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Laura Hillenbrand, author of the runaway phenomenon Unbroken, brilliantly re-creates a universal underdog story in this #1 New York Times bestseller.
Seabiscuit was one of the most electrifying and popular attractions in sports history and the single biggest newsmaker in the world in 1938, receiving more coverage than FDR, Hitler, or Mussolini. But his success was a surprise to the racing establishment, which had written off the crooked-legged racehorse with the sad tail. Three men changed Seabiscuit’s fortunes:
Charles Howard was a onetime bicycle repairman who introduced the automobile to the western United States and became an overnight millionaire. When he needed a trainer for his new racehorses, he hired Tom Smith, a mysterious mustang breaker from the Colorado plains. Smith urged Howard to buy Seabiscuit for a bargain-basement price, then hired as his jockey Red Pollard, a failed boxer who was blind in one eye, half-crippled, and prone to quoting passages from Ralph Waldo Emerson. Over four years, these unlikely partners survived a phenomenal run of bad fortune, conspiracy, and severe injury to transform Seabiscuit from a neurotic, pathologically indolent also-ran into an American sports icon.
About the Author
Laura Hillenbrand has been writing about Thoroughbred racing since 1988 and has been a contributing writer/editor for Equus magazine since 1989. Her work has also appeared in American Heritage, ABC Sports Online, The Blood-Horse, Thoroughbred Times, The Backstretch, Turf and Sport Digest and many other publications. Her 1998 American Heritage article on Seabiscuit won the Eclipse Award for Magazine Writing, the highest award for Thoroughbred racing. She is currently serving as a consultant on a Universal Studios movie based on this book. Born in Fairfax, Virginia, Laura lives in Washington, D.C.
Read an Excerpt
THE DAY OF THE HORSE IS PAST
Charles Howard had the feel of a gigantic onrushing machine: You had to either climb on or leap out of the way. He would sweep into a room, working a cigarette in his fingers, and people would trail him like pilot fish. They couldn’t help themselves. Fifty-eight years old in 1935, Howard was a tall, glowing man in a big suit and a very big Buick. But it wasn’t his physical bearing that did it. He lived on a California ranch so huge that a man could take a wrong turn on it and be lost forever, but it wasn’t his circumstances either. Nor was it that he spoke loud or long; the surprise of the man was his understatement, the quiet and kindly intimacy of his acquaintance. What drew people to him was something intangible, an air about him. There was a certain inevitability to Charles Howard, an urgency radiating from him that made people believe that the world was always going to bend to his wishes.
On an afternoon in 1903, long before the big cars and the ranch and all the money, Howard began his adulthood with only that air of destiny and
21 cents in his pocket. He sat in the swaying belly of a transcontinental train, snaking west from New York. He was twenty-six, handsome, gentle-manly, with a bounding imagination. Back then he had a lot more hair than anyone who knew him later would have guessed. Years in the saddles of military-school horses had taught him to carry his six-foot-one-inch frame straight up.
He was eastern born and bred, but he had a westerner’s restlessness.
He had tried to satisfy it by enlisting in the cavalry for the Spanish-American War, and though he became a skilled horseman, thanks to bad timing and dysentery he never got out of Camp Wheeler in Alabama. After his discharge, he got a job in New York as a bicycle mechanic, took up competitive bicycle racing, got married, and had two sons. It seems to have been a good life, but the East stifled Howard. His mind never seemed to settle down. His ambitions had fixed upon the vast new America on the other side of the Rockies. That day in 1903 he couldn’t resist the impulse anymore. He left everything he’d ever known behind, promised his wife
Fannie May he’d send for her soon, and got on the train.
He got off in San Francisco. His two dimes and a penny couldn’t carry him far, but somehow he begged and borrowed enough money to open a little bicycle-repair shop on Van Ness Avenue downtown. He tinkered with the bikes and waited for something interesting to come his way.
It came in the form of a string of distressed-looking men who began appearing at his door. Eccentric souls with too much money in their pockets and far too much time on their hands, they had blown thick wads of cash on preposterous machines called automobiles. Some of them were feeling terribly sorry about it.
