He was small and not much on looks. And for years, he was like them. Just an afterthought. Little attention. Practically no success came his way.
The times were lean. Or they were worse.
It was the mid-1930s and The Great Depression had its economic grip on the country. Too many people were out of work. Too many families were barely surviving on incomes made meager by the failure of banks, corporations, big busineses, small businesses, and mom-and-pop stores.
The stock market in New York had crashed. People’s dreams and hopes were as worthless as the paper stocks they held on businesses gone bankrupt.
Homes were lost. Tents provided shelter for too many families where the father had little or no income.
Great black clouds hovered like vultures over much the countryside. The little guy was hurting. And many a business owner, only months removed from moving forward, was in the same rudderless boat as the little guy.
Emotions were raw. Surviving from day to day will do that to people. Prospects for a recovery were few in number. The morale of the country’s populace was dragged down by the shrunken job market.
President Herbert Hoover’s name was kicked to the curb.
Sports may have seemed insignificant to a man who needed to feed his three children and wife. And there seemed to be no heros in the country. Politicians were raw meat for the ravenous dogs of the press. Movie stars could be glamorous and still respected, but who had money to take his family to a matinee?
The New York Yankees were still winning. Heavyweight boxer Joe Louis came along about the time the crest of The Depression had been reached.
Thoroughbred racing had attracted much attention before the stock market dived to near extinction in 1929. And it still had millions of followers even as the nation was flung back against a brick wall by the joblessness.
In 1933, a light brown thoroughbred with knobby knees, a slightly swayed back, and little to distinguish him from any horse on any farm in the land was foaled at Claiborne Farm in Kentucky.
He was called Seabiscuit, a name chosen because his sire was Hard Tack. Hard tack was a baked dough/cracker ration given to sailors and men working on ocean-going ships.
Seabiscuit had his advantages. His early schooling and training came from Sunny Jim Fitzsimmons, one of the most successful men in all of racing history and an easy selection to the racing Hall of Fame.
However, Sunny Jim worked for one of the country’s most successful thoroughbred outfits at Wheatley Stable in Lexington. His responsibilities were many and when Seabiscuit failed to win any of his first seven races, Fitzsimmons spent generous time with Omaha, the horse that went on to win the 1935 Triple Crown.
Fitzsimmons measured Seabiscuit against the many other thoroughbreds in training at Wheatley. The stories told him by stablehands were of a horse that slept much more than the others. And he ate much more. Fitzsimmons saw the all-losing horse as lazy.
What could be done to recoup some of the money spent on the so-far unsuccessful horse? He would keep on racing. One favorable fact followed him. He was a grandson of the mighty Man o’ War, thought to be in the 1930s the best race horse of all time.
Seabiscuit was given a massive schedule of smaller races, running as often as twice a week and six times a month.
But he lost his next 10 races to give him a record of 0-for-17.
Finally, a winning breakthrough came at Narragansett Park in New England. Seabiscuit won two straight races. And in the second of the wins, he set a new track record.
As a heavily-raced two-year-old, The Biscuit ran 35 times. His late-year record picked up considerably and he completed the grueling year with five wins and seven runner-up finishes.
In 1936, he raced 12 times in the first four months of the year. There were four wins.
Seabiscuit’s life was changed completely on the afternoon of June 29, 1936. He won a lower-class allowance race at Suffolk Downs in New England. On hand that humid afternoon was a little-known trainer named Tom Smith, a man who had lived most of his life in Montana. And lived it around horses of all kinds, not just thoroughbreds.
Tom Smith offered his advice about what he had seen from Seabiscuit to a flamboyant, West Coast automobile magnate named Charles Howard. Howard purchased Seabiscuit for $8,000 in August.
Tom Smith became the trainer of the thoroughbred he would make the toast of the sports world.
Tall and angular Red Pollard was given the jockey’s duties. Pollard was also an unknown, having plied his trade in Mexico and at smaller tracks in the West.
Seabiscuit, trainer Smith, and rider Pollard seemed to be a team made in racing heaven. In the next eight races that were in the Midwest and East, important wins came in the Governor’s Handicap in Detroit and the Scarsdale Handicap in Yonkers, New York.
In November, the human group of three and Seabiscuit went by train to California. The two races to end the year produced wins in the Bay Bridge Handicap and the World’s Fair Handicap, both held at Bay Meadows in San Mateo.
In 1937, Seabiscuit was a four-year-old. He started the year on the West Coast, where he won four of his first six races.
