Seabiscuit: An American Legend Summary


Chapter 1: The Day of the Horse is Past

In 1903, Charles Howard leaves his home and family in New York and travels west to seek his livelihood. Arriving in San Francisco with twenty-one cents in his pocket, he uses his charm to borrow enough money to open a small bicycle repair shop. Soon, locals who had been foolish enough to purchase a new contraption—the horseless carriage, or automobile—appear at Howard's door, seeking his advice on repairing the machines. A visionary, Howard notes the advantages the steel beasts have over the current mode of transport, the horse. He travels to Detroit to convince Will Durant, the chief of Buick and future founder of General Motors, to give him the company's automobile sales franchise for San Francisco.

On April 18, 1906, the San Francisco earthquake, registering 7.8 on the Richter scale, alters the course of Howard's life. The earthquake causes hundreds of deaths, thousands of injuries, fractured streets and roads, and major fires. Horses and people flee. Snatching opportunity in the midst of adversity, Howard offers his previously useless Buicks as ambulances and transport, proving the worth of the automobile and eventually creating enormous wealth for himself.

Chapter 2: The Lone Plainsman

Tom Smith is an archetypal cowboy, an original against which all others are compared. He is a man of the open plains who drifts from job to job and is more comfortable in the company of horses than he is with humans. While working for the garrulous and gargantuan Charlie Irwin, owner of the largest racing stable in the country, Smith learns that the horse with the fastest breakout from the starting gate is usually the winner. Irwin notes Smith's way with animals and makes him a trainer. After Irwin's untimely death in an automobile accident, Smith drifts from job to job until he is introduced to Charles Howard.

Chapter 3: Mean, Restive and Ragged

Howard wants to increase his thoroughbred holdings, but he is more intrigued by spirit than by breeding. In 1936, he sends Smith east to scout for horses. After attending several auctions and discounting numerous possibilities, on June 29, Smith is standing by a paddock when the perfect horse finds him. An unlikely descendant of champion lines, the horse surveys the trainer with haughty indifference, and Smith knows he has found his winner. The horse has attitude.

The horse's current trainer, James Fitzsimmons, is, according to Hillenbrand, "the only man whom Smith ever regarded with awe." Fitzsimmons had trained Hard Tack, a Triple Crown winner and the son of the legendary Man o' War. Consequently, he had inherited Hard Tack's sons, Grog and Seabiscuit, both of which had little resemblance to their sire. Fitzsimmons notes the two things Seabiscuit did best were sleep and eat; his assessment of the animal's ability is that he is lazy. But Smith, and later Howard, see potential. The sale is finalized and they begin searching for a jockey.

Chapter 4: The Cougar and the Iceman

The candidate for jockey is almost as unlikely as the steed. Johnny Pollard, dubbed Red for his carrot-colored hair, is an oversized intellectual who, Hillenbrand remarks, "is one of the worst riders anywhere." After a rocky start, Pollard signs on as an apprentice jockey or "bug boy," so named for the asterisk beside a novice's listings in the race program that looks like a bug. During this time, most bug boys are young runaways or orphans who are overworked, barely paid, and bulimic in order to maintain weight requirements. They are frequently traded, sold, or lost in card games without their consent. As Pollard's skill with difficult mounts becomes obvious, his lack of skill as a rider is overlooked and he is viewed as a specialist who could ride any steed offered to him. In addition to a growing reputation, Pollard gains his first real friend, veteran jockey George Woolf, nicknamed the Iceman for his unflappable style.

Chapter 5: A Boot on One Foot, a Toe Tag on the Other

The life of a jockey in these early days of racing is not an ideal one. Their lives are chained to making a successful impost, the weight each horse is permitted to carry in a particular contest. From purgatives to laxatives to starvation, the young men fight to stay thin while they are often housed in the corner of the horse stall. These conditions produce not only malnutrition and dehydration but also lead to weakened immune systems and a tendency to be accident-prone. In addition to their physical condition, the riders live in constant fear of being thrown from or pinned under their huge mounts. Yet, through it all, they maintain an illusion of invincibility.

Chapter 6: Light and Shadow

In 1928, Pollard and Woolf parlay their friendship into racetrack legend. With Pollard as the tamer of wild beasts and Woolf as the charismatic media darling, they become racetrack celebrities in Mexico. As their reputation in the Tijuana circuit grows, however, so do their personal problems. For Woolf, a diagnosis of Type I diabetes produces bouts of sleepiness and a tendency to gain weight; for Pollard, a small rock or clump of dirt launched into his eye by a passing horse results in permanent blindness on his right side. Keeping their conditions secret, the jockeys continue to ride.

The racing culture in Tijuana crumbles in 1934 when Mexico bans gambling. By then, however, California has reinstituted pari-mutuel betting, which offers the state a percentage of the take, and has sanctioned the opening of Santa Anita Park. After returning to the United States, the friends part ways; Woolf 's career grows, resulting in better and faster mounts, while Pollard backslides into oblivion. Two years later, Pollard, destitute and broken, wanders into Detroit, begging for jobs. Trainers laugh him away as he wanders from stall to stall until Tom Smith extends his hand and introduces the jockey to Seabiscuit.

Chapter 7: Learn Your Horse

When horses are as skittish and temperamental as Seabiscuit, one trick of the trade is to give them a companion. The first stall mate Smith tries is a nanny goat, which Seabiscuit launches over the stall door. The second is a lead horse called Pumpkin that becomes the thoroughbred's constant companion. Smith determines that most of the horse's reactionary behavior is due to previous ill treatment, and decides he can produce results by getting the steed to trust him and the jockey.

Seabiscuit is limited by not only his physicality and his temperament but also by his age. Because the Triple Crown—the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness Stakes, and the Belmont Stakes—is limited to entries three years or younger, the four-year-old thoroughbred does not qualify. However, the horse proves himself at smaller venues from east to west, and even earns a private sleeping car on the train that transports him.

Chapter 8: Fifteen Strides

In 1936, Smith and Howard decide it is time to unleash their well-kept secret; they enter Seabiscuit in the Bay Bridge Handicap at Bay Meadows. The horse quickly reduces the field, shocking spectators and reporters alike. By December, Howard and Smith know the horse is ready for the hundred-thousand-dollar Santa Anita match. There he must face the formidable Rosemont, the thoroughbred considered the best horse in the world by most racing enthusiasts on the West Coast. Unfortunately, at a decisive moment in the contest, both Pollard and Seabiscuit lose momentum, producing a photo finish between the two...

(The entire section is 3134 words.)