I’m presently reading this 2001 Laura Hillenbrand book, and it’s a complete masterpiece.  At heart, of course, it’s the story of a horse, but it’s much more than that.  It’s a history of America, from the turn of the 20th century through the Great Depression.  It’s a history of horse racing in general.  It’s told through the eyes of three people:  Seabiscuit’s owner, trainer and jockey.  The fact that these three people came together around this one horse, at just this time, is like a great mystery of Fate.  Missing even one of these people, or with another horse, it would have been a different story–or maybe a non-story.

A lot of information is packed into virtually every page, and yet it flows smoothly, i.e., it’s well-written.  You never feel bogged down by details.  I have to cull through this information to even write something relevant, so I’ll stick to the horse himself. 

Seabiscuit was the son of Hard Tack (Hard Tack–Seabiscuit–get it?) who was himself a son of Man O’War.  Man O’War was the son of Fair Play, who was the son of Hastings.  All three of the latter horses were legendary demons.  But Seabiscuit broke the mold.  He was a legendary sleeper.  The only thing he did better than sleeping was eating.  (I can so relate.)

His original trainer was also legendary–“Sunny” Jim Fitzsimmons, who had trained the second and third Triple Crown Winners out of all eleven of them, Gallant Fox in 1930 and Omaha in 1935.   Sunny Jim observed that Seabiscuit did not like to work.  He was lazy.  (I’m beginning to think I can relate to this too.)  Yet when left to his own devices, Seabiscuit would on occasion, when it suited him, show amazing talent and blistering speed.  Sunny Jim said, I believed I had a bird who could sing, but wouldn’t unless we made him. 

And there was the wrong turn he took.  He put him on a punishing schedule of minor races and had the jockeys whip him.

In spite of all that, Sunny Jim had developed a certain affection for Seabiscuit and had hope for him;  he  was disappointed when the owners, tired of Seabiscuit’s unpredictable behavior, sold him. 

Enter the new owner, Charles Howard.  The new trainer, Tom Smith, and the new jockey, Red Pollard.  By the time he got to Howard’s stable, he was as wild and uncontrollable as his sire and grand-sires. 

Howard was not in a hurry.  He had enough money to wait it out, and he trusted Smith completely.  Smith decided that Job One was calming the horse down.  So he put a goat in Seabiscuit’s stall with him.  Seabiscuit responded by picking the goat up in his teeth, shaking it like a rag doll, and heaving it over the half-door of his stall. 

Smith then knocked down the wall between Seabiscuit’s and the next stall, and put in the most docile horse on the planet, Pumpkin.  When that seemed to work, he added a monkey and a dog. 

Job Two was getting Seabiscuit to eat again.  After having been a world-champion eater, he had stopped.  The stable hands said you could use his hip-bones as a hat rack.  (Horse anorexia?)  He was in rebellion against all the things he was expected to do, even if they were things he liked. 

So I was curious about how Smith would overcome this.  And a fateful day came in Detroit where Smith watched him run and had an Aha moment.  Everything the horse was asked to do, he did the opposite.  Speed up–he slowed down.  Slow down –“He thrashed like a hooked marlin”.  Go left–he went right. 

Smith realized the horse was using all his power and competitive spirit to fight the rider–not his opponents.  And Smith calls out to the rider, “Let him go”.  This rider is never named, but I can’t imagine a more terrifying command.  My hat is off to him.  So he just more or less clings to Seabiscuit, who goes wild.  He is running all over the place, at one point almost jumping the rail, but he keeps going.  When he has made a full circuit of the one-mile track, he starts over. 

When he is done, he’s standing exhausted, while the rider just loosely holds the reins, letting Seabiscuit decide.  And where else was there to go?  Seabiscuit took himself home to the barn.  Tom Smith had taught him the pleasure of speed.  The book says he never again fought a rider.


16 responses to “Seabiscuit

  1. I can so relate to the … fear … embodied in “let him go”. The last thing you want to do with a powder keg of a horse is “let go”. But more restraint, more force, more “my way or the highway” is often not the right answer. Loosening up and letting a little joy into life IS right.

  2. Fakesister, Hillenbrand somehow makes that point. All the joy had left Seabiscuit’s life. If he were a human, he might have committed suicide. Tom Smith was the “psychiatrist” who understood him. Smith taught him that he was free, and would never again be forced to do something he didn’t want to do. So then, he started wanting to do what he was asked. Because it was his free choice, at least so far as he was concerned.
    I believe you would love this book. I’ve only just scratched the surface of it.
    There is this quote: “Those unfamiliar with horses might scoff at equine pride as a silly anthropomorphism, but the behavior is unmistakable”. Once he grasped his freedom, he would taunt and intimidate his opponents, sometimes sending them into serious depression 🙂

  3. I’ve always loved horses, at least in the abstract. The reality of owning a horse isn’t nearly as romantic as the IDEA of owning a horse.

  4. I’ve been shocked by the lives of jockeys. Until fairly recently it appears they were little more than slaves. Also, factoid…did you know that horses who are blind in one eye are permitted to race, but jockeys who are blind in one eye are not? Red Pollard was blind in one eye, which he managed to keep a secret from everyone. Now I’m curious to know how it was eventually found out. That’s how this is such a good book; you have to keep reading to get the answers to your questions.

