On New Year’s Eve, 1938, columnist Walter Winchell published his annual list of the year’s top ten newsmakers. Franklin Delano Roosevelt was among those mentioned. So was British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain and Nazi leader Adolf Hitler. The tenth spot, however, went to a horse. Seabiscuit was dung-colored and boxy, with stumpy legs that wouldn’t completely straighten, a straggly tail and an ungainly gait, but though he didn’t look the part, he was one of the most remarkable thoroughbred racehorses in history.
Seabiscuit’s fame was unexpected. Overworked and underachieving, Seabiscuit had been struggling in horse racing’s minor leagues for the first three years of his life. But then Tom Smith, a taciturn, West Coast trainer and Red Pollard, a beat-up, failing jockey, turned the horse’s career around. Smith spotted him first and recognized his raw, untapped power. Pollard, whose undistinguished riding history had given him plenty of experience with mistreated and troubled mounts, knew how to ride him. Together, Pollard and Smith startled the racing establishment, turning out a tremendous athlete who became an overnight winner in race after race.
In the 1930s, when Americans longed to escape the grim realities of Depression era, Seabiscuit became a working man’s hero. “For a brief moment in America,” says Laura Hillenbrand, author of the best-selling Seabiscuit, “a little brown racehorse wasn’t just a little brown racehorse. He was the proxy for a nation.” At the height of his career, Seabiscuit became a national obsession. His name was used to sell everything from oranges to hotels, from ladies’ hats to dry-cleaning services. Tens of thousands of fans swarmed to the racetracks just to see him work out. One writer called the phenomenon Seabiscuit-itus.
Although the public loved Seabiscuit, the East Coast racing establishment refused to accept that a Western-based horse could beat its champion, an elegant, haughty, Triple Crown-winner called War Admiral. An on-again, off-again match between the two horses resulted in what many still consider the best horse race in history. The whole country was swept up in the pre-race publicity. Rumor even had it that President Roosevelt would declare which horse he was supporting in his weekly Fireside Chat. When Seabiscuit flew across the finishing line four lengths ahead, pandemonium broke out. “He did just what I thought he’d do,” said an elated Pollard. “He made a rear admiral out of War Admiral.”
In telling the story of Seabiscuit’s unlikely career, producer Stephen Ives (The West, Lindbergh) illuminates the precarious economic conditions that defined America in the 1930s, explores the fascinating behind-the-scenes world of thoroughbred racing and tells how an over-worked horse and a broken-down jockey captured the imagination of the nation. “There is something quintessentially American about everyone in this story,” says Laura Hillenbrand. “[It’s about] the triumph over hardship — that’s the journey toward the American dream.”
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