The horseless carriage was just arriving in San Francisco, and its debut was turning into one of those colorfully unmitigated disasters that bring misery to everyone but historians. Consumers were staying away from the
“devilish contraptions” in droves. The men who had invested in them were the subjects of cautionary tales, derision, and a fair measure of public loathing. In San Francisco in 1903, the horse and buggy was not going the way of the horse and buggy.
For good reason. The automobile, so sleekly efficient on paper, was in practice a civic menace, belching out exhaust, kicking up storms of dust,
becoming hopelessly mired in the most innocuous-looking puddles, tying up horse traffic, and raising an earsplitting cacophony that sent buggy horses fleeing. Incensed local lawmakers responded with monuments to legislative creativity. The laws of at least one town required automobile drivers to stop, get out, and fire off Roman candles every time horse-drawn vehicles came into view. Massachusetts tried and, fortunately, failed to mandate that cars be equipped with bells that would ring with each revo-
lution of the wheels. In some towns police were authorized to disable passing cars with ropes, chains, wires, and even bullets, so long as they took reasonable care to avoid gunning down the drivers. San Francisco didn’t escape the legislative wave. Bitter local officials pushed through an ordinance banning automobiles from the Stanford campus and all tourist areas, effectively exiling them from the city.
Nor were these the only obstacles. The asking price for the cheapest automobile amounted to twice the $500 annual salary of the average citizen— some cost three times that much—and all that bought you was four wheels, a body, and an engine. “Accessories” like bumpers, carburetors,
and headlights had to be purchased separately. Just starting the thing,
through hand cranking, could land a man in traction. With no gas stations,
owners had to lug five-gallon fuel cans to local drugstores, filling them for
60 cents a gallon and hoping the pharmacist wouldn’t substitute benzene for gasoline. Doctors warned women away from automobiles, fearing slow suffocation in noxious fumes. A few adventurous members of the gentler sex took to wearing ridiculous “windshield hats,” watermelon-sized fabric balloons, equipped with little glass windows, that fit over the entire head,
leaving ample room for corpulent Victorian coiffures. Navigation was another nightmare. The first of San Francisco’s road signs were only just being erected, hammered up by an enterprising insurance underwriter who hoped to win clients by posting directions into the countryside,
whose drivers retreated for automobile “picnic parties” held out of the view of angry townsfolk.
Finally, driving itself was something of a touch-and-go pursuit. The first automobiles imported to San Francisco had so little power that they rarely made it up the hills. The grade of Nineteenth Avenue was so daunting for the engines of the day that watching automobiles straining for the top became a local pastime. The automobiles’ delicate constitutions and general faintheartedness soon became a source of scorn. One cartoon from the era depicted a wealthy couple standing on a roadside next to its dearly departed vehicle. The caption read, “The Idle Rich.”
Where San Franciscans saw an urban nuisance, Charles Howard saw opportunity. Automobile-repair shops hadn’t been created yet—and would have made little sense anyway as few were fool enough to buy a car.
Owners had no place to go when their cars expired. A bicycle repairman was the closest thing to an auto mechanic available, and Howard’s shop was conveniently close to the neighborhoods of wealthy car owners.
Howard hadn’t been in town long before the owners began showing up on his doorstep.
Howard had a weakness for lost causes. He accepted the challenge,
poked around in the cars, and figured out how to fix them. Soon he was showing up at the primitive automobile races held around the city. Before long, he was driving in them. The first American race, run around
Evanston, Illinois, had been held only eight years before, with the winning car ripping along at the dizzying average speed of seven and a half miles per hour. But by 1903, automotive horsepower had greatly improved—
one car averaged 65.3 mph in a cross-European race that season—making the races a good spectacle. It also made for astronomical casualty rates.
The European race, for one, turned into such a godawful bloodletting that it was ultimately halted due to “too many fatalities.”
Howard was beginning to see these contraptions as the instrument of his ambition. Taking an audacious step, he booked a train east, got off in
Detroit, and somehow talked his way into a meeting with Will Durant,
chief of Buick Automobiles and future founder of General Motors.
