echelons of the sport couldn’t weigh much more than 100. The lighter a rider was, the greater the number of horses he could ride. “Some riders,” wrote Eddie Arcaro, “will all but saw their legs off to get within the limit.”2

  A few riders were naturally tiny enough to make weight without difficulty, and they earned the burning envy of every other jockey. Most of them were young teenagers whose growth spurts lay ahead of them. To ensure that they didn’t waste time and money training and supporting boys who would eventually grow out of their trade, contract trainers checked the foot size of every potential bug boy, since a large foot is a fairly good sign of a coming growth spurt. Many also inspected the height and weight of a potential bug boy’s siblings. Trainer Woody Stephens, who began his racing career as a bug boy in the late 1920s, always felt he got lucky in this respect. In vetting him for the job, his trainer neglected to look at his sister, a local basketball phenom.

  Virtually every adult rider, and most of the kids, naturally tended to weigh too much. Cheating, if you did it right, could help a little. One pudgy 140-pound rider earned a place in reinsman legend by fooling a profoundly myopic clerk of scales by skewing the readout to register him at 110. No one is exactly sure how he did it, but it is believed that either he positioned his feet on a nonregistering part of the scale or his valet stuck his whip under his seat and lifted up. He made it through an entire season before someone caught him.

  Most jockeys took a more straightforward approach: the radical diet, consisting of six hundred calories a day. Red Pollard went as long as a year eating nothing but eggs. Sunny Jim Fitzsimmons confessed that during his riding days a typical dinner consisted of a leaf or two of lettuce, and he would eat them only after placing them on a windowsill to dry the water out of them.3 Water, because of its weight, was the prime enemy, and jockeys went to absurd lengths to keep it out of their systems. Most drank virtually nothing. A common practice was to have jockeys’ room valets open soda cans by puncturing the top with an ice pick, making it impossible to drink more than a few drops at a time. The sight and sound of water became a torment; Fitzsimmons habitually avoided areas of the barn where horses were being washed because the spectacle of flowing water was agonizing.4

  But the weight maximums were so low that near fasting and water deprivation weren’t enough. Even what little water and calories the body had taken in had to be eliminated. Many riders were “heavers,” poking their fingers down their throats to vomit up their meals. Others chewed gum to trigger salivation; Tommy Luther could spit off as much as half a pound in a few hours. Then there were the sweating rituals, topped by “road work.”5 This practice, used by both Red Pollard and George Woolf, involved donning heavy underwear, zipping into a rubber suit, swaddling in hooded winter gear and woolen horse blankets, then running around and around the track, preferably under a blistering summer sun. Stephens remembered seeing jockeys in full road-work attire gathering at a bowling alley, so lathered that sweat spouted from their shoes with each step. After road work, there were Turkish baths, where jockeys congregated for mornings of communal sweating. The desiccation practices of jockeys were lampooned by turf writer Joe H. Palmer in a column written on jockey Abelardo DeLara: “DeLara has to sweat off about two pounds a day to make weight.6 Last year, by his own estimate, he lost about 600 pounds this way. Since he weighs about 110, it is a mere matter of arithmetic that he would be a bit more than 700 pounds if he hadn’t reduced so regularly.”

  Most jockeys ingested every manner of laxative to purge their systems of food and water. Diarrhea became the constant companion of many riders, some of whom became virtuosos of defecation.7 Helen Luther once watched a rider step on a scale, only to see that he was over his horse’s assigned impost. He shouted to the clerk of scales to hang on, raced to the bathroom, emerged a moment later with his pants still at half mast, and made weight. Such results could be had from a variety of products, including a stomach-turning mix of Epsom salts and water—chased by two fingers of rye to stop the gagging reflex—a plant-derived purgative called jalap, or bottles of a wretched-tasting formula known as Pluto Water.

