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Seabiscuit by Laura Hillenbrand
I can’t say I’ve ever been especially inclined to know about the details of horse racing. I have taken an enjoyable tour around Churchill Downs but I don’t recall ever watching an actual horse race. Southern Utah residents tend to be more directed to the rodeo arena although there is a fairly new race track only about 40 miles from my home (one that I have never attended). I choose to read this book for the history it retold and for the talent of the author. After reading Unbroken, I knew that Laura Hillenbrand would not disappoint me.
Historical novels (and historical fiction) are my favorite type of reading because they give me some insight as to what life was like in a different period of time and often a vastly different environment from where I live. Hillenbrand’s best talent is giving her readers cold hard facts without sounding like a high school history text book. From the beginning this book gives race times, track records, pedigree charts, and news headlines as if they were the closing sentence of a suspense novel.
(Charles Howard with Seabiscuit)
Chapter one tells the story of a much different man than the one that soon becomes the owner of arguably the most magnificent race horse in history. Charles Howard was penniless and ready to push the newly emerging automobile industry into action. At twenty six years old he grew tired of life on the east coast and boarded a train headed for San Francisco (the year was 1903). With no cash and no job he was forced to beg and borrow enough money to start up a bicycle repair shop. The history of the acceptance of the automobile was fascinating as many cities, San Francisco included, did their best to keep cars off their wagon packed roads. Regardless of opposition the cars still came. However, finding gasoline and a car mechanic was nearly impossible so people headed to the local bike shop to have Charles Howard take a look under the hood. After many years of struggle in the automobile industry Howard finally became a success!
(Seabiscuit and Red Pollard)
The life around a race track was full of excitement during the years preceding and throughout the great depression. As gambling was outlawed in the United States western horse racers, along with jockeys from around the continent fled to Mexico. Red Pollard, from Canada, was among the jockeys looking for work around the tracks in Tijuana. Being a horse jockey was incredibly competitive and very dangerous. Today, nearly 80 years later, we go through some drastic extremes to get our physical appearance to fit a certain description or weight category. In the 1930’s jockey’s were putting their bodies through so many bizarre ‘treatments’ to stay in an acceptable weight range it is amazing they could sit upright in a saddle long enough to run a race (incidentally many of them were too malnourished to compete on race day).
“In denying their bodies the most basic necessities, jockeys demonstrated incredible fortitude. Most walked around in a state of critical dehydration and malnutrition and as a result were irritable, volatile, light-headed, bleary, nauseated, gaunt, and crampy. The heavers, exposing their mouths to repeated onslaughts of stomach acid, lost the enamel on their teeth and eventually the teeth themselves.”
At the popular Tijuana race track a pile of manure (accumulating for YEARS) grew to such an astonishing size one trainer exclaimed, “It was as big as the grandstand”. Inside the gigantic pile the manure was fermenting and putting off great amounts of heat. The locals saw the mess as a problematic eyesore but the jockeys, looking for ways to reduce their weight, flocked to it like it was “prime sauna country. Every day riders dug holes in the surface and burrowed in… A few took the precaution of zipping into rubber suits … but most just wore street clothes.”
Taking a magic pill containing tape worms was another reducing technique used regularly. When an infected jockey became too malnourished to compete he would check himself into the local hospital for a few days to have the worms removed. These men were more determined than most of today’s super models to make weight; although, with the great depression in full swing many jockeys had no other means of financial support (necessity is a great motivator).
(Seabiscuit is a celebrity!)
Only after a series of complicated relationships and coincidences does owner Charles Howard, trainer Tom Smith, jockey Red Pollard (and later George Woolf) and racehorse Seabiscuit join in partnership. Their journey to becoming a great team is unbelievably engaging. As Americans are struggling to feed their families during the great depression an amazing rivalry takes place between the east coast supporters of War Admiral and west coast Seabiscuit fans. At the end of 1938 “when the number of newspaper column inches devoted to public figures was tallied up, it was announced that the little horse had drawn more newspaper coverage in 1938 than Roosevelt, who was second, Hitler (third), Mussolini (fourth), or any other newsmaker”.
(Seabiscuit and War Admiral)
The big question sweeping the nation was who is fastest, War Admiral or Seabiscuit? Charles Howard was determined to find the answer but every time the two horses were to face up against one another something happened to prevent it. The years were passing. Seabiscuit continued to be successful even through a series of injuries and jockey troubles. War Admiral was getting ready to retire, which would leave the burning question unanswered. Finally on November 1, 1938 the plans were set and the race was run. The winner would take home the title of The American Horse of the Year!
(Seabiscuit and his constant stablemate Pumpkin)
Seabiscuit retired on April 10, 1939. He would go on to live the dream life of a horse that loved to eat and run. Fans continued throughout his life to stop by and visit. Charles Howard never stopped caring for brown horse like it was his child.