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From Nag to Riches: The Story of Seabiscuit

Stefan Lovgren
for National Geographic News
July 28, 2003
 
Phil Johnson remembers running out of school as a 13-year-old to catch the broadcast of the 1938 Seabiscuit vs. War Admiral match-up, perhaps the greatest horse race ever run.

Riveted, the future Hall of Fame trainer sat in his friend's family car and listened to Clem McCarthy's classic radio commentary.

"We were all pulling for Seabiscuit," said Johnson, whose horse, Volpini, won the four million (U.S.) dollar 2002 Breeder's Cup. "He was the poor man's horse, from the other side of the tracks. We all wanted him to win."

Seabiscuit was the equine Cinderella. An ungainly and boxy scrapper that became one of the most remarkable thoroughbred racehorses in history.

In 1938, at the peak of his career, Seabiscuit was the biggest newspaper story in the United States, receiving more column inches than anyone else. President Roosevelt ranked second, and Adolf Hitler was third.


But as the popularity of horse racing waned, so did Seabiscuit's fame. That is until Laura Hillenbrand's Seabiscuit: An American Legend came out in 2001. The book became a publishing phenomenon. Some three million copies have been printed to date.

Now, with the July 25 release of the much-heralded movie based on the book, horse racing fans hope the hype surrounding Seabiscuit will attract a new generation of fans and help the sport regain its shine.

"The sport is in the midst of a turnaround," said Ray Paulick, editor of The Blood-Horse magazine. "It's coming back…with great stories like this spring's Funny Cide Triple Crown [run] and the Seabiscuit movie."

From Rags to Riches

Seabiscuit, a descendant of the great thoroughbred Man o'War through his son Hard Tack, was born on May 23, 1934. He was never a complete outcast, as portrayed in the movie, but actually won nine races and U.S. $26,965 in prize money before Charles Howard, a wealthy bicycle repair man turned car dealer, bought the three-year-old horse for a mere U.S. $8,000.

Still, with his stumpy legs that wouldn't completely straighten, Seabiscuit wasn't considered a great prospect. Some said he wasn't worth the hay in a first-class barn.

But he had a believer in Tom Smith, also known as "Silent Tom," a trainer whose reluctance to speak led some people to believe he didn't have a tongue.

Smith found a jockey in Johnny "Red" Pollard, one of seven children born to a bankrupt brick manufacturer, who spent years at the country's lowliest racetracks, talking his way onto as many mounts as he could.

At 5'7", Pollard was too tall to be a jockey. He was also blind in one eye, something he tried to keep a secret. Without bifocal vision, he lacked depth perception and couldn't tell how far ahead of him horses were.

Against all odds, Seabiscuit became an instant success, winning race after race. Howard, who marketed his Western-bred underdog as a challenger to the East Coast racing establishment, sent barrels of champagne to the press box before races. Seabiscuit became the most popular horse in America during the Great Depression.

But trouble lurked around the corner. While riding another horse, Pollard fell and shattered his collarbone, broke his shoulder, and fractured his ribs. Doctors told him he wouldn't ride again for at least a year.

East vs. West

When a match-up was finally set up between Seabiscuit and War Admiral, an elegant East Coast champion and winner of the Triple Crown—the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes—a new jockey, George Woolf, took the reins of Seabiscuit.

The resulting race became a contest between two worlds: the East Coast establishment of bankers and their beautiful horses versus a nation of disillusioned have-nots who championed a hero that had been beat up just like them.

"Seabiscuit was given a second chance and made the most of it," said Paulick. "People in the Great Depression could relate: All they wanted was a second chance in life. Seabiscuit lived out their dream."

In the one-on-one match-up at Maryland's Pimlico Racecourse, Seabiscuit beat War Admiral by four lengths. Sports writers went crazy, calling it the greatest race in history.

But the best quote came from Pollard: "He did just what I thought he'd do," Pollard said at the time from his hospital bed. "He made a rear admiral out of War Admiral."

Pollard returned in 1940 to ride Seabiscuit for the one race that had eluded the horse: California's Santa Anita. Seventy-five thousand people—the biggest crowd ever to attend an American horse race—watched as Seabiscuit came from behind to win in the fastest mile and a quarter (two kilometers) the track had seen until then.

Soon after, Seabiscuit retired. He earned U.S. $437,730 between 1935 and 1940. He died of a heart attack on May 17, 1947.

In 1996, magazine journalist Laura Hillenbrand stumbled across the story of Seabiscuit. She knew of the horse and his inspiring career, but she didn't know the people around him—the owner, trainer, and jockeys.

In interviews, Hillenbrand has said she expected to sell 5,000 copies of the book, out of her car if she had to. Instead, the hardcover edition of Seabiscuit: An American Legend remained on The New York Times best-seller list for 30 weeks. The paperback edition debuted on the list on April 14, 2002, and hasn't left since.

Racing Revival

Whether media interest in Seabiscuit will translate into a horse racing revival remains to be seen. Even the most ardent fan doesn't expect horse racing to match the popularity it enjoyed in the 1930s, when the lifting of bans on wagering, imposed in the 1920s, turned it into one of America's favorite sports, along with boxing and baseball.

"Today, the sports calendar is overloaded with TV sports and extreme games," said Paulick. "Horse racing slipped because it had no league office and no mechanism to react to the TV and cable era."

In recent years, some racetracks have been forced to reduce purses because of lagging attendance and decreased wagering. Internet betting and casino gambling have cut into on-track attendance.

Johnson, the trainer, believes young people are simply not interested. "If you go to a racetrack and you ask a guy in his 50s what made him interested in horses, he'll tell you it's because his father used to take him to the races," he said. "They don't do that anymore."

But there are bright spots. This spring, Funny Cide became the first gelding (castrated horse) to win the first two Triple Crown races, generating national attention that transcended the horse racing business.

Funny Cide's story conjures up images of Seabiscuit. He cost U.S. $75,000, cheap by today's thoroughbred standards. His owners are either retired or work in construction, catering, or retail. His trainer, Barclay Tagg, had toiled for decades in near-obscurity.

Despite a steady rain, Funny Cide drew 101,864 spectators to the Belmont Stakes—the second largest crowd ever—when he lost to Empire Maker. The race may have started a rivalry between the two horses. Because Funny Cide is a gelding and will not be retired to earn millions at stud, there's only one alternative for his owners: to keep racing him.

A great rivalry would certainly help spark interest in the sport. But Johnson believes there is an easier way to get people hooked: Get them interested in horses first, and racing second.

"Come out to the stables at 7 a.m. on a summer morning and watch the horses get saddled and taken out for a run," he said. "It's magical."
 

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