As his background became more known, Seabiscuit’s popularity spread throughout California. Trainer Smith’s humble beginnings made him popular with the country’s down-on-their-luck millions. And jockey Red Pollard was also an up-by-his-bootstraps figure himself. He was blind in one eye and had the same series of broken bones and narrow escapes that dogged most long-time riders.
Howard, ever the seeker of headlines and favorable publicity, went back East for the more lucrative and prestigious races
coming in the summer.
Seabiscuit kept winning. In a six-week period, he won five straight stakes races. He finished off his triumphant year with three wins in five tries, including a third-place in the heavy mud while carrying 132 pounds in the Narragansett Special.
The year had seen The Biscuit race 15 times and win 11 of those trips. He won more money than any thoroughbred in the nation.
At age five, Seabiscuit became the pride of millions of sports-minded people. The year began disasterously when Pollard was nearly killed when his chest was crushed, many ribs broken, and one arm also broken when one of Howard’s other horses stumbled and then fell on him.
Howard sought the riding services of Georgie “The Iceman” Woolf, a long-time friend of Pollard and a very successful jockey.
The first asignment in 1938 was the $125,000 Santa Anita Handicap, the famous “Hundred Grander” that Howard so coveted. Seabiscuit and the Ice Man finished second, beaten by a head while toting 30 pounds more than the winner, Stagehand.
Many newspapers and several radio (there was no television) corporations began politicking for a match race between Seabiscuit and War Admiral, the temperimental son of Man o’ War.
Howard and Sam Riddle, owner of War Admiral, talked extensively and several attempts were made. But Seabiscuit didn’t do well on heavy or muddy tracks and he was scratched from two of those planned events.
Seabiscuit won a match race against Ligaroti. After three more races in which he won once, another try at matching him with War Admiral was made. On Nov. 1, 1938, Georgie Woolf rode Seabiscuit against War Admiral at Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore.
The media of the time went daft. Live radio broadcasts were arranged with the raspy voice of the inimitable Clem McCarthy calling the race for CBS.
The race was at 1 3/16 miles. People crowded every possible vantage point at Old Hill Top. Over 40,000 were jammed through the infield, crammed to the top pews in the glass-enclosed grandstand, and craned their necks to see as much as they could of the two-horse special.
Trains brought people from New York, Philadelphia, and Boston to further the crowd. Along with McCarthy’s radio rendition, the others broadcast to over 40 million listeners.
In the walk-up start, Seabiscuit answered the firehouse bell with an unaccustomed rush that sent him to the lead. After War Admiral drew even on the backstretch, Seabiscuit sped away to a win by a commanding four lengths.
What one writer called “Seabiscuit-itis” swept the country. The dirty brown, gnarled-kneed, rags to riches thoroughbred had become one of the most popular athletes of the time.
In 1938, Seabiscuit landed more newspaper space than either President Franklin Roosevelt or German dictator Adolf Hitler.
With The Depression easing slightly, marketers leap-frogged one another to land spots on Seabiscuit’s bandwagon. A railroad gave riders a lift on the “Seabiscuit Limited”. If you had any currency, you could place it in Seabiscuit wallets. “Seabiscuit hats” came in a number of varieties and styles for both men and women. Nine commercially-sold Seabiscuit games went on the market. Toys and wastebaskets bearing the thoroughbred’s name were at hand. Hotels and cleaning services used photos to promote their businesses. Even a pinball game bore his image.
Seabiscuit oranges were sent to stores in crates with his picture on them.
Even in winning the match race, Seabiscuit had ruptured a suspensory ligament in one leg. Pollard and the then five-year-old thoroughbred went through a long period of convalescence. He didn’t race in 1939.
Pollard had his leg broken and reset to promote the recovery process. Seabiscuit was walked. And then he was able to trot. And, later, he could canter. Pollard rode him as they both mended.
Trainer Smith baffled veterinary opinions and had Seabiscuit back in training. Early in 1940, Pollard was aboard Seabiscuit’s return to racing in the La Jolla Handicap at Santa Anita. The twosome finished third. And then they won the San Antonio Handicap, setting the track record even though carrying 124 pounds.
That brought on the “Hundred Grander”, the Santa Anita Handicap.
Over 78,000 customers came forth. Most came to see the “people’s champion.”
Pollard rode brilliantly. He weaved through traffic from the outset. Reaching third in the field, Pollard let Seabiscuit find his way between horses and get to the lead. Once into the stretch, the old boy widened his scant margin and then held off stablemate Kayak II to win by a length-and-a-half.
Thousands of well-wishers and celebrants moved to the winner’s circle and momentarily kept Howard, Seabiscuit, and Pollard from reaching that area.
The “Hundred Grander” was Seabiscuit’s last race.