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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
Pollard suggested that Smith hire George Woolf, Red’s best friend since their bug-boy days. The son of a broncobuster and a circus rider, Woolf was a handsome, independent, utterly fearless young man. He also may have been the single greatest talent his sport ever saw. He could, horsemen marveled, “hold an elephant away from a peanut until time to feed,” timing his mounts’ rallies so precisely that he regularly won races with breathtaking, last-second drives. He knew his horses, and everyone else’s, and blew contests wide open by ruthlessly exploiting his rivals’ weaknesses. Pollard started to call Woolf “The Iceman,” and the nickname stuck. The Iceman had only one hint of athletic mortality: diabetes. He made a dangerous habit of juggling insulin dependence and drastic reducing, running a high risk of fainting in the saddle.
Woolf got the job and did his homework, learning every contour of Seabiscuit’s personality from the hospitalized Pollard. He knew the horse to beat was a colt named Stagehand. The Santa Anita Handicap, like every race Seabiscuit ran, was a handicap, in which better horses carry higher weights to increase long shots’ chances. As usual Seabiscuit was assigned by far the highest weight, this time 130 pounds, an impost that had proved too much for most of history’s greatest horses. Stagehand, fresh off four straight victories, was assigned just 100 pounds, a preposterously light load. Because every two to three pounds are believed to slow a horse by one body length at the distances Seabiscuit ran, the thirtypound difference was a massive concession, and Woolf knew it. He also knew that Stagehand’s silks and those of another competitor, his brother Sceneshifter, were identical, but for a single difference, a white cap on Stagehand and a colored cap on Sceneshifter. Woolf noted the difference and suited up to chase Stagehand while an ashen, anxious Pollard left his hospital bed to sit with Marcela on the grandstand roof.
Then, as Seabiscuit broke from the gate, he was broadsided by another horse, knocking him nearly to the ground and vaulting Woolf up onto his neck. By the time the jockey shinnied back, he and his mount were trapped in a pack of stragglers. On the backstretch a hole opened before them. Seeing the white cap bobbing ahead and fearing it would be his only chance to break loose, Woolf drove Seabiscuit through the gap and into a premature open-throttle drive with six furlongs still to be run. In the next half-mile, in which he swept past the entire field, Seabiscuit was clocked at 441/5 seconds—two seconds, the equivalent of ten lengths, faster than the world record. He ran up alongside the white cap, and the horse beneath it faltered, exhausted, and dropped back. Seabiscuit hit the stretch in front and backed off to wait for challengers.
On the far outside a closer broke clear of the pack and drove toward Seabiscuit as Rosemont had done a year before. Woolf glanced back and was stunned to recognize Stagehand’s head. After a moment’s confusion he had a terrible realization: Stagehand’s and Sceneshifter’s caps had been switched, and Woolf had spent Seabiscuit’s rally too early, in pursuit of the wrong horse. Woolf asked Seabiscuit for still more speed. Stagehand drew even, and, incredibly, Seabiscuit accelerated to match him. After a ferocious head-bobbing duel, the pair tripped the win photo together.
Stagehand had outbobbed Seabiscuit by two and a half inches. Atop the grandstand Marcela and Red wept.
On the same afternoon, beneath the drowsing palms of Florida’s Hialeah Racecourse, War Admiral cantered to his tenth consecutive win. The desire for a Seabiscuit-War Admiral match had become an international obsession.
If the match race was going to occur, Red believed he would see it from Pops’s back. By the summer of 1938 his body had healed, and he joined Seabiscuit in Massachusetts. One morning, fresh off Pops and in jubilant spirits, he offered to ride a colt for another trainer. The colt rammed Pollard through the track rail, nearly severing the jockey’s leg. Howard flew in a team of prominent doctors. They told Red he might never walk again.
What the famed sportswriter Grantland Rice would call the greatest horserace he ever saw was conceived in the fall of 1938 by Alfred Vanderbilt, the twenty-six-yearold president of Baltimore’s Pimlico Racecourse. Vanderbilt wanted to host a Seabiscuit-War Admiral match, but he was playing with a weak hand; his track could offer only a small purse. War Admiral’s choleric owner, Samuel Riddle, erected his own obstacles, declaring that he would not run his colt from a conventional gate, preferring instead an antiquated gateless “walk-up” start. But Vanderbilt was a master diplomat. Sixty years later he recalls forging a deal by appealing to Riddle and Howard’s one shared attribute, sportsmanship. “I told them that this was just a little track and we couldn’t put up a lot of money, but that it would be a good thing for racing, which they both liked,” Vanderbilt remembers. “It took a little doing.”