Bestseller Seabiscuit earns its reputation.
Thursday, May 3, 2001
Yeah, yeah--Thunder who? Your average citizen at the gas pump doesn''t know the chestnut colt with the royal pedigree from Adam. Or care, for that matter. But there was a time, before WrestleMania and multimillion-dollar baseball contracts, when people huddled around their radios to hear the Whirlaways and Citations of the world making history on the homestretches of Hialeah and Pimlico.
And, writes Laura Hillenbrand in the preface to her bestselling Seabiscuit: An American Legend, there was a moment when "the year''s number-one newsmaker was not Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Hitler or Mussolini... It was an undersized, crooked-legged racehorse named Seabiscuit." Horse racing might properly be called the sport of kings, but during the Great Depression, it drew paupers as well as princes, and no horse appealed more to the downtrodden American masses of 1938 than Seabiscuit.
Overworked and underappreciated, Seabiscuit had run 43 unimpressive races by the time he was three, and his overeating and laziness--he hated morning workouts and slept as much as he could, usually lying down--were not helping to distinguish his middling record. Moreover, when running, he would "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."
But then onetime mustang trainer Tom Smith, himself a peculiar bird, saw one of Seabiscuit''s rare displays of speed and concentration in 1936. He recognized something special in the scrubby grandson of Man o'' War, and he convinced San Francisco auto mogul Charles Howard to buy the horse.
Respect, attention and unconventional training methods brought out Seabiscuit''s brilliance. Under Smith''s eye and the expert hand of jaunty, carrot-topped jockey Red Pollard, Seabiscuit was breaking track records all over the place in no time. Though the East Coast racing establishment sneered at the Californian upstart, in 1938 Seabiscuit took on the previous year''s Triple Crown winner, the hotheaded War Admiral, in an unforgettable one-on-one race.
Despite their gleaming victories, both Seabiscuit''s and Pollard''s careers were riddled with heartbreaking defeats and spells of bad luck (Pollard in particular suffered terribly from several injuries). By the end of the book, you have to wonder if it was worth it. Jockeys, the author dutifully reports, went through hell in those days, almost killing themselves sweating off weight and enjoying no job security or medical care whatsoever. In fact, it''s as much Pollard''s story as it is Seabiscuit''s--only Howard takes Seabiscuit back to his Northern California ranch to retire and Pollard dies in poverty.
Taken as a whole, Seabiscuit is a great read. Unfortunately, it breaks slow from the gate, to borrow a phrase. The first plodding biographical chapters about Howard and Smith are, frankly, discouraging. But by the time Seabiscuit makes his quirky entrance (after Hillenbrand teases it out with some not-so-subtle foreshadowing--a device she relies upon a little too heavily throughout), there''s no putting the book down. The race scenes are spellbinding and the wealth of information is astounding.
Hillenbrand put her freelance career on hiatus for four years to research this book. In the best kind of journalistic alchemy, she''s patched together countless clippings, interviews, letters and track records into a seamless story that pulses with immediacy and vibrant detail. Though not precisely a masterpiece, its quality suggests that we haven''t heard the last of Laura Hillenbrand.
Seabiscuit: An American Legend, by Laura Hillenbrand, Random House, 2001, $24.95.