Breezy's Report for History (on a horse, lol) Mar 14, 2010 0:42:59 GMT -5
Post by Deleted on Mar 14, 2010 0:42:59 GMT -5
On New Year's Eve, 1938, columnist Walter Winchell published his annual list of the top ten newsmakers. Nine men were named, including Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Neville Chamberlain, and Adolf Hitler. The tenth spot went to a horse.
In the mid-1930s and on, the name Seabiscuit became a house-hold name. Many Americans knew who he was and what he did, and he was beloved to the people of the country. Even today, most people have at least heard of Seabiscuit, but if pressed to answer, many people probably wouldn't be able to say anything about this incredible athlete beyond his name and occupation.
This American legend was born on May 23, 1933 on Claiborne Farm in Paris, Kentucky. He was by Hard Tack, a successful racing stallion, and out of Swing On, a racing mare whose only worth was her impressive pedigree. His grandsire was Man o' War, a chestnut stallion considered to be one of the greatest thoroughbred racing horses of all time. He was named 'Seabiscuit,' a reference to the name of his father 'Hard Tack,' who was named for a staple food aboard the naval ships that Man o' War himself was named for.
As a young colt, Seabiscuit was hoped to be a foal with promise, as he was the grandson of Man o' War. Owned by Gladys Mills Phipps, he was an stocky, low-slung, undersized, knobby-kneed little dun-colored bay colt, and though he was a direct descendant of Man o' War, you would never have known it to look at him.
Personality-wise, the colt seemed to take after his father, whose ill temper caused him to retire early with only a modest net win. Prone to long bouts of sleeping and eating, most of the hands at the Wheatley Farm thought the colt to be nearly worthless.
Initially, he was trained by the legendary Sunny Jim Fitzsimmons, who had trained other successful horses such as Triple Crown winter Gallant Fox and Seabisuit's own parents. However, though Fitzsimmons saw potential in the young bay, he on the whole thought that the runty horse was lazy, and with his time already taken by horses such Omaha (a future Triple Crown winner), Granville, and Faireno, Seabiscuit was pawned off to an assistant trainer and set to a grueling schedule of small races.
His first ten races as a two-year old were less than spectacular. He won not a one, and most times finished back in the field. After that, the horse became a sort of a joke at the stables. By the end of his first year racing, Seabiscuit had raced an astonishing thirty-five times, more than triple the average for a horse his age, and he lost nearly every time. Most of these races had been claiming races, a race where the horses are all for sale more or less for the 'claiming price' up until the beginning of the race.
His three year old racing career was more or less the same as the previous year. He raced numerous times in small stakes and claimers to a total of three races, still well above the average for a horse his age. At one point, while in Maryland, he ran five races in just twenty days! His wins were a little more numerous, but they were nothing amazing or noteworthy. Despite the horse's appalling record, there was something about the colt that caught the eye of trainer 'Silent' Tom Smith. "He had a look," the trainer would later say, "of true confidence."
On behalf of his employer, Charles Howard, an ex-bicycle repairman turned automotive magnate, Smith bought the colt for $7500, no mean price for the times and for the horse. And then he sent him to the Howard Farm.
At first, the hands at the Howard barn out west near the Detroit Fairgrounds were skeptical of the wisdom of buying Seabiscuit: he was ill-tempered, paced in his stall, lunged at people that dared to go near him, and broke into a lather at the sight of a saddle. His knees were uneven, and when he ran, his left foreleg jutted out wildly, something that was known as an 'eggbeater gait' and generally considered it a sign of lameness.
The first thing Tom Smith did for the horse was provide the horse with a social life. At first, a goat was put in the stall, but when the creature went after the bay's supper, Seabiscuit promptly kicked the animal out. After numerous attempts with all sorts of different animals (including a Spider Monkey), Seabiscuit was paired up with Pumpkin the cow pony. The two would stay together for the rest of the thoroughbred's career.
'Silent Tom' made a careful study of the horse and devised a regimen to specifically for the colt. For leg soreness, Smith applied a homemade liniment and devised a knee and ankle brace for Seabiscuit to wear while in the stall. Among the orders given to the stable hands were to give the horse maximum latitude and to never, ever disturb him while he was sleeping. Gradually, the horse rounded into form.
