Conversation: Sea Biscuit

May 4, 2001 at 12:00 AM EDT


JIM LEHRER: And I mean it. Finally tonight, on this eve of the Kentucky Derby, a conversation about a new book on the life and times of a famous racehorse. Terence Smith recently spoke with Laura Hillenbrand, author of “Seabiscuit: An American Legend.”

TERENCE SMITH: Laura Hillenbrand, welcome and congratulations on the success of your book — Number one on the New York Times best seller list.

LAURA HILLENBRAND, Author, “Seabiscuit: An American Legend:” Yes, thank you.

TERENCE SMITH: Extraordinary.

LAURA HILLENBRAND: It’s just amazing.

TERENCE SMITH: Tell us a little bit about Seabiscuit and what made him special.

LAURA HILLENBRAND: Seabiscuit is special for a lot of reasons. And I think the biggest one is he is the ultimate underdog story. This is a horse that came from the rock bottom of his sport. He floundered there for two years, before rising to the top and becoming one of the greatest who ever lived. And it’s not only his story that makes the big story remarkable. This is a horse who, his trainer and owner and jockey were all underdog stories in themselves. His owner was a man who started out as a bicycle repairman, became an overnight millionaire introducing the automobile to the West. His trainer was essentially the last cowboy, a guy who’d spent 60 years living out on the mustang ranges with the mustangs, breaking them, working the wild West shows. And he had become obsolete with the working horse. And his jockey– the greatest underdog story of all– is a guy who is abandoned at the racetrack as a boy — rode his career with only one working eye, constantly injured — fascinating people, fascinating horse. And I think that’s what resonated with people.

TERENCE SMITH: Give us a little sense of the proportion. I mean, Seabiscuit was more famous than anybody or anything.

LAURA HILLENBRAND: Seabiscuit was the number one newsmaker of 1938, judging by newspaper column inches– they used to keep statistics on that. He was number one, Roosevelt was number two, Hitler was number three and Mussolini was number four.

TERENCE SMITH: Which seems incredible today.

LAURA HILLENBRAND: It’s astonishing. I don’t think any athlete in history has ever come close to achieving that. And this is a horse.

TERENCE SMITH: Why do you suppose both Seabiscuit’s story then, why he was so popular and why it caught the imagination of the public, and even why racing was so popular then?

LAURA HILLENBRAND: I think in terms of Seabiscuit, there are periods in history where people are looking for certain attributes. There are conditions in society where they want certain things. He came along in the depths of the Depression and people were looking for Cinderella stories that they could identify with. The average per capita income in the U.S. when he started running was $432 a year. So people were really in desperate shape. They were looking for somebody who was down and out like they were that they could identify with who could rise to the top. And this is true of the owner, trainer and jockey as well. And he came along something and something clicked, and he ceased to be just a race horse running on the track. For the time he was running, he was a proxy for a nation.

TERENCE SMITH: And you make the point, over and over, just how popular racing was at the time. It was a bigger sport then, I gather, than it is today.

LAURA HILLENBRAND: It was rapidly becoming the most popular spectator sport by attendance in the country. It was just passing baseball by the end of the ’30s. Yes, it was really enormous. Part of it is that this was a time of escapism and this is a wonderful escapist sport. It was also a sport that lent itself to radio very well and radio, at the middle of the decade, only about half the people had radios; by the end of it everybody did. And this is a sport that’s perfect for radio.

TERENCE SMITH: There are some wonderful descriptions in the book. Will you read some of it for us?

LAURA HILLENBRAND: This is from my description of Seabiscuit when the trainer first sees him. “The colt’s body, built low to the ground, had all the properties of a cinder block. Where hardtack had been tall, sleek, tapered, every line suggesting motion, his son was blunt, coarse, rectangular, stationary. He had a sad little tail, barely long enough to brush his hawks. His stubby legs were a steady and unsound construction, with squareish asymmetrical baseball glove knees that didn’t quite straighten all the way, leaving him in a permanent semi-crouch. Thanks to his unfortunate assembly, his walk as an odd straddle legged motion that was often mistaken for lameness. Asked to run, he would drop low over the track and fall into a comical version of what horsemen called an egg-beater gait, making a spastic sideways flailing motion with his left foreleg as he swung it forward as if he were swatting at flies. His gallop was so disorganized that he had a maddening tendency to whack himself in the ankle with his own hind foot.”

TERENCE SMITH: So he didn’t look like a champion.

LAURA HILLENBRAND: He did not look like a champion, no.

TERENCE SMITH: Give us a little sense of his career because it leads up to a great match race.