Howard told Durant that he wanted to be a part of the industry, troubled though it was. Durant liked what he saw and hired him to set up dealerships and recruit dealers. Howard returned to San Francisco, opened the
Pioneer Motor Company on Buick’s behalf, and hired a local man to manage it. But on a checkup visit, he was dismayed to find that the manager was focusing his sales effort not on Buicks but on ponderous Thomas Flyers. Howard went back to Detroit and told Durant that he could do better.
Durant was sold. Howard walked away with the Buick franchise for all of
San Francisco. It was 1905, and he was just twenty-eight years old.
Howard returned to San Francisco by train with three Buicks in tow.
By some accounts, he first housed his automobiles in the parlor of his old bicycle-repair shop on Van Ness Avenue before moving to a modest building on Golden Gate Avenue, half a block from Van Ness. He brought Fannie
May out to join him. With two young boys to feed, and two more soon to follow, Fannie May must have been alarmed by her husband’s career choice. Two years had done little to pacify the San Franciscan hostility for the automobile. Howard failed to sell a single car.
Table of Contents
|1.||The Day of the Horse Is Past||17|
|2.||The Lone Plainsman||41|
|3.||Mean, Restive, and Ragged||58|
|4.||The Cougar and the Iceman||83|
|5.||A Boot on One Foot, a Toe Tag on the Other||106|
|6.||Light and Shadow||131|
|7.||Learn Your Horse||153|
|11.||No Pollard, No Seabiscuit||233|
|12.||All I Need Is Luck||258|
|14.||The Wise We Boys||298|
|16.||I Know My Horse||338|
|17.||The Dingbustingest Contest You Ever Clapped an Eye On||351|
|19.||The Second Civil War||384|
|20.||"All Four of His Legs Are Broken"||407|
|21.||A Long, Hard Pull||425|
|22.||Four Good Legs Between Us||434|
|23.||One Hundred Grand||452|
What People are Saying About This
Laura Hillenbrand has written one of the best sports biographies in
the history of the genre. Prodigiously reported, beautifully crafted and
touched throughout with lyrical grace, the book is a marvelous narrative of
non-fiction that reads like a novel. From the starting gate to the wire,
Seabiscuit is one memorable read.
(William Nack, author of Secretariat: The Making of a Champion)
Reading Group Guide
1. Seabiscuit grew so popular as a cultural icon that in 1938, he commanded more space in American newspapers than any other public figure. Considering the temper of the times as well as the horse’s early career on the racetrack, what were the sources of The Biscuit’s enormous popularity during that benchmark period of U.S. history?
Would he be as popular if he raced today? What did the public need that it found in this horse?
2. The Great Match Race between Seabiscuit and War Admiral in 1938
evoked heated partisan passions. These passions spilled over on radio and into the daily prints, with each colt leading a raucous legion of followers to the barrier at Pimlico Race Course that autumn day. What were the differences separating these two horses, and what did each competitor represent in the American experience that set one apart from the other?
3. All jockeys in the 1930s endured terrible hardships and hazards,
starving themselves to make weight, then competing in an exceptionally dangerous sport. For George Woolf and Red Pollard, there were additional factors that compounded the difficulties and dangers of their jobs—diabetes for the former and half-blindness for the latter. Why, in spite of this, did they go on with their careers? What were the allures of race riding that led them to subject themselves to such risk and torment?
4. What was the role of the press and radio in the Seabiscuit phenomenon?
How did Howard use the media to his advantage? How did the media help Seabiscuit’s career, and how was it a hindrance?
5. Seabiscuit possessed all the qualities for which the Thoroughbred has been prized since the English imported the breed’s three foundation sires from the Middle East three hundred years ago. What were those qualities? What made this horse a winner?
6. Horses of Seabiscuit’s stature, from Man o’ War in the 1920s to
Cigar in the 1990s, have always generated a powerful gravitational field of their own, attracting crowds of people into their immediate orbit, shaping relationships among them, and even affecting the personalities of those nearest them. How did Seabiscuit shape and influence the lives of those around him?
7. Red Pollard, Tom Smith, and Charles Howard formed an unlikely partnership. In what ways were these men different? How did their differences serve as an asset to them?
8. What critical attribute did Howard, Smith, and Pollard share? How did this shared attribute serve as a key to their success?
