To those not old enough to remember the Great Depression firsthand, “Seabiscuit” is likely just the name of yet another old-time race horse. He was not just another great horse, though. He was an anomaly, trained by another anomaly, and ridden by yet a third anomaly. It was only the combination of these people and this horse that created this legendary racing career. Racing writer Laura Hillenbrand tells the tale of Seabiscuit and the unusual people around him, but along the way she also gives readers a window into the harsh world of racing in the 1930’s and the national popularity of the sport’s heroes.
In today’s multimedia era, it can be hard to imagine daily life without live coverage of baseball, football, basketball, hockey, soccer, racing, and numerous other sports. When Seabiscuit was born, newsreels in the movie theaters were the only way most people would ever get to see their heroes. The only medium for live coverage was radio, and it was not until the 1930’s that radios became something most people could afford to own. When Seabiscuit began racing in 1935, two-thirds of U.S. homes were newly equipped with radios. The excited narration of horse racing was a natural attraction, and people flocked to it. In 1938, some forty million people listened to the call as Seabiscuit and War Admiral raced one-on-one at the racetrack in Pimlico, Maryland. Even President Franklin D. Roosevelt kept a roomful of advisers waiting while he listened to the race.
Bicycle racer and mechanic Charles Howard, later to become Seabiscuit’s owner, was twenty-four when he traveled from New York to California, arriving with twenty-one cents in his pocket. The horseless carriage was also a newcomer in 1903 San Francisco, without much success. Nevertheless, Howard saw opportunity and figured out how to repair the primitive cars. Soon he was driving in auto races. Audaciously, he took a train back to Detroit and talked Will Durant, chief of Buick Automobiles, into giving him the sales franchise for his new home town. When the 1906 earthquake hit San Francisco, Howard used his Buicks as rescue vehicles, proving their worth and paving his way toward sole distributorship of all General Motors cars throughout the western United States. The new millionaire bought a seventeen-thousand-acre ranch in Northern California.
Gambling had been banned in the United States during Prohibition, but California made race betting legal again in 1933. Howard, Bing Crosby, and others financed construction of the three-million-dollar Santa Anita Park outside Los Angeles. At a time when $50,000 was a rare purse for a race anywhere in the United States, the new Santa Anita Handicap offered more than $100,000. Howard wanted to win it. By 1935, he had bought a stable of modestly talented horses.
Tom Smith came from the prairies. The Indians called him “the lone plainsman,” and white men called him Silent Tom. “In the company of men,” Hillenbrand writes, “Smith was clipped and bristling. With horses, he was gracefully at ease.” Although Smith had little to say to men, he listened carefully to horses. Sometimes he would just squat quietly for hours, watching a horse, drawing understanding out of the smallest of motions. “It’s easy to talk to a horse if you understand its language,” he once said. “Horses stay the same from the day they are born until the day they die. . . . They are only changed by the way people treat them.”
As the Old West retreated, it left Smith behind. He gravitated to horse racing, first as a farrier, then as a trainer. When one employer retired, he gave Smith a lame, well-traveled horse. Smith worked with the horse for a while, then brought him back to the track, sound and fit. He kept winning higher and higher classes of races. One day in 1934, a friend of Charles Howard recognized in this man, living in a Tijuana stable, a brilliant horseman being wasted. Howard did too, and hired Smith to be his trainer. Smith devised new and different ways to teach his horses how to break from the gate. Howard’s stable became the runaway leader in wins.
Seabiscuit first raced in January, 1935, finishing fourth at seventeen-to-one odds. That year, Seabiscuit started an amazing thirty-five times. His trainer, the legendary Sunny Jim Fitzsimmons, had seen what he was capable of. However, the colt was “dead lazy,” so they raced him every five days on average, triple the usual workload. He ran at eleven different tracks that season, traveling some 6,000 miles. His first win was in his...
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