LAURA HILLENBRAND: Yes. He starts out at the bottom running in claiming races, which is the bottom level of racing. He came up… Was under a trainer who was really a renowned man… Sunny Jim Fitzsimmons. He was a household name across America; only man, to this day, to train two Triple Crown winners. But this man didn’t figure out this horse; he was a difficult, cunning horse. And he found ways to make himself useless in this man’s hands. It wasn’t until Tom Smith, this old frontiersman, found him that he turned himself around. And he rapidly went to the top of the sport and became, really, a household name when he met his arch rival, “War Admiral,” who was the 1937 Triple Crown winner, his polar opposite– a mercurial, exquisitely beautiful animal. Seabiscuit was short and homely and very gentlemanly and very smart. And it was… They were foils for each other and the whole nation got wrapped up in this rivalry. It was the perfect sell, this match, and the country was simply enthralled by the rivalry.

TERENCE SMITH: And yet, even after he wins the match race and is so famous, he goes back and there is one other thing that he wants to conquer, one other race that his owners want to win.

LAURA HILLENBRAND: Yes. The richest race in the world, it’s run in California, it’s called the Santa Anita Handicap. They run it still today. The purse back then was $100,000 to the winner. And this is a time, like I said, $432 a year is the average income in America.

TERENCE SMITH: So it was just a fortune.

LAURA HILLENBRAND: An enormous purse. And he tried to win this race year after year. And one of the fascinating things about the horse’s history is all the obstacles he had to overcome. Even when he hits the top of the sport, constantly things go wrong. The jockey has a horse fall on him, and half of his chest is crushed. His lower leg is virtually sheared off by another horse. The horse is seriously injured. And they keep trying to win this race. They lose it by a nose twice. In 1940, they come back and try to win it again.

TERENCE SMITH: And it was a cliffhanger.


TERENCE SMITH: Both for the jockey, for the horse.

LAURA HILLENBRAND: For the jockey and for the horse. The two of them had spent a year together in retirement, the jockey with his broken leg. The horse had been injured in 1939 after the match race in sort of a freak accident. And they were thought to be washed up. The horse was the equivalent of someone in their late 30s, early 40s– no longer at what was thought to be an athletic peak. The jockey, too, was somebody nobody would have hired. He was told never to ride a horse again. But the horse and jockey spent a year together out on the owner’s ranch just walking the field, trying to get sound again. They came back, two old men, to try to win this race.

TERENCE SMITH: And they did.


TERENCE SMITH: And that was their memo of triumph.

LAURA HILLENBRAND: It was greater than beating War Admiral, yes.

TERENCE SMITH: Just extraordinary. Let me ask you a little bit about this book. First of all, why this story? Why this horse? Why this story for you?

LAURA HILLENBRAND: For me, I identify very much… Like 1930s America, I am very wrapped up in this story. Writing this book for me was very difficult. I have chronic fatigue syndrome and it is a tremendously incapacitating illness. I’ve had it for 14 years. About six of those years, I’ve been totally bed bound with it. I can, only now, at this point, walk about one or two blocks before becoming exhausted. So I see a lot to identify with all the obstacles that this horse, the jockey, the trainer, the owner had to overcome. So for me, it was something easy to escape into and to enjoy. My life is characterized by great stillness and the people I was writing about lived with great vigor and great motion; so it was a pleasure to do from start to finish, interviewing hundreds of people who had been involved in one way or another with this story.

TERENCE SMITH: Why do you think this story has so captured the American imagination right now that it’s number one on the bestseller list — it’s a book people are talking about?

LAURA HILLENBRAND: I think there is still an enormous audience out there that loves horse racing. It’s been disappointed a lot in recent years; we’ve been unlucky in that we haven’t had the big horse. But, you see, when the Derby comes up. 150,000 people go to the derby every year. It is a very popular sport still. And I think this is a story that is very pleasing to racing fans — that it isn’t only for racing fans. And I think that’s why it was able to hit number one on the New York Times list. It’s a broad-based story. Everyone identifies with underdogs and this is the ultimate underdog story. Everyone can feel like this at certain times in their life. And it is a very satisfying story to read and to tell.

TERENCE SMITH: We have the Kentucky Derby coming up this Saturday.


TERENCE SMITH: There is no Seabiscuit around.

LAURA HILLENBRAND: There is no Seabiscuit, but this is a very deep field, it’s a very good field.

TERENCE SMITH: So you’ll be watching?

LAURA HILLENBRAND: I will definitely be watching. Until the day I die, I’ll be watching that derby, yes.

TERENCE SMITH: Laura Hillenbrand, thank you very much.