What was needed to complete the horse was a jockey sensitive enough to handle him, and he found that in Canadian-born John Pollard, nicknamed 'Red' thanks to a shock of red hair. Like many Americans, Red Pollard was down on his luck. His racing career consisted of talking his way onto as many rides as possible, drifting from track to track, and occasionally he worked as a prizefight to make ends meet. By the time Red joined up with Seabiscuit, the man had a grand total of three stakes wins. That was all to change, however. The moment Red and the little bay met, it was apparent that there was a connection. Separate, they were just a broken down horse and a failing jockey, but together, they would become the underdog heroes of a troubled population.
By 1935, Tom Smith was thinking about racing Seabiscuit again, but he still had no idea what sort of horse he really had, or if his gamble on the little bay stallion would pay off or not. In a workout to find out just how fast the horse was, Smith put an exercise rider on Seabiscuit and instructed him to turn the horse loose. By the time Seabiscuit had come down the back stretch and blown past Smith, he was covering more than fifty feet a second, and he smashed the track's previous record when he passed under the wire. The horse was ready to race.
His first race in 1936 was the annual Governor's Handicap in Detroit. It was a small race, and among the crowd was Charles Howard and his wife Marcela, who had driven all the way up to see what their new horse and jockey could do. The couple, along with 28,000 or so other spectators, watched as Seabiscuit, in one minute fifty seconds - the time it takes to fry an egg - crossed the finish wire by a nose and recouped over half of his purchase price. "This Seabiscuit… runs like he means it," Jolly Rogers, a sportswriter exclaimed, "…with fire, slash, and zam!"
This was only the start. Time after time over the next twelve weeks, Seabiscuit thundered into the winner's circle, and some insiders were even touting him as a contender for the $100,000 Santa Anita Handicap, the richest race in the world; $100,000, all to the winner, in a time when the average American was earning less than $500 a year.
On February 27th, 1937, Seabiscuit entered the Santa Anita Handicap. Despite his recent triumphs, most still considered the colt a long shot; the hands-down favorite was Rosemont. There were over a dozen horse on the field, and the race began as a mad dash for position. Seabscuit started near the end, but through the course of the race he weaved his way up to the head, until he swung into a full-frontal battle between the long shot and the race favorite. Seabiscuit had a clear lead toward the end of the race, and then something happened… Red froze, and stopped urging the spirited bay. At the last minute, with fifty yards to go, the jockey remembered himself and settled a whip onto the horse's flank. The two horse hurtled under the wire together. It was a photo finish, and the winner was Rosemont, by a nose.
Why had Red Pollard seemingly thrown this race away? From everyone's perspective, this was almost inexplicable, but what they didn't know, what that at the beginning of his career, Pollard was struck in the head by something kicked up by another horse's hooves (remember, he was racing in the lowliest, most disgusting racetracks in the West and in Mexico.). The object had struck right over the visual center of his brain and blinded him in one eye; he literally couldn't see how close he was cutting, and he couldn't see that Rosemont was gaining. This blindness was something that no-one even knew. If the man had told people that he was blind in one eye, he would have rightfully been banned from the track.
Despite the loss, Seabiscuit became something of a local celebrity. The adulation was far from universal, however, as many of the racetackers of the prestigious racing circle back East looked upon the unsightly bay colt with skepticism and outright scorn; they would sneer, "Oh, he's a California horse."
This would all change, however. On March 13th, Seabiscuit's owner Charles Howard packed the horse off on an exhaustive cross-country racing campaign, shuttling back and forth, from train to track, shipping at an unheard-of 8,000 miles. "Seabiscuit will take on all comers," Howard told the press, "and he'll mow them down like grass." That he did, blazing to victory in ten major stakes races and boosting his total earnings for the year to $144,000 - more than the world's top money-winner had earned in his best season ever.
In the face of these many achievements, it wouldn't have been a surprise if the phenomenal colt took the coveted title of Horse of the Year. The honor went to War Admiral, the imperious Eastern-bred three-year old son of War Admiral, Seabiscuit's uncle and the fourth horse to ever win the Triple Crown.
If Seabiscuit was to win the crown as turf champion, everyone agreed, he'd have to beat War Admiral; one of the century's greatest sports rivalries had begun. A match-race between Seabiscuit and War Admiral fit right in Howard's plan to make his horse a star, but unfortunately, Samuel Riddle, War Admiral's notoriously cantankerous owner, refused to commit. His reason, he told reporters, was he had absolutely not intention of demeaning his colt's reputation in a contest against a Western colt.
