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.

Continued on Next Page >>




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