9. In what ways was each man in the Seabiscuit partnership similar, in his own way, to Seabiscuit himself? How did these similarities help them cultivate the horse’s talents and cure his ailments and neuroses?
10. What lessons can be drawn from the successes of the Seabiscuit team? What does their story say about the role of character in life?
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
I happened upon this book by mere coincidence and only read it to get in the good graces of my English teacher who was unleashing a vicious wrath on those who disagreed with her book choices. She handed it to me with high reccomendations. With my gradess at stake, I struggled to maintain focus during the first few pages of interminable facts, but soon fell in love with the gripping tale of a quiet trainer, a garralous owner, and horse with both character and a huge heart. You don't need to be an animal lover to enjoy this enthralling tale though it helps. While this reccomendation may not have moved you, I hope that you will give this wonderful book a chance as my ability in writing reviews, this being my first, does not in any way reflect the ability of Laura Hillenbrand's amazing story telling ability.
I loved Unbroken and read that first. I decided to go ahead and read this story even though it isn't my usual type of book. Wow. This book was just as good as Unbroken which is high praise. I cannot wait to see what her next project will be...
In Laura Hillenbrand's heartening tale one horse lifts the country as he races to unlikely victories. The novel tells the tale of Seabiscuit, a doubted horse that despite all of his setbacks, rises and becomes, arguably, the best race horse of the century. All adding a dash of depth, Hillenbrand, connects us to the characters of, Tom Smith the quiet and wise trainer, Red Pollard the blind battered jockey, and the owner; a charming self made man, Charles Howard. It is inevitable the personal connection made with all the characters, but the connection to Seabiscuit even makes non-horse lovers fall in love with his comedic and stubborn personality. Hillenbrand brilliantly intertwines the hardships and poverty of the country with the main theme of perseverance to overcome. Using imagery, Hillenbrand, portrays the toll that racing had on not only Seabiscuit, but also his main jockey Red. As the horse and jockey became more beaten throughout the story their importance, perseverance, and unbreakable bond only grew greater. The novel also yields the message of teamwork and the importance of taking risks. As the economy crashed Howard's growing business as a car repairman halted and he, like so many other Americans, questioned what to do. Following his interest in the dying sport of horse racing he purchased Seabiscuit, the son of Hardtack (a miraculous race horse). With the combination of Seabiscuit, Red Pollard, and Tom Smith, Charles Howard hoped victory would proceed. Working as a team the unlikely horse rose to greatness, demonstrating that risks and hard work are essential to the success of any feat large or small. I thoroughly enjoyed this book, with the exception of the small portion of dry writing in the beginning, and I would indefinitely recommend this book to someone. It tells an uplifting and touching story of perseverance, relationships, and victory, that anyone would enjoy reading. Other inspirational novels such as Secretariat and Man O' War would be great additional reads to Seabiscuit. In 1938 every stride Seabiscuit made towards victory captured the hearts of Americans and now through every page of this novel he is capturing more.
I will admit, I saw the movie first. However, this only made me enjoy the book more, for it is the amazing detail with which the author brings to life the story of Seabiscuit that makes it such a wonderful read. Yes, I cried. And I was in shock at reading of the horrors the jockeys would inflict upon themselves. Absorbing, wonderful...just wonderful. Some of the best written non-fiction out there.
LH did a wonderful job of putting all of this together. It keeps you in want of the next page throughout. Incredible story, very well told.
The truly awesome story of an amazing horse with some of the most intense racing scenes I've ever read. Also the story of the owner, Howard; the trainer, Tom Smith; and the jockey, Red Pollard - all odd balls in their own way. Very moving. Loved it.
After reading Unbroken, I was anxious to read another of Laura Hillenbrands books. Wasn't sure if I would enjoy it as much, but Seabiscuit was fabulous! I hated for it to end. The characters were well developed as were the racing events. Highly recommed it! Ms. Hillenbrand is a exceptionally gifted author. I pray that she will be able to bless us with more of her literary talents. Thank You Laura!
You can hear the hoofbeats and smell the sweat on every page. The movie is not enough!
