‘Let us consider the names given to horses – not ordinary horses . . . but racehorses,’ writes Claude Lévi-Strauss, opening an excursus on equine onomastics in The Savage Mind. The names of thoroughbreds are ‘rigorously individualised’ and ‘rarely, if ever, describe them’. What counts is the way they can be seen to derive from the horse’s pedigree. They form part of a language system, a new name showing a certain relation to that of the sire the horse is ‘by’ and perhaps the dam it is ‘out of’. The names, that is to say, depend on human associations of word with word.
In Josephine Tey’s brilliant little mystery novel Brat Farrar, set in English horse country, a child’s toy, rough-hewn in the shape of a horse, is remembered through a grown-up’s joke about its pedigree: ‘Travesty, by Irish Peasant, out of Bog Oak.’
Seabiscuit, the hero of Laura Hillenbrand’s celebrity biography, was by Hard Tack out of Swing On, and had a brother called Grog. In fact, Grog, less successful on the track, would come to play a strong supporting role in Seabiscuit’s story as the hero’s stand-in and decoy, called on for photo opportunities and to deceive the press, who were anxious to know how the horse had gone in its secret workouts but were duped into clocking Grog’s times instead. For this is a feel-good tale set in the Depression about a small horse who could really run. ‘The Biscuit’, as his handlers called him, had run 43 races by the time he was three, more than many horses run in their entire careers. No matinee idol, he was ‘built low to the ground’, with ‘all the properties of a cinder block’: a short tail, stubby knees and an eggbeater gait. Compared to his great rival War Admiral, an exquisitely handsome son of Man o’ War, Seabiscuit was the underdog.
Like other Depression survivors, Seabiscuit was badly treated, overworked, underrated and finally triumphant. After the Crash the familiar rags to riches story could perhaps be credible only when its hero was a horse, who could not be suspected of seeking wealth for its own sake, but for the sake of reversals of fortune in general. The story of Seabiscuit is in fact oddly linked to the rise of the horseless carriage, another reversal in the fortunes of his species that he seems to overturn. For it was the wealth of Charles Howard, Seabiscuit’s owner, amassed by selling Buicks, that made possible his love affair with racing, and his particular and passionate love affair with the bandy-legged colt who became a national hero. ‘The day of the horse is past, and the people in San Francisco want automobiles,’ Howard wrote. ‘I wouldn’t give five dollars for the best horse in this country.’ That was in 1908. By 1936, now the millionaire owner of a stable of thoroughbreds, he gave a little more – $8000 – for a horse being sold from the bottom ranks of Sunny Jim Fitzsimmons’s string, a string that included two Triple Crown winners – the Triple Crown consisting of the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness Stakes and the Belmont Stakes. By 1940, when he won the $100,000 Santa Anita Handicap in a time that would not be rivalled in a decade, Seabiscuit had won 33 races, set 13 track records (two of them carrying 133 pounds and four more carrying 130, in a sport where 128 pounds was the usual limit), and earned $437,730 in prize money, a world record – nearly sixty times his price at auction.
Seabiscuit: The Making of a Legend is framed by the story of the Santa Anita Handicap, the ‘hundred-grander’ founded as the world’s richest purse in the Depression, when horse-racing seemed to offer some excitement to millions newly impoverished or out of work. Other flat races, like the three that comprise the Triple Crown, were for three-year-olds only. The Santa Anita Handicap, first run in 1935, would be for all thoroughbreds three years and older, so the stars of past, present and future could test their speed against one another. Santa Anita Park and its signature race were the brainchild of Charles ‘Doc’ Strub, a San Francisco dentist, baseball player and investor. In the aftermath of national bans on drinking and gambling during the Roaring Twenties, racing was relegalised and, with the introduction of pari-mutuel betting, became the most popular spectator sport in America, until it was eclipsed, more recently, by (what else?) Nascar racing. The seedy world of the Tijuana racetrack, the ‘Sin City’ of the Prohibition years, gave way to the glamour of Santa Anita, a pleasure palace of a track near Los Angeles subsidised in part by Howard and his friend Bing Crosby. After losing the Handicap by a nose to Stagehand in a track record photo finish in 1938, Seabiscuit came back to win it, again in record time, two years later.
Seabiscuit came of noble stock, but lacked the gorgeous attributes of his eminent predecessors, like the incomparable big red, Man o’ War, the hero of 1919 and 1920, who lost only one race in his career, and set innumerable records. Small, shaggy and awkward, sometimes mistaken for a lead pony, Seabiscuit had that quintessential 1930s attribute, ‘heart’. He also loved sleeping and eating, and, in his media heyday, posed happily for the cameras. His chief rival was the formidable, and classically handsome War Admiral, as much the pride of the staid and elegant East as Seabiscuit was the hero of the upstart Western states, and the central dramatic events of Hillenbrand’s book are the repeated attempts to bring these two horses face to face, whether in a stakes race (the 1938 Massachusetts Handicap, from which Seabiscuit was withdrawn at the last minute with an injury, to the fury of the crowd) or in a match-race, ‘the greatest horse race in history’, run at Pimlico Race Track in Maryland on All Saints’ Day, November 1938, and won by four lengths by Seabiscuit. He was ridden on that occasion by a back-up jockey, George Woolf, his regular jockey, Red Pollard, having broken his leg galloping a wild young racehorse as a favour to a friend.
