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The Return of Seabiscuit
William Nack
August 04, 2003
A cast-off thoroughbred who became one of America's most-beloved heroes is finally ready for his close-up
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August 04, 2003

The Return Of Seabiscuit

A cast-off thoroughbred who became one of America's most-beloved heroes is finally ready for his close-up

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They formed as unlikely a foursome as racing has known-Howard the carny-barking huckster, Smith the enigmatic loner, Pollard the injury-prone journeyman who saw Seabiscuit as his final chance and the unprepossessing horse himself—the knob-kneed, crooked-legged Biscuit. Under Smith's divining eye, with Pollard in the irons, The Biscuit grew into the runningest machine in America, a rolling road show from coast to coast, ultimately a national hero as popular as FDR, a blue-collar bay with a working-stiff jockey and this weird trainer who talked to horses with his hands. And, finally, there was George Woolf, one of the greatest riders in the history of the American turf, mounting The Biscuit to save the day when Pollard got hurt before the race with War Admiral.

Like Dempsey-Tunney before and Swaps-Nashua after, that match had magical themes. War Admiral was owned by Sam Riddle, perceived as yet another rich and crusty stanchion of the Eastern establishment, the man who owned War Admiral's sire, the immortal Man o' War. The Admiral won the Triple Crown and was feted as his sire's greatest son. So it was East versus West. Old money versus new. Blazing saddles against blas� sophisticates. The Admiral's vaunted speed against The Biscuit's storied grit. Belmont Park against Hollywood Park. String ties versus bow ties. Old America versus new. Behind it all, the Seabiscuit phenomenon had no less than the Great Depression as its backdrop. No wonder the horse and his handlers had such enormous appeal. Down one day, they had risen to survive and prevail the next. The Seabiscuit story squeezed a national nerve.

The release of the movie and the concomitant spike expected in book sales will undoubtedly spur interest in the sport that has not been seen since the '70s, the decade that produced seven of the greatest racehorses in history—Secretariat, Forego, Ruffian, Seattle Slew, Affirmed, Alydar and Spectacular Bid—with crowds tuning into races or descending on tracks everywhere to watch them run. This year, not only did a huge crowd stand in bone-chilling rain to witness Funny Cide's run for the Triple Crown in the Belmont, but TV ratings for the event also soared to heights not seen in racing in almost 15 years. The gelding's rags-to-riches quest, with his gaggle of owners arriving at the gates of Churchill Downs and Pimlico in a rented school bus, tapped into the same warm sentiment that turned Seabiscuit into a hero.

The book has been viewed by some as a chance to inspire a renaissance in a sport that was once among the most popular in America, but no book or movie is going to bring back the crowds that filled the tracks back when the grandstand aprons were seas of fedoras in Movietone black-and-white and racing was the one game in town suited for adults only. Still, the Funny Cide phenomenon—unfolding as though inspired by Seabiscuit's ghost—vividly demonstrated the power that the sport still has to draw large crowds. The young gelding dropped out of nowhere to win the Derby, at odds of almost 13-1, and two weeks later—when he sailed to a 9� length victory in the Preakness Stakes—he became the newest "people's horse," bearing upon his ample back every dreamer who ever saw himself as owning a Triple Crown winner. From Alsab to Stymie, from John Henry to Real Quiet to Cigar, the hard-knocking horses of the plain folk have always spun their magic. None did this more seductively than Seabiscuit.

The movie vividly captures The Biscuit's appeal, and the visceral appeal of racing. With two actual jockeys riding the horses in the movie's big race—recently retired Chris McCarron is on The Admiral as Charles Kurtsinger, Gary Stevens on The Biscuit as Woolf—the scenes ring evocatively true, to art as well as to history. There is Woolf driving Seabiscuit hard from the barrier, his horse outrunning the supposedly faster War Admiral to the first turn, and then Woolf allowing The Admiral to join him down the backside, eyeball-to-eyeball. The horses hurtle as one around the last turn and into the stretch, with Woolf finally asking The Biscuit for all he has left and then turning to yell at Kurtsinger as he pulls away, "So long, Charley!"

The crowd roared Seabiscuit home, embraced him in cheers at the Pimlico winner's circle and made of him a chapter in turf lore. America was on the back of that horse, and instinct tells us that our affection for the animal traces deep along the taproots of our history and culture. Whether it is Swaps dropping his head over the rail at old Washington Park, his muscles shifting supplely beneath his golden coat; or Seabiscuit and War Admiral straining neck and neck around the turn for home; or Secretariat winning the Belmont Stakes by 31 lengths; or the seal-coated Ruffian racing on the lead, right to her grave—they all cast a curious spell. At the heart of the movie and its match race, if you peel all the human layers away, what is left to behold are these two majestic-looking beasts—quite simple and so generous with their manifest gifts, oblivious to celebrity and adulation.

Alone, running in tandem, they cast this movie's spell.

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