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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
In Smith and Pollard’s care, Seabiscuit was transformed. In the barn he was an easygoing, disarmingly affectionate glutton, “as gentlemanly a horse,” said Smith, “as I ever handled.” On the track he displayed astonishing speed and bulldog tenacity. He had two weaknesses. One was a perpetually iffy left foreleg. The other was an evil sense of humor; he seemed to take sadistic pleasure in harassing and humiliating his rivals, slowing down to taunt them as he passed and pulling up when in front so other horses could draw alongside, then dashing their hopes with a killing burst of speed. But in a fight he was all business. “Once a horse gives Seabiscuit the old look in the eye, he begins to run to parts unknown,” said Pollard. “He might loaf sometimes when he’s in front and thinks he’s got the race in the bag. But he gets gamer and gamer, the tougher it gets.”
It took two months of minor-league test races and intensive schooling to get the bugs out. In his first two races Seabiscuit ran greenly but still claimed a fourth place and a third place. In his third start he won a minor stakes race, earning back half his purchase price, then won a bigger one two weeks later. Smith sent his newly polished competitor to New York, where he won the prestigious Scarsdale Handicap in track-record time. Then, like his owner thirty years before, Seabiscuit traveled from New York to San Francisco to conquer the West. In Howard’s hometown he racked up electrifying victories in two major races. He began 1937 at Santa Anita, where he trounced the superb closer Rosemont. Elated with Seabiscuit’s success, the Howards made a bold move. Santa Anita, the track Howard had built, had inaugurated the hundred-thousand-dollar Santa Anita Handicap, the richest race in the world. The Howards dropped Seabiscuit’s name in the entry box and set their hearts on winning it.
On February 27, 1937, sixty thousand fans gathered to see the first of Seabiscuit’s three appearances in the Santa Anita Handicap, an event that would come to define him. In a massive field of eighteen horses, including the favored Rosemont, Seabiscuit was crowded at the start, forcing Pollard to check him. On the backstretch he began picking off horses in a rush, moving from ninth to fourth in a few yards. As they turned for home, Pollard threaded Seabiscuit through a hole and drove him to a commanding lead. Behind them were seventeen of the best horses in the nation. Ahead was nothing but a furlong of red soil.
Pollard and Seabiscuit thought they had it won. The jockey sat absolutely still, his whip idle against his mount’s shoulder. Seabiscuit saw nothing around his blinker cups but the vacant track ahead. Neither horse nor jockey noticed that toward the grandstand, rallying furiously, was Rosemont, swallowing a foot of Seabiscuit’s lead with every stride. At the last moment Seabiscuit saw his rival and lunged for a photo finish. He was less than one inch too late.
Though Seabiscuit had lost, he was rapidly becoming a phenomenal celebrity. Two factors converged to create and nourish this. The first was Charles Howard. A born adman, Howard courted the nation on behalf of his horse much as he had hawked his first Buicks, undertaking exhaustive promotion that presaged the modern marketing of athletes. Grafting daring, unprecedented coast-to-coast racing campaigns, he shipped Seabiscuit over fifty thousand railroad miles to showcase his talent at eighteen tracks in seven states and Mexico. The second factor was timing. The nation was sliding from economic ruin toward the whirling eddy of Europe’s cataclysm. Seabiscuit, Howard, Pollard, and Smith, whose fortunes swung in epic parabolas, would have resonated in any age, but in cruel years the peculiar union among the four transcended the racetrack.
The result was stupendous popularity. In one year Seabiscuit garnered more newspaper column inches than Roosevelt, Hitler, or Mussolini. Life even ran a pictorial on his facial expressions. Cities had to route special trains to accommodate the invariably record-shattering crowds that came to see him run. Smith, fearing Seabiscuit wouldn’t get any rest, hoodwinked the press by trotting out a look-alike. Such fame fueled the immediate, immense success of Howard’s Santa Anita and California’s new racing industry, today a four-billion-dollar business.
Equipped with a chastened Pollard and blinker eyecups with rear-view peepholes cut in them, Seabiscuit embarked on a spectacular tear through the elite races of California, New York, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, and Maryland, winning ten major events, eclipsing five track records, and bankrolling 1937’s highest earnings. But he was not named Horse of the Year. As it happened, Seabiscuit had been born just a year before an Eastern horse named War Admiral, an exquisite black colt whose talents and achievements were comparable to his own. Though he had never met Seabiscuit, on the strength of his unbeaten season, during which he became just the fourth horse in history to sweep the Triple Crown, War Admiral was voted Horse of the Year. The ballot did not settle the issue. The nation divided into Seabiscuit and War Admiral camps, the dispute taking on an East versus West flavor. One of the century’s most famous sports rivalries was born.
Seabiscuit’s second try at the Santa Anita Handicap was just weeks away when Red Pollard, riding Howard’s mare Fair Knightess in a race at Santa Anita, was caught in a pileup after a horse ahead of him stumbled. Badly hurt, he was told he would not ride for at least a year.