  But the undisputed champ of the purgatives was born in the enterprising mind of a jockey’s masseur named Frank “Frenchy” Hawley.8 Prowling around the Tijuana jockeys’ room in reassuringly medical-looking Dr. Kildare attire, Frenchy was the self-appointed mad scientist of the racing world. Operating out of a gleaming-white training room, Frenchy stocked every manner of weight-loss facilitator, including electric blankets, infrared lamps, electric light cabinets, baking machines, “violet-rays,” vibrating contraptions, and rubber sleeping bags and sheets. He also dreamed up a particularly foul-smelling recipe for self-parboiling that required riders to steep for up to thirty-five minutes (fewer if they became dizzy) in piping-hot water mixed with three to five pounds of Epsom salts, one quart of white vinegar, two ounces of household ammonia, and a mystery lather he called Hawley’s Cream. He kept careful records of the weight he had stripped from riders. By 1945, it totaled 12,860 pounds—more than six tons.

  One of Frenchy’s cardinal rules of reducing was to “keep the contents of the bowels moving down and out steadily and regularly.” To devise a mix that would bring this about, he tinkered around with God knows what until he stumbled upon a home brew that delivered a ferocious kick. The caustic laxative worked so well that Hawley marketed it commercially under the disarmingly innocuous name Slim Jim. Former jockey Bill Buck remembered it with a shiver: “It’d kill you.” He wasn’t kidding. Frenchy’s bowel scourer proved to be so fabulously potent that bottles of it spontaneously exploded in the jockeys’ room lavatory. Imagining their intestines going out in a similar blaze of glory, even the jockeys began to fear it, and Hawley’s Slim Jim experiment went down the tubes.

  For jockeys who were truly desperate, there was one last resort. Contact the right people, and you could get hold of a special capsule, a simple pill guaranteed to take off all the weight you wanted. In it was the egg of a tapeworm. Within a short while the parasite would attach to a man’s intestines and slowly suck the nutrients out of him. The pounds would peel away like magic. When the host jockey became too malnourished, he could check into a hospital to have the worm removed, then return to the track and swallow a new pill. Red Pollard may have resorted to this solution.

  In denying their bodies the most basic necessities, jockeys demonstrated incredible fortitude. They paid a fearsome price. Most walked around in a state of critical dehydration and malnutrition and as a result were irritable, volatile, light-headed, bleary, nauseated, gaunt, and crampy. The heavers, exposing their mouths to repeated onslaughts of stomach acid, lost the enamel on their teeth and eventually
the teeth themselves. Other jockeys suffered bouts of weakness so severe that when boosted into the saddle they would fall right off the other side. Dehydration left them so prone to overheating, even in mild weather, that their valets prepared huge bins of ice cubes into which they could flop to cool off. Other riders suffered fainting spells or hallucinated.

  Many jockeys’ bodies could not function under the strain. To take off enough weight to ride a horse in Windsor, Canada, Sonny Greenberg steamed in a Turkish bath, guzzled Epsom salts mixed with jalap, took a boat from Detroit to Windsor—vomiting all the way—donned a rubber suit over several layers of heavy clothing, and ran around and around the track. He staggered into the woods, collapsed, and either fell asleep or fainted. He awoke in a pool of sweat, and tried to clear his disorientation by downing a half-ounce of whiskey. Dragging himself to a scale, he found that he had suffered away ten and a half pounds in one night. It was all for naught. By post time he was too weak even to sit upright in a saddle. He gave someone else the mount, and retired soon afterward.

  Greenberg escaped without permanent damage, but others, including Fitzsimmons, may not have been so lucky. Severe reducing was thought to be the culprit behind an epidemic of fatal lung diseases, such as pneumonia and tuberculosis, among jockeys.9 Other long-term health problems may also have stemmed from reducing practices. In a single day, to make weight on a horse, Fitzsimmons endured purgatives, an entire afternoon in a Turkish bath, heavy exercise on horseback and on foot while swaddled in several sweaters and a muffler, topped off with an hour standing inches from a roaring brick kiln. He lost thirteen pounds.10 Thick-tongued and groggy, he won the race by a nose but couldn’t repeat the weight-loss performance and retired from the saddle not much later. He soon experienced the first shooting pains from the severe arthritis that would grotesquely disfigure his body. He came to believe that that one terrible day of reducing may have triggered the onset of the crippling disease.

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