“A hero is an ordinary individual who finds the strength to persevere and endure in spite of overwhelming obstacles.” ~ Christopher Reeve
They come in all shapes and sizes — all colors. Heroes are those which we look to in all aspects of life —those which inspire us to be bigger than we are. Contrary to popular belief, they don’t necessarily wear capes, and every once in a while, they come from the wrong side of the tracks.
In Horse Racing, we have been lucky to find heroes, time and time again. When the world around us begins to fall apart at the very seams — when our lives come undone, we find ourselves looking to the Thoroughbreds which have rescued us from every day life, for as long as we can remember. There have been horses great and small, throughout the duration of the sport which have made us believe anything is possible — but perhaps there have been none to inspire us to dream, more than Seabiscuit did.
He wasn’t the big black colt in the saddling paddock — and he wasn’t the powerful chestnut attracting railbirds before dawn— his steaming breaths piercing the fog with every stride. He was the horse which went unnoticed and unmentioned — the one which you never knew was there. Certainly not the horse you or I would expect to become one of the most recognized, household names the sport has ever seen.
Born in 1933 at Claiborne Farm, Seabiscuit was not anyone’s idea of what a future champion should look like. While he was regally bred — a grandson of legendary Man o’ War, he was much too small to appeal as a racehorse. Still, he would grow to become one, anyhow.
While his 2 and 3yo seasons were unremarkable, he would eventually fall into the hands of Charles Howard. New money on the racing scene, Howard and his trainer, Tom Smith, saw in Seabiscuit, a puny plain bay colt, what went unnoticed by others — a supreme intelligence beneath a rough exterior, abounding with spirit and talent beyond what they could have hoped for. He was neurotic and angry. He paced his stall. He refused to eat, though he was 200lbs. underweight. With the help of a larger stall and a few new friends, specifically a dog named Pocatello and a Palomino named Pumpkin, Seabiscuit began to remember what it meant to be a horse.
In the Summer of 1936, it was decided, after a period of rest, that the tiny colt with the big personality would need a jockey. Being the intelligent, ornery horse that he was, Seabiscuit needed a counterpart who was just as tough as he — enter, Johnny “Red” Pollard. Pollard was much like Seabiscuit — an underdog from the wrong side of the tracks — a former boxer. At 5’7”, he was seen as being much too tall to be a jockey. He was blind in one eye, and strolled around the backside with a Seabiscuit-sized chip on his shoulder, and he was the perfect fit for the former claimer which Howard and Smith set out to champion.
The match was a swimming one — Pollard and Seabiscuit formed a bond rarely seen in the sport we so love. There are horse and rider bonds, sure…. But Pollard and Seabiscuit were friends— partners, really. They pushed one another, knowing each other’s strengths and weaknesses. All the companion dogs and horses in the world could not have affected Seabiscuit the way that Red Pollard’s friendship did.
Once physically and mentally fit, Seabiscuit made his way back to the races, running with low-level allowance competition. Later that year, he would win the Scarsdale Handicap in track record time. The little colt that could, continued his winning streak, while commanding the attention and capturing the awe of those around him — all both surprised and mesmerized by the grit and athleticism which oozed out of Seabiscuit’s every pore.
He would then contest the 1937 Santa Anita Handicap. Adoring fans lining the rails to catch a glimpse of the impossible horse, Seabiscuit had truly inspired a generation. He ran a massive race, as he always did— but was nipped at the wire by fast-closing Rosemont. He would go on to win a total of 10 stakes that year, tying 5 track records.
The little horse from the West Coast began to attract the attention of people around the country — particularly the owner of newly minted Triple Crown Winner, War Admiral. The two were scheduled to face one another twice before their actual meeting — Seabiscuit scratching both times due to minor leg ailments.
When they finally met in the fall of 1938, Seabiscuit would contest his greatest challenge, this time absent of Pollard, whose leg was badly injured. His friend George Woolf would take the reigns in his absence. The race would take place at War Admiral’s preferred track and preferred distance, which Howard and Smith were unconcerned about. An undeniable electricity permeated the air surrounding Pimlico in Baltimore, Maryland. It would be a match race between the two best horses in America — one white collar, one blue collar — one champion, one underdog.
War Admiral would go off the favorite in the 2-horse race, in front of 40,000 spectators — all there to witness the face off of a lifetime. Everything they had been reading for months, boiled down to this moment— this matchup.
While it was largely presumed that the Admiral would give Seabiscuit all he could handle, it was instead Seabiscuit, who sailed ahead of the Triple Crown winner, to a 4 length victory. It was settled — Seabiscuit was the greatest horse in America— possibly the world. He would go on to be named Horse of the Year, and rightfully so. He had beaten the best, and done so decisively.
The next year, when prepping for another chance at the Santa Anita Handicap, Seabiscuit ruptured his left front tendon — it seemed the colt, beloved by so many, would never race again.
While his career appeared to be done, his life was not. Seabiscuit was moved to Howard’s Ridgewood Ranch, to once again remember what it was like to be a horse. He spent his days eating and enjoying his paddock, alongside his healing friend Pollard, who too called the ranch home.
What began as therapy riding sessions for both The Biscuit and his rider, became an unexpected gateway to the comeback that would allow both Seabiscuit and Pollard, to end their careers on their own terms, as champions.
They were both a bit broken — they were both a bit bruised… But they set out one final time, to try and claim the Santa Anita Handicap, which had eluded them both for so long.
As they stepped on the Santa Anita track in front of a standing ovation of 70,000, it became clear to all— win or lose, the duo had gained the respect they so richly deserved. Men with their daughters on their shoulders— women weeping. All were there to catch one final glimpse of the tiny underdog they so loved, and Seabiscuit would not disappoint. Not this time. The little colt, with the big jockey… both having overcome so much, “Four good legs between us,” as Pollard said, sailed to a victory which has never been forgotten.
The Santa Anita Handicap was indeed Seabiscuit’s final race, drawing the curtain on a career which spanned 89 starts, amassing 33 victories, 61 near-misses, and 16 track records. He had thoroughly earned his retirement.
Seabiscuit would live out the rest of his years, sadly only 7 of them, at Ridgewood Ranch with Howard. At the age of 14, the great champion suffered a fatal heart attack, shocking a nation which had fallen in love with him so. He was peacefully buried at Ridgewood at a location never released to the public — an oak sapling marking the grave at which only his truest friends have stood.
While his time on this Earth was all too short, Seabiscuit, the little horse, lived a big life. He reminded us that it didn’t matter where we were from, or whether we were small. He taught us to dream — to slay dragons, to climb mountains, to push boundaries, and to always believe in ourselves.
Who would have thought that a horse, just a simple, plain bay horse, could do all that?
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