“Four Good Legs Between Us”

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Tom Smith inherited a sore, weary animal. Seabiscuit was two hundred pounds underweight and so nervous that he paced in his stall, lathered up upon being saddled, and refused to eat. On the track he displayed blistering speed but sulked when urged, bolted when checked, zigzagged, and raised holy hell in the starting gate. On the train to Detroit, Howard’s next destination, Seabiscuit panicked so badly that sweat streamed from his belly.

Smith drew upon sixty years of frontier remedies to rehabilitate his charge. He doctored his body with homemade liniment and knee-high bandages; he focused his mind by fitting him with blinkers that blocked his peripheral vision. To soothe the colt’s nerves, Smith showered him with affection, knocked down the wall between two stalls, and moved him in with three roommates. One was a stray dog named Pocatell. A second was a spider monkey named Jo Jo. The third was a placid yellow cattle-roping horse named Pumpkin, who would travel with Seabiscuit for the rest of his life. Playing with his bunkmates by day and sleeping with Jo Jo in the nook of his neck and Pocatell on his belly, Seabiscuit began to relax. Smith’s headstrong colt was ready for training. He needed a very strong rider.

The jockey who walked into Tom Smith’s barn in the summer of 1936 had learned early the sharp turns that fortune could take. In 1925 Johnny Pollard had abandoned his formal education to ride racehorses. He was only about fifteen years old when he turned up at the little racetracks of Butte, Montana, eager to learn the reinsman’s trade. Although his five-foot-seven-inch height left him towering over other jockeys, Johnny wangled his way into the local fairs to ride racing quarter horses around ovals cut through hayfields. In spite of his talent, he didn’t win a race for at least a year. To earn food money, he moonlighted as a prizefighter, boxing under the name “The Cougar” in bouts at cow-town clubs. He lost “a lot of ‘em,” he later said.

 
 
 
To calm the frantic horse, Tom Smith gave him three roommates: a stray dog named Pocatell; Jo Jo, a spider monkey; and a yellow horse named Pumpkin.

From Butte, Pollard went to British Columbia and the bullring tracks of Vancouver, where he became an apprentice jockey, or “bug boy,” contracted to ride free for a room and a five-dollar-a-week food allowance. Red, as most now called him, liked to play practical jokes, sometimes went hungry for lack of money, quoted Omar Khayyam and Emerson—‘Old Waldo’—and became known as a buoyant, witty, brainy kid. He had chosen a grinding profession. In exchange for the exhilaration of piloting 1,200-pound animals at forty-five miles per hour, he subjected himself to torturous regimens to make the roughly 110-pound maximum riding weight. For most riders this involved induced vomiting, laxatives, abusive exercise, and sweating rituals, sometimes including immersion in the fermenting track manure-pit. Once a journeyman, Pollard earned just fifteen dollars per winner, five dollars per loser, less fees for laundry (fifty cents), valet (one dollar), and agent (10 percent).

Worse was the sheer peril of his workday. Serious injuries were inevitable—the jockey’s only protection was a cardboard skullcap—but there was no protocol for handling them. In 1927, when Earl Graham broke his back, he was left on a saddle table until long after nightfall, when it was convenient for someone to drop him at a hospital. He died ten days later. Finally, like virtually every other jockey, Pollard couldn’t afford the skyhigh insurance rates his job warranted, and tracks, fearing rider unionizing, blocked jockeys’ efforts to create their own insurance. When Tommy Luther, who had originally been slated to ride Graham’s fatal mount, tried to start an injured riders’ fund, he was banned from riding for a year. Very early in Pollard’s career a horse kicked debris into his head. The blow cost him the sight in his right eye. Though the blindness greatly compounded his risk, Pollard kept it secret and kept riding.

In the 1930s Pollard moved his tack to New York. His career foundered. By the time he reached Detroit, he was drifting into the great slipstream in which many promising jockeys are lost, their talents never tried for lack of the skilled trainer, the wise owner, the gifted horse. But in Tom Smith, Pollard met a man intimately familiar with his hardscrabble world. Smith had a hunch that the jockey’s boxer body and long tenure with troubled bullring horses would suit the explosive, neurotic Seabiscuit. He was right. The lost young man and the edgy little colt took to each other immediately, and Pollard won the job riding the horse he called Pops.