  5. Hillenbrand is an extraordinary story teller, and an instinctive writer. I must confess approaching the novel with some skepticism, not being a horse racing expert by any stretch, I wondered how a woman could pick up this almost totally male sport with no “bonafides” in her background. She actually made me feel as if I was riding Seabiscuit and I could finally understand the sport in ways I never could before. I became an instant Hillenbrand fan.

    Her second novel, Unbroken, is better. It is based on the life of Louis Zamperini (who is miraculously still with us). He told her this one would be easier because she could actually talk to him. Louis was a 1936 Olympic runner, a WWII POW, and a survivor of life’s most challenging odds. Adrift on the Pacific with no food or water for 6 weeks, to be captured by the vicious Japanese who nearly broke him, driven by a hatred of his monstrous chief tormentor, he survived and prevailed. It’s a magnificent story. It humbles me to be on the same planet with guys like Louis.

    • > Her second novel, Unbroken, is better

      Is it a novel or more of a biography? And about what percentage has to do with the war? I may be interested in reading this. But if it’s more fiction than “true story”….I don’t care for fiction.

  6. pt, you and at least two other friends of mine have raved about Unbroken, which somehow, so far, has not appealed to me. I’m not sure why. But you’re right that Hillenbrand is a consummate storyteller. And I know what you mean about riding along with Seabiscuit. Her description of his first Santa Anita Hanidcap race, where he was beaten (literally) by a nose by Rosemont, had me on the edge of my seat. Who needs TV, when you can write this well?
    It’s the beauty of her writing that you don’t have to know anything about horse racing at all. Sit back. She will educate you, and you will be enthralled in the process.

  7. spencercourt, both Unbroken and Seabiscuit are non-fiction. I think pt misspoke when he called them novels.

  8. I always do find it curious, however, that you can’t bear fiction in books. Yet you love movies, and most of them are “fictional”. I just don’t get it 🙂 I’ve explained it to myself by thinking you understand things visually, like artists do. Reading just doesn’t make a conmection for you that matters. Is that anywhere close to right?

  9. “spencercourt, both Unbroken and Seabiscuit are non-fiction. I think pt misspoke when he called them novels.”

    They are both non-fiction biographies. They are both Novels because they are character driven; the story is told from the perspective of the characters AND from the biographer. A straight biography deals with facts only and is not always a good “story.”

    Here is an example where Hillenbrand uses dialog and emotion presenting information in narrative style that distinguishes it from a straight facts only biography.

    Pilsbury was in his bed when Douglas came in, his face radiating shock.
    “The crew went down,” he said.
    Pilsbury could barely speak. His first emotion was overwhelming guilt.
    “if I had only been there,” he said later, “I could have saved it.”

    Reading is a very subjective experience to me, much more intimate than almost anything. So Spence I simply can’t predict whether you will like this or not. It is a story about a man, a hero really, who spent most of WWII being victimized by the perils of war, and remained unbroken.

  10. You have an interesting definition of novels, pt. I think of novels as complete fiction. Then there is “novelized” non-fiction, where the writer imagines and writes dialogue, for example, that you can’t know from history. A perfect example of this is “Paths of Glory”, the book by Jeffrey Archer about George Mallory, who may or may not have been the first person to actually reach the summit of Mount Everest. .
    At least with Seabiscuit, I can’t detect a single wrong note here. She doesn’t seem to be embroidering, or imagining, or making anything up. There is no quote that doesn’t come from a real person. I consider it straight-up non-fiction, told in an engaging way.
    Fakesister and I just had a talk on Saturday about how history is taught. It was my poorest subject in both high school and college. It took me years to overcome that.

  11. Oh and FN as good a novel as Seabiscuit is, the movie is better:)

  12. Well it is not “my” definition, it is what I was taught by Mike Shaara in Narrartive Technique in 1971. AND why he won the Pulitzer a few years later, pioneering that technique in the retelling of Gettysburg in Killer Angels.

  13. Not to try to diminish an icon, I’m not nearly equal to it. But I humbly think he’s wrong.

  14. “Character-driven” does not make a novel. Non-fiction can be character-driven too. No better example than Seabiscuit. That’s what I was trying to say. She tells the story through the characters, but every word of it is true, at least to the extent we can know what iis true 🙂 She does not make any of it up. It’s told through the eyes of the people who were there, however faulty and incomplete their memories might be.
    As much as I hated the study of history in college, this quote by one of my professors has stuck with me always: History is always interpretation. If it weren’t so, it would take as long to tell it as it did to happen.

  15. Just a little more to support the non fictional novel as a creative force.

    The latter half of the 20th century in the United States also saw the rise of the nonfiction novel and the New Journalism
    John Hersey
    Hiroshima (1946)
    Truman Capote
    In Cold Blood (1966)
    William Styron
    The Confessions of Nat Turner
    E. L. Doctorow
    Daniel’s Song (1971), about Julius and Ethel Rosenberg
    Norman Mailer (b. 1923)
    The Executioner’s Song (1979), about Gary Gilmore who refused to challenge his execution
    Alex Haley
    Tom Wolfe
    The Right Stuff, about the Mercury 7 astronauts

    And yes history is always interpretation……… until it isn’t. i.e. cameras and recorders can record actual events which are sometimes even not photo shopped:))

    btw if you haven’t read confessions of Nat Turner I highly recommend it.

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