- Historic Sites
“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
Horses had been the silent study of Tom Smith’s long life. As a boy on the Western frontier, he had ridden in the last of the great cattle drives before being hired as a horsebreaker at just thirteen years of age. In 1899 the dour, taciturn young man, known as Silent Tom, began breaking American mustangs for use by the British in the Boer War, gentling as many as thirty horses per day, then became a cowpony trainer, veterinarian, and blacksmith on a Colorado cattle range.
In 1923 Smith signed on with “Cowboy Charlie” Irwin, who operated two businesses: a massive stable of two-bit racehorses and a traveling Wild West show. Smith worked as a caretaker for the show’s horses. He lived a nomadic, sometimes squalid life, but during one stretch he was given some of Irwin’s racehorses to train, and he made the most of it. At a little bullring in Cheyenne, his trainees won twenty-nine of thirty races. The next year, Irwin sent him to Seattle to train a string of horses. Smith gave Irwin his greatest season in racing.
In his meandering path along the American frontier, Smith had cultivated a wordless, near-mystical communion with horses. He knew their minds and how to sway them, he knew their bodies and how they telegraphed every emotion and sensation, and his quiet hands could always soothe them. His rustic methods and obsessive devotion to his job often struck other trainers as peculiar; he slept in his horses’ stalls and stood quietly by them for hours, just studying them. He carried a stopwatch but never used it; he had an uncanny ability to judge a horse’s pace by sight, and he resented any distraction that might make him miss a nuance of motion. He lived by a single maxim: “Learn your horse.”
Somehow that afternoon the ailing colt won his race. The trainer memorized the name, Seabiscuit, and spoke to him as he was led away: “I’ll see you again”
But success was fleeting. Irwin died in 1934, leaving Tom Smith, then approaching sixty, flat broke and unemployed in the depths of the Depression. He wandered around the Western racing circuit, mucking stalls and grooming horses. One of his charges was a horse named O’Riley, who toiled in bottom-level selling events called claiming races. When O’Riley went lame, Smith scraped together a few dollars, bought the horse from the owner, rebuilt him, and soon had him winning low-grade races. But Smith was barely able to survive on the earnings of a one-claimer stable. His deliverance came through an accident of proximity: O’Riley bedded down near the horses of a wealthy owner named George Giannini. Smith became friends with Giannini, who introduced the old cowboy to his friend Charles Howard.
The two men stood in different parts of the century, embodying two currents of American life. Smith, a true frontiersman, won over his slow, hard days with calloused, capable hands; Howard, a forward-thinking mass marketer, was paving over Smith’s old West. But Howard had already shown his ability to see potential in unlikely packages, and he had a cavalryman’s eye for horsemen. Smith got the job.
On June 29, 1936, Tom Smith stood by the track rail at Massachusetts’s Suffolk Downs, watching low-level horses as they streamed to the post. Midway through the parade a weedy three-year-old bay halted before the trainer and regarded him with a regal expression completely unsuited to such a rough-hewn animal. The two looked at each other for only a moment before the pony boy tugged the colt on his way.
Smith flipped to the horse’s profile in the track program. The colt was descended from the mighty Man o’ War, but his stunted build did nothing to recall the beauty and breadth of his forebear. His body was a study in unsound construction; his short legs, sporting asymmetrical knees that didn’t straighten all the way, gave him a crouching stance and an odd, inefficient “eggbeater” gait that one writer likened to a duck’s. His career had been noteworthy only in its appalling rigor; he had raced a staggering thirtyfive times as a two-year-old, at least three times the typical workload. He had found no takers in claiming races, and by the time Smith saw him, his punishing schedule had left him with permanent foreleg ailments and a manner that one jockey described as “mean, restive and ragged.”
But somehow, that afternoon, the colt won his race. Smith memorized the name: Seabiscuit. He was a horse whose quality, an admirer would write, “was mostly in his heart, and Tom Smith had been the first to recognize it.” Smith spoke to the colt as he was led away: “I’ll see you again.”
In a private box above Saratoga Racecourse one month later, Charles and Marcela Howard surveyed a field of generic claimers. Charles pointed to an especially wretched colt and asked his wife what she thought of him. She wagered a drink that the horse would lose, watched as the colt led from wire to wire, and bought her husband a lemonade. Sitting together in the clubhouse that afternoon, husband and wife felt a pull of intuition. Howard shared it with Smith, who walked to the stables to see the horse and found himself face to face with Seabiscuit again. Howard wrote a check for seventy-five hundred dollars.