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“Four Good Legs Between Us”
When the lives of a failed prizefighter, an aging horsebreaker, and a bicycle-repairman-turned-overnight-millionaire converged around a battered little horse named Seabiscuit, the result captivated the nation and transcended their sport
July/August 1998 | Volume 49, Issue 4
On a drab Detroit side street in August 1936, two hitchhikers hopped down from their last ride and walked onto the backstretch of Fair Grounds Racecourse. The stouter man was a jockey’s agent people called Yummy; he was with his client Johnny Pollard, a flame-haired former prizefighter. Yummy liked to refer to him by his boxing name, “The Cougar,” but most knew him as Red. The two had totaled Yummy’s car a long way back, picked through the wreckage to salvage their most essential belongings—twenty-seven cents and a half-pint of a brandy they called “bow-wow wine"—and thumbed their way to the track. Desperate for work, they wound through the shed rows, petitioning nearly every trainer on the grounds. No one was willing to give Pollard a leg up on a horse.
The last barn they visited was run by an obscure trainer named Tom Smith, a jut-jawed old cowboy whose horsemanship ran its roots back through frontier cattle drives. Smith had come east with his new boss, the San Francisco automobile magnate Charles Howard, in search of horses for Howard’s racing stable. Owner and trainer both needed a jockey sturdy enough to handle their new purchase, a rough, tempestuous colt named Seabiscuit; Smith thought Pollard’s boxer’s physique might do the trick.
The improbable partnership formed by these three vastly different men would cultivate each one’s greatest untapped talents and define an era.
The lives of these vastly different men had come to an intersection, and their crowded hour had begun. The improbable partnership they formed would cultivate each one’s greatest, untapped talents, define a pivotal American era, and turn a battered little horse into one of the century’s most celebrated popular heroes.
Each of the men had traveled a long, hard road to the summer of 1936. For Charles Howard the journey had begun in New York in 1903, when the young cavalry veteran quit his job as a bicycle repairman and headed west to try his luck. Arriving in San Francisco, he set up a bicycle repair shop downtown. His timing was perfect. It was the dawn of the automobile age; garages did not yet exist, so owners began bringing their ailing cars to the closest thing to an automotive mechanic in the city, Charles Howard.
Howard became fascinated with the new technology, foresaw a revolution, and headed to Detroit. There he introduced himself to William C. Durant, chief of Buick automobiles and future founder of General Motors. Howard walked away with sole distributorship of Buicks for eight Western states. It was 1905, and he was not yet thirty years old.
With two Buicks in tow, Howard returned to a San Francisco where his commodities, which churned up dust clouds and bogged down in mud, were banned in the city’s tourist areas. The machines were prohibitively expensive, with even the more moderate examples costing twice the average annual salary. As Howard wheeled his automobiles into his makeshift showroom, the parlor of his bicycle shop, his success was far from assured.
His turn of luck came in hideous guise. At 5:12 A.M. on April 18, 1906, the earth beneath San Francisco liquefied in a titanic convulsion. In sixty seconds the city shuddered down. Fires licked to life and raced over the ruins. The city was in dire need of transport for water, firemen, the injured, and 250,000 homeless—more than half the population—but conventional vehicles were crippled as wagon horses sagged from exhaustion. Howard, the owner of two automobiles, was suddenly and briefly the richest man in town. His cars joined those of others to become a lifeline, ferrying the wounded and probably bearing Army explosives used to blast firebreaks. As the fire advanced on them, soldiers packed Howard’s shop and the surrounding buildings with dynamite and detonated all in a desperate attempt to prevent the flames from swallowing the last of the city.
In the end, Howard, like virtually everyone else, lost everything. But as San Franciscans started over, Howard took the opportunity to lure them into the automotive age. The earthquake had proved the automobile’s superiority to the horse in utility, so Howard set out to prove its durability. He tested his Buicks in speed races and hill climbs, and his aggressive promotion worked. By 1908 the one-man Howard Automobile Company had sold 85 two-lunger White Streaks at a thousand dollars each. “The day of the horse is past, and the people in San Francisco want automobiles,” Howard wrote that year. “I wouldn’t give five dollars for the best horse in this country.”
He was half-right. With the fortune yielded by his auto distributorship— by the 1920s the world’s biggest— Howard turned to philanthropy. In 1932, after his first marriage ended, he thrilled the society columnists by marrying Marcela Zabala, a beautiful former convent student who had generated considerable local fame as an actress. In 1933 they embarked on a new venture—horseracing, a pastime that was enjoying such explosive growth that it would soon be far and away the most heavily attended sport in America. Pari-mutual racing had been banned in California for thirty years, but to boost revenues badly depleted by the Depression, the state legislature had just legalized it again. Betting that the sport would catch on in the state, the Howards invested heavily in the founding of the lavish Santa Anita Racecourse on the apron of the San Gabriels. They bought seventeen Thoroughbred yearlings and went looking for a trainer.