Seabiscuit is well aware of the cultural baggage the horse was carrying with him: the ‘little horse’ drew more newspaper coverage in 1938 than Roosevelt, Hitler or Mussolini; ‘Seabiscuit Day’ at Santa Anita brought the largest attendance in the track’s history; and in 1940 the ‘Seabiscuit’ ladies’ hat was all the rage, while the film The Life of Seabiscuit took top billing at a Pasadena movie house over a Jimmy Stewart feature. Commemorative waste baskets, toys, oranges, advertisements of all kinds marked Seabiscuit’s celebrity status; later, an ‘inexcusably bad movie’, The Story of Seabiscuit (1949), starred Shirley Temple. The merchandising of modern horse-racing owes much, it seems, to cultural accidents; for example, a Hollywood film crew, after working in Tijuana, forgot to pack its loudspeaker equipment, which was then opportunistically refashioned into the first race-calling public address system. Radio seemed to be a natural medium for horse-racing events, and a mass cultural phenomenon that helped to make ‘Seabiscuit, the Cinderella horse’ a star.
The word ‘celebrity’ appears a number of times in Hillenbrand’s narrative, and appropriately so. The horse was called ‘Movie Star’ by reporters, and as one follows the ‘making of a legend’ from obscurity to celebrity to calamity to bittersweet triumph, it becomes clear that the book can readily be compared to works like Judy Garland: The Secret Life of an American Legend (David Shipman), Marlene Dietrich: Life and Legend (Steven Bach), or biographies of the Kennedys. It is characteristic of many such books that they begin far back, with early antecedents, and in the case of Seabiscuit there are many to account for, from Charles Howard’s scapegrace Canadian father who became involved in a business scandal, changed the family name from Stewart to Howard, and lived out his life in exclusive hotels and clubs in the eastern United States, to Pollard’s loving Irish father, who made and lost a fortune in the bricklaying business, and from whom the boy parted, for good, at the age of 15 to pursue a career as a jockey – to, needless to say, the lineage of the book’s eponymous hero, from his great-grandsire Hastings (‘a thousand-pound misanthrope for the ages’) to his sire Hard Tack and dam, ‘a mealy, melon-kneed horse named Swing On’.
But there is one way in which Seabiscuit differs, of necessity, from the celebrity biography that is one of its literary models. A staple of the celebrity biography is that curious set of tenses and moods (from optative subjunctive to free indirect discourse) through which the author attempts to project the thoughts, or putative thoughts, of the celebrity subject. ‘One aspect of pre-production which pleased Garland was the make-up tests.’ ‘The visitor was unwelcome, though Marlene realised that one way or another he was as inevitable as history.’ A certain genre of horse (or dog) story uses the same kinds of voice and mind projection – think of Jack London – or even, as in the case of Black Beauty, is told in the ‘first person’ voice of the subject: ‘When I was young I lived upon my mother’s milk, as I could not eat grass.’
In Seabiscuit the central figure’s consciousness is never as baldly anthropomorphic as this. The running subtitle on the jacket, ‘The True Story of Three Men and a Racehorse’, while, on the one hand, evoking Jerome K. Jerome and the Marx Brothers, on the other describes the realist’s strategy of indirection: the story of the Biscuit is the story of his owner, his trainer, his jockey, their personal triumphs and tragedies, from the death of Charles Howard’s son Frankie to the freak riding accident that almost ended Red Pollard’s racing career, and his life. At the centre of the book is the legendary silence of the trainer Tom Smith (‘As a general rule, Smith didn’t talk’) as well as the silence of the equine ‘legend’ himself, a silence marked, as if anxiously, by recurrent attention to what was going on in his mind. ‘Seabiscuit had the misfortune of living in a stable whose managers simply didn’t have the time to give his mind the painstaking attention it needed,’ we are told about the horse’s early, over-raced and undervalued years. Pollard’s natural empathy ‘had given him insight into the minds of ailing, nervous horses’. At the Governor’s Handicap in Detroit, a turning point in Seabiscuit’s career, when Pollard finally guides him to a significant victory, Hillenbrand can no longer resist the psychological projections familiar from other celebrity biographies:
Seabiscuit stood square under his head-to-toe blanket, posed in the stance of the conqueror, head high, ears pricked, eyes roaming the horizon, nostrils flexing with each breath, jaw rolling the bit around with cool confidence.
He was a new horse.
In the 50th start of his life, Seabiscuit finally understood the game.
