A Runt That Dominated the Sport of Kings


An American Legend

By Laura Hillenbrand

Random House -- 399pp -- $24.95

I have at best a passing acquaintance with the sport of kings. And it was forged largely as a result of geographical accident. My home in Baltimore is about a half-mile from the back stretch at Pimlico Race Course, site of the Preakness Stakes, the second jewel in racing's Triple Crown. Mostly, I associate that spectacle with boozed-up, lawn-chair-toting fans parading up the block and, after the race, hurling styrofoam coolers into the azaleas in our front yard.

Now, after reading Laura Hillenbrand's penetrating and thoughtful Seabiscuit: An American Legend, I feel a bit sheepish about my resentment. I had no idea that the track around the corner was such hallowed ground. On Nov. 1, 1938, Pimlico hosted one of racing's most celebrated duels: a match between Seabiscuit and archrival War Admiral, the reigning Triple Crown winner. Seabiscuit won handily before a crowd of 40,000--the track's seating capacity was less than half that--and went on to attain near-mythic status.

Hillenbrand, a contributing writer at Equus magazine, is a deft storyteller whose descriptions of such races are especially good, filled with images of pounding hooves and splattering mud. But Seabiscuit is more than a horse story. It is an account of the flowering of mass-spectator sport in an age when the public was starved for distraction. It also is an absorbing tale of the three quirky humans who brought out the best in Seabiscuit.

In the midst of the gloom of the Great Depression, the country lifted its gaze to a new pantheon of heroes. One of the most revered just happened to have four legs and a stubby tail. Seabiscuit earned his status on the basis of speed: From 1934 to 1940, he won 33 races and set 13 records at eight different tracks. But the horse also had heart, once recovering from a ruptured ligament that would have put most thoroughbreds out to pasture.

Timing also contributed to the Seabiscuit legend. As the horse was coming to prominence in 1935, racetrack betting had only recently been made legal again, after years of being banned. Newly legitimized, thoroughbred racing began drawing throngs of fans back to the nation's tracks. New mass media stoked interest, too. "People accustomed to reading comparatively dry rehashes of events were now enthralled by vivid scenes rolling across the new Movietone newsreels," Hillenbrand writes. Radio created even greater immediacy, having become a presence in 90% of American households by the time Seabiscuit nosed the finish line for the last time, in 1940.

Seabiscuit became a true pop star: In 1938, Hillenbrand notes, the beloved steed got more newspaper column inches than Franklin Delano Roosevelt or Adolf Hitler. Mundane workouts became major spectator events, sometimes drawing as many as 40,000 fans. In 1939, Hillenbrand notes, promoters of the San Francisco World's Fair wanted to "make Seabiscuit an exhibit," proposing to build a special paddock and walking ring. (The offer was declined.) The mud-colored horse's likeness loomed over Manhattan on massive billboards.

Seabiscuit would have gone nowhere, however, had it not been for the efforts of three men. The first, Charles Howard, 26 and restless for adventure, headed West to open a bicycle-repair shop at the turn of the century and soon became owner of the first Buick dealership in San Francisco. By 1934, the extroverted Howard was rich, and a friend suggested that he invest in racehorses. He agreed. Among his purchases was a three-year-old runt who had been a maddeningly erratic racer. Seabiscuit's price: $8,000. (Before trotting off to stud, Seabiscuit's race earnings totaled a then-record $437,000, or, notes Hillenbrand, "nearly 60 times his price.")

As Hillenbrand portrays them, trainer Tom Smith and jockey Red Pollard were opposites who worked miracles together. Smith was a taciturn, cagey tactician and a shrewd evaluator of talent. A reporter once quipped: "Tom Smith says almost nothing, constantly." In contrast, Pollard was an outgoing thrill-seeker. He twice suffered horrible spills resulting in serious injuries. The second accident, five months before the Seabiscuit-War Admiral showdown, nearly sheared off his right leg below the knee. After lengthy recoveries, and against doctors' advice, he returned both times to ride Seabiscuit to victory.

Occasionally Hillenbrand oversells her story. Of an important race, she writes: "For as long as they lived, spectators would regard what they saw next as the most extraordinary feat they ever witnessed in sport." Even if they had, how would we know?

That's a small quibble, though, given the quality of her writing and dogged reporting. Following the main text are seven pages of acknowledgements and 35 pages of notes detailing the author's sources. As a result of Hillenbrand's pursuit of details, the narrative has a texture seldom found in sports biographies. Among her timely coups: an interview with Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt Jr., who as the twentysomething owner of Pimlico in the 1930s was the man most responsible for Seabiscuit's historic meeting with War Admiral. Vanderbilt died in 1999.

If they were alive today to read Seabiscuit, Howard, Smith, and Pollard would no doubt get a kick out of seeing the proud horse making one more comeback. The publicity blitz isn't over, either. Coming soon to a theater near you: Seabiscuit: The Movie.

By Mark Hyman

Hyman is a contributing editor for Sports Business.

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