That was that. The next best thing was the Santa Anita Handicap, and thusly the Howard barn returned to California. This time, they all vowed, Seabiscuit would win. Their determination, however, flagged as the race drew nearer. Days of drenching rain and swampy tracks caused Seabiscuit to be scratched off from one warm-up after another, and finally, a restless Red Pollard climbed aboard the Howards' star filly, Fair Knightess, to ride a race without Seabiscuit.
It was a discussion that he would later come to regret. Halfway around the turn, the filly clipped the heels of the horse in front of her and tumbled, throwing Pollard in front of her and then crushing him beneath her as she crashed to the ground. He was lucky that he didn't die, but the diagnosis was grim: a shattered collarbone, a broken shoulder, multiple rib fractures and serious internal injuries. The doctors said that he wouldn't ride again for at least a year; the hundred grander, and his chance to redeem the loss to Rosemont: gone.
Since he couldn't ride, Red made it known that the only jockey acceptable as a replacement for him was his old friend George "the Iceman" Woolf, a man known for his cool demeanor and ability to sit on any horse. Woolf, who weighed five pounds less than the recently-crowned Miss America but was still considered hefty by turf standards at 115 pounds, had a high win-average and was confidant that he'd win; the man even promised a bed-ridden Pollard that when Seabiscuit won, they'd split the $10,000 jockey's share 50-50, right down the middle.
Eighteen thoroughbreds ran the race, but it quickly boiled down to nose for nose, neck for neck race between Seabiscuit and Stagehand all the way to the wire with a fantastical photo finish for Stagehand. And even though Seabiscuit lost the hundred grander for the second time in a row, the horse had turned in one of the most phenomenal performances in thoroughbred racing history. Beginning at the back of the pack due to a foul up and shooting up to first from twelve in just half a mile, only to end with a dazzling fierce homestretch drive against a horse toting thirty pounds fewer, and still only losing by a nose.Even though he lost, it was widely agreed that he was the best horse in the race. Never before had a race horse been so widely praised for losing.
But there he was. This one downtrodden, cast-off colt had captured the hearts of hundreds of thousands of Americans, even those who had never set foot onto a racetrack in their entire life. Seabiscuit-itis, one sportswriter called it. The horse was merchandised to an incredible degree: he had his own line of ladies hats; there were at least five Seabiscuit board games; he even had his own line of oranges. He was a superstar. He was a hero.
Part of the reason that he became such a huge celebrity in America was because he was one of the first big radio stars. The stallion raced about once a week, and it became an American ritual to gather around the radio and listen to him race. His fame grew to the point where Seabiscuit made headlines almost every day in the Spring of 1938. At one point, it was announced that the long-anticipated full-field match-race between War Admiral and Seabiscuit was finally underway.
Red Pollard, then fully recovered, was to ride Seabiscuit in in this race. Unfortunately, once again before a major race, disaster struck the jockey. He had agreed to work out a green two-year old colt as a favor to a friend. Everything had been fine until the colt spooked, crashed through the rail, tore off in the direction of the barn, and smashed into a corner. At the far end of the shed row, people heard the screams. Red's right leg had been nearly severed just below the knee. The doctors later told him that he'd never be able to ride again, that we would be lucky to ever walk again.
Once again, George Woolf was brought in to ride Seabiscuit in Red's place, but for the first time in the jockey's career, he was uncertain of a win. He even called upon Red for advice, and the instructions had been simple, though highly unorthodox: Gun Seabiscuit at the start, and then let War Admiral catch up. "Once a horse gives Seabiscuit the old look-in-the-eye, he begins to run to parts unknown…"
On the day of the race, thirty thousand people crammed themselves into the grandstand, an additional ten thousand jammed themselves into the infield, and another ten thousand gathered outside of the track. Across the country, one out of every three Americans - over forty million listeners - tuned into the broadcast.
