In 1938, near the end of a decade of monumental turmoil, the year's number-one newsmaker was not Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Hitler, or Mussolini. It wasn't Pope Pius XI, nor was it Lou Gehrig, Howard Hughes, or Clark Gable. The subject of the most newspaper column inches in 1938 wasn't even a person. It was an undersized, crooked-legged racehorse named Seabiscuit.
-- Lauren Hillenbrand, Seabiscuit: An American Legend
When you think about it, this is not very hard to believe. We still live in an era where sports figures become cultural icons--think Micheal Jordan
and Tiger Woods
. The marketing blitz that follows today's stars was not unheard of in 1930s. There were special-edition Seabiscuit wallets
, Seabiscuit hats, and at least nine Seabiscuit parlor game
s. While it may seem difficult to imagine that a nation struggling through the Great Depression
and about to engage in an overseas war would choose to focus on something seemingly trivial such as horse racing, think of the current American fascination with certain "reality
" shows that exist not so much to represent reality as to distract us from it.
The story of Seabiscuit and his popularity at the time just goes to show how Americans are a sucker for the underdog. Despite his pedigree- a grandson of the legendary Triple Crown winner Man o' War, and son of Hard Tack, the 1896 Belmont Stakes winner whose infamous temper led him to be called "the archexponent of recalcitrance" by one sportswriter, Seabiscuit was unimpressive to look at and in 1936, even less so on the track. His body was built low to the ground. He had asymmetric knees, giving him a strange walk that was sometimes mistaken for lameness, and when running, his gait was even stranger. His racing prospects looked grim, but he would occasionally display dazzling speed to win 5 of the grueling 35 races he ran in the second year of his life.
It was in a $6000 claims race at Saratoga in August of 1936 that Seabiscuit was noticed by Charles Howard. Howard was a self-made man who had turned himself from the poor owner of a bicycle repair shop into a west-coast automobile magnate with a penchant for thoroughbred racing. He asked his wife Marcela what she thought of a particularly homely brown colt. She bet him a cold drink that the colt would lose, and ended up buying her husband a lemonade. Call it intuition, call it blind luck, call it indulging a bored curiousity, Howard asked his trainer, the taciturn Tom Smith, to take a look at the horse for him.
Smith, an obscure trainer who had been with the Howards for about a year, saw something in the little brown colt. He told his boss that he was sure that he could improve him, but Howard was not entirely convinced. He offered to buy Seabiscuit for $8000, but only if the horse performed well in his next start. The next race wasn't pretty--the driving rain and mud had caused owners to scratch their horses until only one other horse remained in the field. Seabiscuit fell behind but rallied to win the race, and Howard bought the horse and gave it to Marcela.
Smith's method of training Seabiscuit that led to his success involved letting the horse run on his own without coercion by the whip. His jockey, Red Pollard, used the whip twice in each race as a signal to let Seabiscuit know how far along he was in the race, and for no other reason.
Seabiscuit won his first race for the Howards in Detroit in the Governer's handicap, September 7, 1936, coming from fourth place to take and hold the lead. Under Smith, the horse had a a fantastic year, winning five of the eleven races he ran after the stable switch, and placing in four of the others. Seabiscuit, his owner and trainer felt, was ready to race in the Santa Anita Handicap, or as it was otherwise known, the "hunnert-grander."
The hundred grander was the race that actually convinced Charles Howard to enter the business of thoroughbred racing on a large scale. San Francisco dentist/investor Charles Strub was informed that he had lost everything and fallen into $1 million debt in the stock market crash of 1929. Giving new meaning to the word optimist, he planned to build a $3 million racetrack outside of Los Angeles. Howard was one of the wealthy Californians who donated hefty sums of money to the project. Strub created a signature race for his track with the promised purse of $100,000, double the rare high of $50,000 given to the winner of any other race held in America at the time. Because of his involvement with Strub and the track, not to mention the size of the purse, Charles Howard and Marcela set their sights on this race.
Seabiscuit took his first stab at the Santa Anita in February of 1937. It was a loss, and a heartbreaker of one. Seabiscuit took the lead and seemed like a sure shot to win, until Rosemont broke late and began to catch him. Neither Seabiscuit, blinded by his blinker cups, nor the jockey Pollard who, unbeknownst to anyone else, was blind in his right eye, saw the challenger and the crowd noise made hearing him impossible. Pollard didn't notice Rosemont advancing until it was too late and the horse was upon them. Rosemont was declared a winner in a photo finish.
Seabiscuit's next try at the hundred-grander was equally disappointing. His jockey, Pollard, was injured while riding a mare in another race, and was replaced with George Woolf, a friend of Pollard's, at the last minute. A foul committed by another jockey riding Count Atlas at the beginning of the race nearly kept Seabiscuit out of the race for good, but as he had many times before, he came from behind. Seabiscuit and Stagehand ran neck and neck for the final quarter of a mile-- another photo finish, another disappointment.
The first heart-breaking near-win in the Santa Anita and the string of victories that followed (he won ten of the next twelve races he ran in 1937) made Seabiscuit a media darling on the west coast, but the established East coast racing scene didn't take the California phenom seriously. Another descendant of Man o' War, a tempestuous creature called War Admiral, had taken the Triple Crown that spring, and everyone in racing called for a race between Seabiscuit and War Admiral. There would be quite a wait--War Admiral's owner was hesitant to agree to such a race, the weather would not cooperate. Smith, fearing injury, refused to let Seabiscuit run in the rain, which led to a much-touted match between the two horses to be cancelled. Injuries and weather maddeningly continued to prevent the horses from meeting.
The horses would not meet until November of '38, in what is still widely regarded as the greatest horse race of all time. The place was Pimlico Downs in Maryland, and it was a match race--the two horses only. Dave Boon wrote in The San Francisco Chronicle: "The whole country is divided into two camps. People who never saw a horse race in their lives are taking sides. If the issue were deferred another week, there would be a civil war between the War Admiral Americans and the Seabiscuit Americans." Seabiscuit was the underdog, 95% of the reporters believed that War Admiral would take the race. He fared better with racegoers, half of them were rooting for the underdog from California. The horses carried the same weight: 120 pounds. There were two false starts, but the third time the horses burst off the line together. Seabiscuit took an early lead, the horses ran together for most of the race at an incredible speed. In the end, Seabiscuit had it and War Admiral didn't, he could not match Seabiscuit's pace until the end. Seabiscuit was named 1938 Horse of the Year.
Having defeated War Admiral, there was one more prize that had eluded Seabiscuit: The Santa Anita Handicap. In 1939, it again was not meant to be. Seabiscuit sustained an injury in the Los Angeles Handicap in February, a ruptured ligament. (He came in second in the race.) Another Howard horse, Kayak, won the big race that year. "Kayak II is a good horse," said Howard, "But gee, it wasn't Seabiscuit..." Many wrote the horse off for good, he was, at six years old, ancient by racing standards.
It would be another year, but Seabiscuit would have his day. So would his old jockey, Red Pollard, who survived another gruesome injury to his legs and convinced Howard that he was in shape to ride Seabiscuit. On March 2, 1940, Seabiscuit would cross the wire first in the Santa Anita Handicap, ahead of Kayak II, the previous year's winner, who placed second. It was the last race Seabiscuit would run--he was retired after an incredible career that lasted seven years, included 89 starts, netted a grand total of $437,730, and undoubtably captured the heart of a nation.
Hillenbrand, Laura. Seabiscuit: An American Legend