Everything about this book is so good. I have seen the movie & now own a copy. This book about Howard, Smith, & Pollard and of course Seabisciut wants you to keep pulling for them all. Read this book even if you don't have a love for history, you won't regret it.
The book was slow to start, I felt like I had to read a 100 pg prologue to get to the story...Once I got to the story I just wanted to finish the book.
With all the relentless buzz surrounding the book and movie, I felt compelled to read the story of Seabiscuit, the plucky little horse who overcame adversity. He's a fascinating subject and author Laura Hillenbrand spares no small detail in her narration. In the end, I felt tired of the countless races and near victories. More editing would have helped the book. Sometimes less is more.
I love the way she writes...you're THERE. There's no way else to explain it...or no higher praise. You are in the stands, in the barn, ON THE HORSE.
This book shows seabiscuts whole life! I found everything i need to know about him!
This was an inspiring book of the will, perseverance, heart and determination of a magnificent horse and the three man whose lives revolved around him during Depression-era America. It's a great book for anyone, not just horse-people. I found myself rooting for Seasbiscuit even when it seemed like he couldn't do it. My heart raced alongside Seabiscuit. The feats of this brave little horse and his fearless jockey were so incredible and unbelievable, and they earned a place in my heart
I did not like this book, and I am apparently alone here. Though the storyline intrigues me greatly, I found the style of writing to be quite similar to a textbook I might have had in grade school. I still plan on seeing the movie, but prefer to stick with books that provide a little more emotional insight than this one.
Laura Hillenbrand is the Tiger Woods of historical novelists. It makes you wonder why every novel can't be this good. Plagued by chronic fatigue syndrome and vertigo, Hillenbrand took to writing on her back with eyes closed, surrounding herself with food and supplies, researching and following up on detail after detail to create the one of the most enjoyable and historically accurate novels ever written. She paints a backdrop for her subject matter out of the grit of the 1930's with a colorful palette of unforgettable characters and locales including the account of a "dead" jockey who was sprung back to life by a shot of adrenaline and fought to get back on his horse for the next race! The popularity of Seabiscuit during the depression can be compared to the Beatles in the 60's. The hysteria and excitement created by this courageous champion of a horse jumps out of the pages and holds the reader hostage through each heart-stopping race. This is an adventure worth reliving again and again!
As many of you know I love horses. I ride and spend time at a local stable on a regular basis. I have not, I’ll admit, never been a huge fan of horse focused fiction novels. They never seem to capture the thrill I feel when I ride or the love I feel when I care for them. Now, horse-based movies, whoa doggie, I love those. And I remember when my husband and I saw ads for Seabiscuit. My husband turned to me and said, “I suppose you have to go see that one?” We did see Seabiscuit and he eventually bought me the DVD which came with a copy of Laura Hillenbrand’s novel, Seabiscuit: An American Legend, on which the movie was based. It’s languished on my shelves since. Then came the #ShelfLove Challenge and I thought, “I should read it at some point.” Then I thought, “I really don’t like non-fiction books and that one looks soooo long.” So I kept passing it over. Well, it was silly of me to pass Seabiscuit: An American Legend over for so long. It is a meat and potatoes book. Hillenbrand spends a great deal of time setting up the story, getting our main characters in the right space at the right time, but once they join forces behind a scrappy horse named Seabiscuit. We got off to the races… I’ve seen the movie, I knew how this book would end. What I didn’t anticipate were all the twists and turns to get there. The movie doesn’t delve into the lives of the jockeys (which was brutal) and the politics of horse racing. There were horrible accidents, backroom deals and a nation united behind an underdog. So while there were dry moments, I was fascinated by the history of horseracing in America and I loved learning more about a horse with a lot of heart. Seabiscuit: An American Legend won’t be for everyone. It’s thick and at times, dense and boring. But if you thought the movie Seabiscuit was a bit lackluster, you might give the book a shot especially if you enjoy horses and are looking for a book that will give you hope during a dark time in American history.
This was awsome!
The story gave a very good insight in to what it took to reach the goal he obtained. It also gave a good account of what the jockeys had to do to train to be the excellent riders they were. Great Book
This is a great book to learn all about the horse,its owners,its trainer,its jockeys,and its fans!