For those who consider sporting events using animals a form of cruelty, I can’t say I disagree. Approaching a book about the heyday of horse racing, I held exactly that opinion and waited to be vindicated with examples of man’s damage to the lower kingdom. Throughout the development of our civilization, animals have been right alongside us, toiling, faithful. Whether as beasts of burden or distraction from burden, they have given wordless cooperation to insurmountable demands. In amongst the countless stories of family dogs traveling miles toward reunion exist the same number of stories in which neglect and anger transfigure an animal into a shadow. And while horse racing is one of the oldest and most accepted forms of sport, it has similar contradictions. For every horse treated incredibly well, there is one treated ill and in all manner in between: horses raced past their prime, over-raced and doctored to extremes of performance. So while I can’t say that I don’t still thrill to moments when animals attack, in a grand evening-up of the cosmic survival game, the story of Seabiscuit thrilled me also.
Laura Hillenbrand’s Seabiscuit: An American Legend rose to the top of the New York Times bestseller list last year, not from the sheer numbers of dedicated horse racing fans out there, but from the nature of the writing and the likeability of its players. Seabiscuit is genuinely a tale of personality, and while all my coursework in English tells me that personality can’t apply to horses, here it particularly applies to Seabiscuit. Sired by Hard Tack, son of legendary Man o’ War, Seabiscuit was the most unlikely inheritor of a bloodline rich with both speed and bad temper. Where Hard Tack was structurally handsome, Seabiscuit was short and stumpy. Where Hard Tack was uncontrollable, Seabiscuit was lazy to a fault. It would take a combination of auto baron financing, skillful handling and unconditional love to transform what everyone described as a “cow pony” into a symbol of national reverence.
Hillenbrand does skillful work, interweaving the drier details of the sport—weight imposts, track conditions, training regimens—with some of the most colorful aspects of the people and horses involved. Like listening to any good storyteller, there’s a measure of education in the yarn. Hillenbrand devotes a great deal of time to explaining the history and construct of horseracing, from the lowly groom to the old-money families trading in tradition, everyone a study in devotion and doubt. And Seabiscuit is full of characters. Truly remarkable is the concurrence of lives: Charles Howard, a West Coast bike repairman who capitalized on the burgeoning auto trade to make millions; with Tom Smith, a ranch hand who preferred horses to people; with Red Pollard, the Emerson-quoting jockey who would do anything to keep riding, even after losing sight in one eye; with Seabiscuit, the horse whose champion qualities lay dormant until just such a recipe for success was concocted.
In the post-Depression, pre-television ’30s, escapism was key. Radio and film audiences ate, drank and slept celebrity, and in 1937 were given the homeliest star to follow. Purchased for $8,000 by Howard (then a relatively large sum for a horse without a winning record; the heritage was still significant), brilliantly and unconventionally trained by Smith and ridden symbiotically by Pollard, Seabiscuit displayed amazing speed for a stout horse that often ate his own bedding. Seabiscuit’s initial disgust with running developed into a competitive drive that made him one of the most interesting horses to watch on the track, holding back and taunting his opponents until given a bit of rein by Pollard that signaled him to run unchecked. When Seabiscuit was at the top of his form, there was no horse better, and Hillenbrand relates the highs and lows of his magnificent career with a devotion of her own, making it impossible not to become enraptured, follower or denouncer. The meeting between Seabiscuit and War Admiral, both sons of Man o’ War but worlds apart, is considered by many to be the greatest match ever. Hillenbrand recounts it in meticulous, cliff-hanging style, the distillation of newspaper articles, racing forms and recorded race into a filmic vision—116.6 seconds of the purest essence of the sport.
As in every remarkable play of events, there is a nadir to the zenith, and the legend of Seabiscuit is replete with injury, heartbreak and plain circumstance. Jockeys withstand the most unhealthy, belittling conditions imaginable, only to be critically injured in the blink of an eye. Fortune follows favor and freak accidents, and the weather can have more effect on a race than anything else. Hillenbrand is an accomplished teller of this, filling her book with evocative and unforgettable trivia: jockeys in Tijuana burying themselves in decomposing manure piles to sweat off weight, the infamous tapeworm capsule, the dirty tricks of race-fixing.
What comes to the fore of Hillenbrand’s depiction of these singular subjects is the way in which they grow into an inseparable unit, bound by dedication to one another. The stodgy and spirited Seabiscuit becomes so much a part of the consciousness of these men and the nation as a whole, that once the last race is run, few can forget him. Unlike his temperamental brethren, he drew scores of fans and patiently let them photograph and touch him. The ultimate underdog, his life spoke to millions finally waking from a grim period in the American dream. In Seabiscuit, there lived a spark of the mustang, however tempered and trained, still evident in those moments when given his head on the home stretch. Like watching rapids fall or the swoop of an eagle, it must have been breathtaking.