Seabiscuit was one of the most remarkable Thoroughbred racehorses in history. From 1936 to 1940, Americans thronged to racetracks to watch the small, ungainly racehorse become a champion. He had an awkward gait but ran with dominating speed; he was mild-mannered yet fiercely competitive; and he was stubborn until he became compliant. His inferior performances as a young racehorse led to later dominance on the turf.
Although the stallion was descended from the legendary Man o’ War through his handsome son Hard Tack, Seabiscuit seemed to have little in common with his regal forebears. His body was thick, his legs were stubby, and his tail was stunted. His left foreleg jabbed out wildly when he ran; some called the motion an “eggbeater gait.”
Worse still, as a young horse, he had shown little interest in running at full speed. “He was lazy,” asserted James Fitzsimmons, Seabiscuit’s first trainer, “dead lazy.” In retrospect, it appears the horse’s poor performance and attitude had more to do with the way he was treated than with his ability or character. As a three-year-old, the horse had run in 43 races, more than many Thoroughbreds complete in an entire career. To get him to achieve the speed they suspected he had, riders whipped him liberally.
Mid-way through his third season, when Seabiscuit came under the care of owner Charles and trainer Tom Smith, he was refusing to eat and weighed 200 pounds less than he should. He paced nervously in his stall and lunged at anyone who came near him. One jockey who had ridden the horse before he was sold to Howard described him as “mean, restive and ragged.”
Smith began Seabiscuit’s rehabilitation by feeding him a high-quality Timothy hay and letting him sleep as late as he wanted. The trainer, well aware that horses are fond of company, created a large stall for the new boarder, and moved in a sedate old horse named Pumpkin, a calming influence who would become Seabiscuit’s life-long companion. A stray dog named Pocatell took a liking to the stall and also moved in; so did a spider monkey living on the premises, named Jo-Jo. In the company of this strange menagerie, Seabiscuit relaxed, and the real work of training got underway.
When Smith brought him back to the racetrack with his new jockey, Red Pollard, in the saddle, the Biscuit shocked them all. At different tracks and varying distances, Seabiscuit won. Soon, horse aficionados were picking him as a serious contender for the prestigious Santa Anita Handicap in southern Los Angeles, known for its $100,000 winner-take-all prize. In February 1937, Seabiscuit turned in a dazzling performance in the Handicap, but lost by just a nose after Pollard let up in the home stretch. His second place finish, though, catapulted the horse onto the national stage.
Taking All Comers
In March, Howard packed his horse off on an extensive cross-country racing campaign. “Seabiscuit will take on all comers,” he informed the press, “and he’ll mow them down like grass.” Howard was right; that spring and summer Seabiscuit flattened the competition up and down the Eastern seaboard. By August, there seemed to be only one horse who hadn’t fallen to Seabiscuit’s charge: the 1937 Triple Crown winner, War Admiral. The stallion was the son of Man o'War and considered by many to be the sole heir of his sire’s awesome speed.
Pimlico Match Race
The two horses finally met in a highly anticipated one-on-one match on November 1, 1938, at Maryland’s Pimlico Racecourse. Across the country, 40 million people — one out of every three Americans — tuned in their radios to listen. In their hearts, many Americans rooted for the underdog, Seabiscuit. But most placed their bets on War Admiral.
Race of the Century
Almost everyone expected War Admiral to streak to the lead, but it was Seabiscuit, carefully trained to bolt full-force from the starting line, who shot to the lead and set the pace. He was out front most of the race, but on the backstretch before the last turn, in an unorthodox move, Seabiscuit’s jockey that day, George Woolf, slowed him down, allowing War Admiral to catch up. “Once a horse gives Seabiscuit the old look-in-the-eye,” Red Pollard, sidelined by an injury, had told Woolf the night before the race, “he begins to run to parts unknown.” That’s just what the horse did. He pulled away from War Admiral in the stretch, winning the horse race of the century by four lengths.
A Couple of Cripples
People expected that would be the crowning achievement of the horse’s life when six weeks later, Seabiscuit stumbled and ruptured his suspensory ligament. No one expected him to race again, but Howard refused to use the word “retirement.” Instead he took the horse back to California for a “nice, long rest.” There, the horse and Pollard recuperated together, taking long, limping walks around Howard’s sprawling ranch, pushing a little farther each day. “Seabiscuit and I were a couple of old cripples together,” the jockey said later, “all washed up. But out there among the hooting owls, we both got sound again.”
Comeback at Santa Anita
Late in the fall of 1939, Seabiscuit’s handlers made an almost inconceivable announcement: Seabiscuit would run again in the Santa Anita Handicap scheduled for March 1940. It would be his third try at the hundred-grander. The first time, he had lost by a nose to Rosemont. The second time, he had been badly bumped at the start, and though he had made one of the most remarkable comebacks in racing history, he had lost at the wire again. This time the horse would be seven years old, ancient by racing standards. Pollard, whose injured leg was still fragile, would ride him.
On the final turn in what would be his final race, Seabiscuit pulled at Pollard’s hands, ready to sprint. There was nowhere to go: Seabiscuit was boxed in by two horses, one in front of him on the rail and the other to his outside. At that moment, a jockey on another mount heard a prayer rise from the pack. It came from Pollard, who hoped the angels would part a path that his Seabiscuit could run through. A gap opened. Pollard shouted, “Now, Pop.” Despite the blistering pace the horses had set, Seabiscuit accelerated to the lead. In the homestretch, Kayak, a closer, caught Seabiscuit. For the last time in his racing career, Seabiscuit looked a challenger in the eye and then sprinted ahead, leaving the competition behind him. It was the second-fastest time ever run on an American track for the distance. “Don’t think,” said Pollard afterward, “he didn’t know he was the hero.”