Tuesday, March 06, 2001

Seabiscuit's gallop into history is a racey read

By George Rorrer
Enquirer contributor

        Once, in the Golden Age of American sport, there lived a scruffy horse named Seabiscuit who captured the imagination of the racing public.

  Seabiscuit, An American Legend
  By Laura Hillenbrand
  Random House; $24.95; 339 pages
        In Seabiscuit, An American Legend, Laura Hillenbrand breathes life back into not only the story of the crooked-legged little champion but that of the colorful era in which he lived.

        In the darkest days of the Great Depression of the 1930s, the rivalry between Seabiscuit and 1937 Triple Crown winner, War Admiral, became the focus of the sporting public. In 1938, Ms. Hillenbrand writes, Seabiscuit was the world's single biggest newsmaker, attracting more coverage than President Franklin D. Roosevelt or Adolf Hitler.

        Seabiscuit was a grandson of the great Man O' War and the son of Hard Tack. His story comes with a cast of characters who would be right at home in racing today:

        • Owner Charles Howard, who got rich by introducing Buicks to the West Coast, and his wife, Marcela.

        • Taciturn trainer Tom Smith, the Lone Plainsman from the bull-ring tracks of rural Montana.

        • Jockey Red Pollard and backup jockey George Woolf, a better rider than Pollard but too close a friend to press it.

        • And the usual racetrack menagerie: a goat named Whiskers, a companion horse named Pumpkin, a dog named Pocatell and a spider monkey named Jo Jo.

        Smith advises Howard to buy Seabiscuit from legendary trainer Sunny Jim Fitzsimmons for $8,000 and to pick up Seabiscuit's almost identical full brother, Grog, for another $1,500 (as a stand-in for Seabiscuit when too many visitors show up).

        Seabiscuit is an ordinary runner until the 50th start of his career — then, he starts ruling the West.

        Across the country was his uncle, War Admiral, winner of the 1937 Triple Crown and a son of Man O' War. In 1938, War Admiral was on a victory rampage and the sporting press wanted to see him matched against Seabiscuit.

        After many frustrating near misses, War Admiral's owner, Samuel Riddle, was coaxed into the challenge. On Nov. 1, 1938, at Pimlico Race Course near Baltimore, the two met in a matchup still considered one of the top five horse races of all time.

        Grantland Rice, the storied sportswriter, wrote that day that the race was “keyed to the highest tension I have ever seen in sport . . . the type of tension that locks the human throat.”

        Ms. Hillenbrand has meticulously researched her material. No pertinent Web site appears to have gone neglected, no surviving contemporary gone without being interviewed. And she writes well.

        “The horses stretched out over the track,” she writes of the big race. “Their strides, each twenty-one feet in length, fell in perfect sync. They rubbed shoulders and hips, heads snapping up and reaching out together, legs gathering up and unfolding in unison.

        “The poles clipped by, blurring in the riders' peripheral vision. The speed was impossible; at the mile mark, a fifteen-year-old speed record fell under them, broken by nearly a full second. The track rail hummed up under them and unwound behind.”

        While Pollard was hospitalized for one of his many injuries, Woolf, Seabiscuit's backup jockey, had gone to the track the night before the race and discovered the firmest strip, one made by the print of a tractor wheel. He would use that strip on race day.

        When Woolf pulled away for good, he yelled over his shoulder, “So long, Charley,” coining a phrase that jockeys still use. And the great radio announcer Clem McCarthy's voice crackled across the country to report the result: “Seabiscuit by three! Seabiscuit by three!”

        But for Howard, Smith, Pollard and Seabiscuit, there was one more race to win. They had lost the Santa Anita Handicap by a nose in 1937 and wanted to win it. Despite Pollard's wrecked body, he rode Seabiscuit to victory.

        This is such a good tale that Ms. Hillenbrand, a Washington D.C.-based racing writer, is now a consultant on a Universal Pictures movie based on the book.

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