The Little Horse That Could: Seabiscuit

SEPT / OCT 2012: BY TRYNTSJE CUPERUS

seabiscuit

The Great Depression was an era of great social unrest, with a large part of America’s population experiencing poverty and an uncertain future. In this period a small racehorse, Seabiscuit, became a symbol of hope for many. Born in 1933 on the distinguished Claiborne Farm and grandson of celebrated racehorse Man o’ War, Seabiscuit seemed to have a brilliant future laid out for him. But the foal’s small stature and lazy nature disappointed his owners and trainers. When he failed to win even the smaller races, Seabiscuit was mostly used as a training companion, forced to lose to boost other horses’ confidence. By the time he was four years old, he was bitter and angry and jockeys and trainers shied away from him.

In the 2003 movie Seabiscuit, it is not until forty minutes in we actually meet the champion. This is for good reason, because although it bears Seabiscuit’s name, the film is just as much about the three men who made this horse the racing hero we remember him to be: Charles Howard, Tom Smith and Red Pollard. Charles Howard was a successful automobile dealer in San Francisco. In 1926, he lost his 15-year old son Frankie in a truck accident. Grief-riddled, he withdrew. Friends took him to Mexico for a change of scene. He became interested in horse racing, mainly through the introduction by his second wife, Marcela. Howard and Marcela hired trainer Tom Smith to look out for a racehorse to buy.

The unorthodox Tom Smith, often called “Silent Tom” by his colleagues, saw something in Seabiscuit no one else did: a strength of character, a will to fight. “Get me that horse, he has real stuff in him,” Smith is believed to have said once he met Seabiscuit. Now all they needed was a jockey, but not many were willing to ride the unruly horse. But when Johnny “Red” Pollard met Seabiscuit, he offered the sweet-toothed horse a sugar cube and was rewarded by a friendly nudge. Thus it was that Seabiscuit choose his own jockey! It might have been the luckiest day in the life of Red Pollard. Twelve years of bad luck had made the otherwise talented jockey broke and homeless. His height of five foot seven was large for a jockey and didn’t make it easier to find work.

Under the gentle care of Tom Smith, Seabiscuit calmed down and showed he’d been worth the effort by winning small races on the West Coast. He was noticed by the press after coming in second in the prestigious Santa Anita Handicap of 1937. Howard took the horse on a cross-country racing campaign where he won every race. In November 1938, Seabiscuit, now called “the fastest horse of the West Coast” raced War Admiral, the other great champion of its time in a one-to-one match race. The inner court of the race track was packed with the “small man,” working class fans of Seabiscuit who could only afford the cheap standing tickets. Across the country, an unprecedented 40 million people listened to the radio report of the race. Against people’s expectations (though many hoped it) Seabiscuit won with great dominance.

This was not the end of Seabiscuit’s career, though it sure looked like it when he sustained a serious injury only six weeks later. No one expected him to race again but Howard wouldn’t hear of retirement. At Howard’s ranch, with his also injured jockey Red, Seabiscuit made a slow but sure recovery. “We were a couple of old cripples together,” Pollard later said. “We only had four good legs between us.” In 1940, it was announced that Seabiscuit would race again. At the age of seven, ancient for a racehorse, he competed in the Santa Anita Handicap for the third time in his career. And there, under the eyes of more than 75,000 of his fans, “The Biscuit” as he was lovingly called, won in the second-fastest time ever run on that distance. The day afterward he was described in many newspapers as “a miracle horse” or “one in a million.” It was his last race; he became a studhorse and over 50,000 people visited him on Howard’s ranch. On his death in 1947 he was given a front page obituary in the New York Herald and the New York Times.

What was it that made Seabiscuit so popular? In the Depression, millions of people had no jobs, were unable to provide for their families and many were homeless. They felt worthless and believed no one cared. Then came the story of a horse, out of luck and thrown off, just like them. Seabiscuit was given multiple chances to get back on his feet and triumphed.  As Gene Smith, writer of the Seabiscuit movie says: “This is a story like every happy-ending fairytale that Mother read to us when we were in the nursery.” To a nation in Depression, it was a story of hope, something uplifting in the struggle of their day-to-day life.

The story of Seabiscuit and the three men surrounding him, is still an inspiration to us today. In the film, Tom Smith says: “You don’t throw a whole life away, just because he’s banged up a little.” Seabiscuit reminds us there is potential in everyone even if at first glance you see a problem case. And this in turn reminds us of Someone who “Won’t break off a bent reed or put out a dying flame.” But that’s a whole other True Story.  ■

septoct2012

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