Hillenbrand’s prose is periodically breathless in this way, sometimes proverbially purple (‘Smith slept briefly, then woke. Before the sun fingered over the tips of the San Gabriels, his stiff, grey form passed down the shed row’), and, as in all good melodramas and soap operas, makes extensive use of the cliffhanging sentence, employed as a fulcrum to mark the ends of chapters or sections: ‘And there was someone else: a horse greater than the others. His name was War Admiral.’
These telegraphed turns, with their emotive style and hints of pathos or impending drama, are also reminiscent of another literary genre dear to American baby boomers: the young adult ‘horse story’ of the sort made popular by Marguerite Henry (Misty of Chincoteague; King of the Wind) and Walter Farley (the Black Stallion series). In King of the Wind the horse who would come to be known as the Godolphin Arabian, the ancestor of many modern-day thoroughbreds, is put through innumerable trials and at one point reduced to doing ignoble labour in the English countryside. ‘Was he always to be a workhorse?’ his young Arab attendant wonders, in the final line of Chapter 18. In Chapter 19 both horse and faithful attendant will be rescued and restored to the palatial stables of the Earl of Godolphin. In the first Black Stallion book the unknown horse – rescued from a shipwreck by young Alec Ramsey – is the extreme underdog in a match race against two famous rivals, Cyclone and Sun Raider. ‘I still think the Black can beat them,’ Alec avers at the end of Chapter 17. In the following chapter the Black Stallion prevails, and earns his ‘victory oats’ as ‘the greatest horse on any track’.
The overlap between the Seabiscuit saga and the rise of the young adult horse book is not a coincidence. Farley’s first Black Stallion book dates from 1941, and Henry’s books from the same decade. King of the Wind, a true story about the Arabian stallion who was Man o’ War’s ancestor, is dedicated to Samuel Riddle, who features in Seabiscuit as the owner of both Man o’ War and War Admiral. The adventures of Seabiscuit, his owner, his trainer and his two jockeys are the stuff of which a whole genre is made.
Perhaps it is this dual lineage (out of celebrity biography, by young adult horse book) that makes Seabiscuit seem oddly familiar and nostalgic. Many of the memorable features of the horse books of my childhood are here: the taciturn trainer who senses the horse’s greatness when all the others have lost their faith; the eager boy rider who identifies with his mount’s tribulations and heroism; the humble stable pony who serves as a steadying and comforting ‘buddy’ or sidekick, often partnered in the stall by a loyal dog or amiable cat; the benevolent businessman-owner with a heart of gold and a solid bank account; the disabling injury, to rider or horse or both; the heartbreaking loss, and then at last the vindication of a big race, often a match race or an elusive, fame-defining Derby.
In order to produce a full-length biography of more than three hundred pages, Hillenbrand, a contributing editor of Equus magazine, consulted scrapbooks, newspaper clippings, telegrams and letters, and conducted numerous phone interviews. (Her several pages of acknowledgments at the back of the book make fascinating reading, since they tell the story of a writer’s quest and a racing fan’s investigations into the history of the sport.) Many contemporary readers, accustomed to hefty biographies that rival, in their size and scope, the ample tomes of a century ago, will find themselves engrossed in the wealth of local detail (for example, in 1938 en route to the Dixie Handicap at Pimlico aboard the Overland Limited from San Francisco, Seabiscuit became agitated but was calmed when Tom Smith read to him from Captain Billy’s Whiz Bang magazine). This is an astonishingly thorough account, and it reflects a style of information well-suited to our modern, movie-inflected age; indeed, the dust jacket explains that a film version of the book is already in the works.
Early on, Hillenbrand refers the reader to another version of the story, written for another era. B.K. Beckwith’s Seabiscuit: The Saga of a Great Champion, a 64-page book published in 1940, with full-page photographs and a foreword by the sportswriter Grantland Rice, tells the story with immediacy and verve. And Rice’s own prose, luminous and evocative, remains sports writing at its best:
I saw the game and gallant Biscuit break down at Santa Anita in 1939. I saw him limp from the track in the direction of a pasture – and racing oblivion. He was then six years old, a veteran whose flying feet had churned up dust from Texas to New England, from California to Florida, crossing the country from one ocean to another, moving from one box car to another in his transcontinental tour.
I saw him come from retirement in 1940 at Santa Anita, tackling one of the toughest slogans of sport – ‘They don’t come back.’ And then from the No Man’s Land of racing, out from the mists and the fogs, the Mighty Atom from the equine world proved the value of character and courage, the double value of heart and hoof.
I wonder what it is that makes Rice’s kind of empathetic reading and writing, so vital at mid-century, seem impossible today. Whatever its virtues, passions and pathos, Hillenbrand’s modern horse book feels trammelled by its own self-consciousness, as if it were forced to tell a meta-legend rather than a legend. Its attention to the cultural baggage – to Hitler, Mussolini and Roosevelt – may well be called for by hindsight, but I suspect that what made Seabiscuit such a legend in his own time was his ability to cast the seriousness of history into the shadows – at least for the duration of a race.