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.