Archival Transcript, by Clem McCarthy: And they’re off! It’s a go, Georgie Woolf is at the whip on Seabiscuit to key him up and they’re coming to me head and head. War Admiral on the inside. Woolf is fighting Seabiscuit and Seabiscuit is outrunning him. Seabiscuit is coming to me one length – two lengths in the lead. And he came right over two lengths, he goes by me. Seabiscuit by two lengths, War Admiral right on his heels. War Admiral is trailing him around the turn. Seabiscuit on the lead by two lengths . War Admiral is second to him and Kurtsinger is sitting still. Now War Admiral is trying to move to him. They’re going into the backstretch. Seabiscuit by a length and a half. Now Seabiscuit by two lengths , War Admiral second. Seabiscuit by two lengths – they’re going up 3/4 of a mile to come. And it’s Seabiscuit by a length and a half, down the backstretch. They’re halfway down that backstretch and there goes War Admiral after him.
Now the horse race is on! And I’m losing them… they’re head and head, but I’ll catch them in about 50 yards. They’re head and head and now War Admiral has a head advantage and Seabiscuit’s got a head advantage. They’re going into that far turn, head and head, and it is either one – take your choice… as they head for that home lane.
This is a real horse race, just what we had hoped we’d get. They’re head and head and both jockeys driving. It’s the best horse from here in. They’ve 200 yards to come. It’s horse against horse. Both of them driving. Seabiscuit leads by a length. Now Seabiscuit by a length and a half. Woolf has put away his whip. Seabiscuit by three; Seabiscuit by three.
Seabiscuit is the winner! By four lengths! And you never saw such a wild crowd. Seabiscuit’s the winner! By four lengths. Trying to drown this crowd out here. They’re roaring around me. Seabiscuit was the winner from end to end. By four lengths.
Not only had Seabiscuit beaten War Admiral, but he'd smashed the track record. No horse had ever run so long so fast. "Speed of that kind," one turf scribe said, "is what is known as kissing the boys good-bye." "Seabiscuit did just what I thought he'd do," Red said the next day, "he made a rear admiral out of War Admiral." When it came time for the ballots to be cast for Horse of the Year, there was no debate whatsoever about who deserved the honor.
Just a short six weeks later, however, tragedy struck, and 'The Biscuit's' career seemed to be over. On February 14th, 1939, as he swung around the final turn of a prep race at Santa Anita, Seabiscuit stumbled, his left foreleg suddenly given way as the suspensory ligament ruptured. The diagnosis: he would probably never run again.
Rather than use the grungy or 'retirement,' Howard instead took Seabiscuit home for what was termed 'a nice, long rest.' Pollard and his new wife also wound up at the California ranch, and they were taken in. "Seabiscuit and I were a couple of old cripples together," Red would later say, "all washed up." Throughout the summer of 1939, the pair recovered together, progressing from long, limping walks to soundness, and late that fall it was announced that seven-year old Seabiscuit would have one last go at elusive Santa Anita. This announcement shocked the world: horses didn't come out of retirement with success. It simply just didn't happen.
But everyone was determined to try, including Seabiscuit's longtime jockey. Even though Red had broken his leg three times, he wanted to ride this last race. "Old Pops and I have four good legs between us," he said, "maybe that's enough."
And it was. One minute thirty-six seconds into the race, they were bottled up behind the front-runners with nowhere to run. A lane barely big enough for a horse to go through finally opened, and the bay shot through and blazed into the lead, dominating the track and thundering down the stretch and wire alone to take a phenomenal come-back victory!
This was Seabiscuit's final race: he was permanently retired to stud after the Santa Anita Handicap, and though he begat several stakes winners, he never topped the charts; he never stood outside of California, however, which may have contributed to his lack of success. He was, however, the all-time leading money-winner, topping Sun Beua by $60, 986 with a lifetime's earnings of $437,730. His lifetime race record was 89 starts; he only won thirty-three of them.
In his retirement, the bay stallion often carried his owner on trail rides, and when he died on May 17th, 1947, Howard buried the horse in a favored spot, though where it was was never disclosed. A life-sized bribe statue stands at the Santa Anita track to commemorate the deeds of the hard-luck horse hero. In 1958 he was inducted into the Hall of Fame. Several books have been written about him, including Laura Hillenbrand's best-selling novel, as well as two major motion pictures.
Seabiscuit was the American Underdog. Came along in the worst years of the depression, and for a brief time, a little brown racehorse wasn't just a little brown racehorse - he was the proxy for a nation. He came from the bottom of the heap to the top, fighting his way up the ladder to success. He became a symbol for the American people. People identified with him. And through this, he became immortalized in our memories.