Seabiscuit was the people’s choice during Depression
Seabiscuit was not born to a princely life. Small and not a physical charmer, the quiet bay thoroughbred was even thought to be lazy and lacking in energy by his first trainer, the no-nonsense, easily rankled “Sunny” Jim Fitzsimmons.
Fitzsimmons trained Kentucky Derby champions, was mostly uncomfortable with his various ailments and didn’t want to use his valuable time on a thoroughbred whose early claim to fame was that he was a grandson of the mighty Man o’ War.
Seabiscuit had been a problem for Fitzsimmons. He failed to exert himself in training. The white-haired trainer had a barn full of exquisitely bred yearlings and two-year-olds in training at Claiborne Farm in blue grass Kentucky. He wasn’t going to use any psychological ploys or untried tactics to get Seabiscuit to respond to his militaristic ways. If the the smallish colt didn’t want to work … then others would get most of his time on the training track.
Foaled in 1933, “The Biscuit” came to the races as a two-year-old in 1935.
Fitzsimmons seemed justified in his appraisal of the sometimes grouchy, oft-times sleepy-eyed colt. Seabiscuit could not win in his first 17 races. Usually lethargic and always rambunctious with the stable hands and workout riders, Seabiscuit was anything but coddled for his impertinent behavior.
Fitzsimmons had him race a staggering 35 times as a two-year-old.
Could his ill-temper be attributed to being tired and worn down by his no-vacation racing schedule?
As fate would have it, Seabiscuit had been brought east from his native California in 1936.
He was to run at Suffolk Downs, a track long-gone to the racing wars. It was there that a patient trainer native to Montana spotted him and wondered about his dicey physical condition.
“Silent” Tom Smith trained for automobile dealership owner Charles Howard. Smith had for decades taken under his wing thoroughbreds who had under-performed or were prone to injury … and he had made them whole or made them interested after getting down time from the races.
Smith persuaded Charles Howard to purchase Seabiscuit for $8,000 – not chump change during the Depression.
Now Howard had a jockey whose story was one of constant injury and rehabilitation efforts himself. The rider was Red Pollard. Pollard was blind in one eye, had only a few bones it seemed that had not been broken in racetrack falls or non-winning skirmishes with metal starting gates, the ground after a fall during a race or some training incident. Seabiscuit became a docile, more agreeable sort to all concerned after his prolonged rest period.
Trainer Smith had given Seabiscuit adequate time to recover from his grueling racing schedule.
When he returned to the races, Seabiscuit and jockey Pollard began to win minor stakes and catch the eye of the public. And it was a considerable public because the sports that had people’s attention were boxing, horse racing and major league baseball.
By the end of 1936, Seabiscuit’s story was beginning to reach full blossom and jockey Pollard’s own story was nearly as joy-fulfilling. The twosome became a symbol of hope for those still burdened by the misery of the Depression.
In 1937, Seabiscuit reeled off graded stakes wins in the Massachusetts Handicap, Brooklyn Handicap and Bay Meadows (California) Handicap.
By the late fall of 1938, the little dynamo had already beaten stable mate Ligaroti in a match race that was hastily arranged because a similar race with War Admiral, a Triple Crown winner and son of Man o’ War, couldn’t be accomplished for one reason or another.
But on Nov. 1, 1938, a massive crowd of 40,000 gathered at Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore to see the greatly-anticipated match race between Seabiscuit and the much-heralded War Admiral. The newspapers of the time reported 40 million people would listen to a nation-wide radio broadcast of the race.
Jockey Pollard had been severely injured – almost losing a leg – and couldn’t ride.
Pollard’s friend, George “The Iceman” Woolf, was a leading rider of the time and he was hired by owner Howard to guide Seabiscuit.
Woolf had “The Biscuit” off to a good start and, following instructions from both Pollard and Howard, relaxed his people’s choice in the middle of the race. When War Admiral moved alongside Woolf, he asked Seabiscuit for a stretch run. After responding to urging, Seabiscuit won by an ever-expanding four lengths. “Sunny” Jim Fitzsimmons was unavailable for comment.
Horse of the Year honors came to the little bay.
It was back to California. In tow were Seabiscuit’s friends who now accompanied him everywhere. There was Pocatell, a stray dog taken in; Jo Jo, a spider monkey and Pumpkin, a horse that had been befriended.
At age seven, he was retired in 1940.
In 89 career races, Seabiscuit recorded 33 wins. He was racing’s all-time money winner.
Racing’s Hall of Fame in Saratoga, New York inducted him in 1958.
A 2003 film simply called “Seabiscuit” and adapted from author Laura Hillenbrand’s book was nominated for six Academy Awards, including Best Picture.
In 2009, after an eight-year effort, a stamp from the U.S. Postal Service was put into service.
Seabiscuit was so wildly popular because of his underdog status, and because he was seen to overcome a number of obstacles strewn in his path. Those millions thrown into turmoil during the Depression identified with him and his rise through the ranks to the pinnacle of thoroughbred racing. And Pollard’s persistence and comebacks from career-threatening injuries were part of the rise through the dust to nationwide fame.
Seabiscuit – the little engine that could. And did until age seven.