The Barnes & Noble Review
No photo finish is needed to establish a winner here: Laura Hillenbrand has produced a Triple Crown champion of a book. Seabiscuit: An American Legend is the exciting tale of one of the most famous racehorses in history, but it is also a lot more, offering fascinating, eccentric characters, surprising emotional impact, and riveting suspense -- all set against the dramatic backdrop of 1930s Depression America.
At the core of the book is what you might call a personal drama, allowing for the fact one of the principals is a horse. In the summer of 1936, three battered losers -- Tom Smith, a trainer; Red Pollard, a jockey blind in one eye; and Seabiscuit, an unattractive racehorse with a terrible record -- came together by chance. Seabiscuit was a grandson of the legendary Man o' War but seemed to have inherited neither his imposing looks nor his blazing speed. But Smith, a onetime cowboy who had worked with horses nearly all his 57 years, sensed something extraordinary in the unhappy colt. Employing all his knowledge and empathy, he brought about such a change in Seabiscuit's health, attitude, and general well-being that within months the three-year-old was winning major races and setting speed records. Almost at once he became a superstar, attracting the kind of media attention we tend to think of as a more recent phenomenon.
The road to glory, though, was a rough one. Various catastrophes followed Seabiscuit's early success, including two horrendous injuries to Pollard, and there is a distinct air of sadness to much of the narrative. There is humor, too, and intrigue worthy of Dick Francis, as when Smith obtained Seabiscuit's look-alike brother, Grog, and substituted him in workouts to deceive the press. But Seabiscuit triumphed, and the author tells us that, in 1938, the little horse got more mention in the press than Roosevelt, Hitler, or Mussolini.
Along with the horse's story and the compelling human sagas attached to it, Hillenbrand tells us something of the period, with lively glimpses of Prohibition-era Tijuana, the rise of radio, the hard, hard life of jockeys, and even a vivid one-page vignette of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. (Charles Howard, Seabiscuit's eventual owner, had started out on the road to riches by renting out autos from his fledgling dealership to aid in dealing with the aftermath of the disaster).
Hillenbrand's style is swift, bright, pictorial, occasionally breezy, and capable of striking descriptions: "[Smith] had a colorless translucence that made it seem as if he were in the earliest stages of progressive invisibility." The author is able to sustain the reader's interest through many races, including a wonderful four-page account of the 1940 Santa Anita Handicap. Though she does not list her sources, it is clear she has read widely in newspaper archives and track memoirs.
It may be hard for us, saturated with sports news as we are, to grasp the overwhelming impact of a racehorse on the public's imagination, but in the era before television and multiple sports leagues, racing was a big diversion as people sought relief from the woes of poverty and joblessness. The name Seabiscuit is not much known today, but Hillenbrand's colorful and moving account of the great horse's life and times seems destined to rectify that. (Stephanie Martin)
Stephanie Martin lives in Newton Centre, Massachusetts.