In praise of older books: ‘Seabiscuit’ by Laura Hillenbrand (2001)

Week 23: Julie Parsons’ favourite books – the vivid story of a ‘lazy’ horse transformed

Tobey Maguire in the 2003 film ‘Seabiscuit’

Tobey Maguire in the 2003 film ‘Seabiscuit’

 

You can watch what Americans called the greatest horse race in history, on Youtube. November 1st, 1938, underdog Seabiscuit took on champion War Admiral at the Pimlico race track in Maryland. Forty-thousand people crammed the track; 40 million listened on radio around the world.

Seabiscuit’s sire was Hard Tack, son of legendary Man o’ War. He should have been a beauty. But he wasn’t. “(S)mallish, mud-colored. . . with forelegs that didn’t straighten all the way”. . . a maddening tendency to whack himself in the front ankle with his own hind hoof. One observer compared his action to a duck waddle”.

They said he was lazy. He couldn’t be bothered to race. Unlike most horses he slept lying down. For hours at a time. “An amiable little horse, but his career prospects looked dim.” He was heading for obscurity until the day that Seabiscuit and Tom Smith came face to face. “He looked right down his nose at me ... like he was saying, ‘Who the devil are you?’ “

Laura Hillenbrand’s wonderful book is not just the story of Seabiscuit. His owner, Charles Howard; trainer, Tom Smith; and jockey, Red Pollard, make up the cast of characters. Outsiders to a man. Mavericks. Living on the edge. Seabiscuit was their cause, the love of their lives. And he did not disappoint.

Under Smith’s care, the horse was transformed. He showed himself as competitive as the men around him. “[He] seemed to take a sadistic pleasure in harassing and humiliating his rivals, slowing down to mock them as he passed ... dashing their hopes with a killing burst of speed.”

Track record after track record was smashed. He was a star. And the day came when “the Biscuit” met “the Admiral”. You’ve a choice: you can watch it on Youtube in black and white, or you can read Hillenbrand’s vivid, technicolour, stride-by-stride, heart in the mouth, description. And yes, Seabiscuit won.

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