Seabiscuit - An American Legend by Laura Hillenbrand
(Random House, $24.95) ISBN 0-375-50291-2
*****
In March of 1940, a short, stocky, knobby-kneed bay Thoroughbred stepped onto the track at Santa Anita Park and galloped his way into history. To an America beaten down by a decade of the Great Depression and facing the looming threat of war, he was the perfect champion: sturdy, sassy, and a complete underdog almost from the moment he was born. They adored him. His name was Seabiscuit, and under the masterful pen of Laura Hillenbrand, he races again.

Seabiscuit - An American Legend is the story of this remarkable little horse and the three men who believed in him most. Owner Charles Howard started out as a bicycle repairman, becoming the largest Buick dealer in the west. By the mid-1930s, he owned a formidable racing stable. Trainer Tom Smith was a former mustang breaker who rarely spoke, but who possessed an uncanny ability to see into a horse’s mind. Jockey Red Pollard was nearly homeless when his path crossed with Smith’s. Together, these three men form an unlikely alliance - dedicated to showing the world what an undersized bay with the heart of a champion could do on a racetrack.

We first meet Seabiscuit as Howard and Smith do - racketing around a stall at a Detroit racetrack, terrorizing grooms and fighting his natural instinct to run. Smith sees the potential in this runty grandson of Man-o-War, and in Red Pollard, he finds the jockey who can understand the horse. Within weeks, Seabiscuit is running his first race under Smith’s care. But even Smith isn’t quite sure of this horse’s ability - until the day he clocks him on a San Francisco track and finds Seabiscuit running at a world-record pace. Next step: the Santa Anita Handicap, the richest horse race in the world.

From here we follow Seabiscuit’s career for the next four years, through triumph and tragedy. Red Pollard, sidelined by crushing injuries, turns the reins over to his good friend George Woolf. This legendary jockey will ride Seabiscuit in the match race of the century, against the superhorse War Admiral. Victory in the Santa Anita Handicap continues to elude them. Finally it is Seabiscuit himself who is sidelined by a career-ending injury. Or is he?

Four years of meticulous research are delivered up with honesty and an easy, conversational style that is as engrossing as it is entertaining. Hillenbrand doesn’t shirk in presenting the seamy side of racing in the 1930s, and her descriptions of the general poverty and brutal weight-control regimens of the jockeys may leave some readers feeling more than a bit queasy: rubber suits, foul purgatives, and in extreme cases, tapeworm eggs. Red Pollard’s blind right eye (which he kept secret for years) and George Woolf’s diabetes made it even more difficult for them to ride successfully. Hillenbrand’s clear insight into their lives makes their accomplishments all the more memorable.

This story has its humorous moments. Hillenbrand’s description of the day a solid mountain of manure got swept up in a flood and demolished the Agua Caliente racetrack in Tijuana is nothing short of hilarious. Readers will be hard-pressed not to laugh out loud. Ditto her report of a conversation between Red Pollard, lying in a hospital bed, and George Woolf, broadcast live on radio. The radio technicians couldn’t hit the controls fast enough to censor the two.

Seabiscuit’s habit of holding back to tease his opponents, then blowing them off the track with a burst of speed brings him to life. Not only was he fast, he was a wiseguy and an equine couch potato at times, enjoying long naps and constant snacking. Indeed, his tendency toward porkiness was a constant concern to Tom Smith. Here his personality is, you should pardon the expression, fleshed out and given some depth. By the time Seabiscuit takes to the track for the 1940 Santa Anita Handicap, readers will know this little horse like a friend. I couldn’t read fast enough.

As a portrait of a bygone era, a tribute to an underdog champion, and a vivid account of three men’s dreams, Seabiscuit - An American Legend satisfies on all points. This is one of the must-read biographies of the year.

--Cathy Sova


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