“Four Good Legs Between Us”

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“Little horse, what next?” wrote a sportswriter after the race. In six years Seabiscuit had won thirty-three races, set sixteen track records, and equaled another. He was literally worth his weight in gold, having earned a world record $437,730, nearly sixty times his purchase price. The Howards brought their gentle horse home for good. The partnership was over.

 

On a January day six years later, George Woolf slid into the Santa Anita starting gate for a weekday race. At thirtysix he was feeling ill and was ready to put an end to one of the greatest riding careers in history. But over Santa Anita’s red soil that afternoon, something happened. Some witnesses thought his horse stumbled; most said they saw Woolf sink from the saddle, unconscious, his dieting and diabetes finally taking their toll. The Iceman struck the track head first. He never woke up.

Tom Smith parted amicably with Howard and joined Maine Chance Farm, where he became the nation’s leading trainer. But in 1945 a steward caught a groom using a decongestant spray on Smith’s horse before a race. Although the spray wasn’t performance-enhancing and Smith likely didn’t know the drug was being given, the trainer was suspended for a year. In his seventy years, Smith had never known a life apart from horses; he spent his days sitting alone outside Santa Anita watching his sport go on without him. Reinstated, he trained many top horses, including the Kentucky Derby winner Jet Pilot, but the scandal may have cost him a berth in racing’s Hall of Fame. He died in 1957.

Red Pollard retired after the Santa Anita Handicap and began training horses but soon resumed riding. In 1942 he retired again to join the war effort, but his body had taken such a beating that all three services rejected him. He wound up back in the bush leagues, booting horses around Rhode Island’s declining Narragansett Park, soon to meet the bulldozer, where he and Pops once raced. He continued to endure bone-crushing falls but kept riding, struggling to get by. “Maybe I should have heeded the rumble of that distant drum when I was riding high,” he once said. “But I never did. Trouble is, you never hear it if you’re a racetracker. Horses make too damned much noise.” In 1955 his career petered out. For a while he worked at backwater tracks, cleaning the boots of other riders. By the time he was seventy, his ceaselessly painful riding injuries had landed him in a nursing home built on the ruins of Narragansett Park. There, for reasons no one ever knew, the eloquent reinsman simply stopped talking. He lived out the rest of his days in silence, and he died in 1981. No cause of death was found. It was as if, says his daughter, Norah Christianson, “he had just worn out his body.”

As Seabiscuit settled into Ridgewood, drowsing under an oak tree, happily herding cattle around a pasture, and greeting the fifty thousand fans who eventually came to see him, Howard faded. When his heart became too frail for him to endure the tension of seeing his horses run, he came to the track anyway, sitting in the parking lot and listening to race calls on the radio of his Buick. On pleasant days he would throw a saddle over Seabiscuit, and together they’d canter into the hills and walk among the redwoods.

On the morning of May 17, 1947, Marcela met her husband at breakfast and told him his rough little horse was gone, dead of a heart attack at only fourteen. The sometime bicycle repairman, whose own heart would fail him just three years later, had the body carried to a secret site on the ranch. After Seabiscuit had been buried, Howard planted an oak sapling on the spot, telling only his sons the location. The memory of what tree entwines its roots with the bones of Howard’s beloved Seabiscuit died with them.

RACING THEN AND NOW