Sunday, January 17, 2010


Seabiscuit: An American Legend by Laura Hillenbrand
Trade Paperback, 401 pages, including notes and index
Ballantine Books, 2001
ISBN-13: 9780449005613
very highly recommended

Synopsis from cover:
He was a cultural icon. A world-class athlete. A champion who triumphed over terrible handicaps to become a legend of the racetrack. No other racehorse has rivaled Seabiscuit's fame or his sway over he nation's imagination. Now Laura Hilldenbrand unfolds the spellbinding story of this marvelous animal, the world he lived in, and the men who staked their lives and fortunes on his dazzling career. A riveting tale of grit, grace, luck, and an underdog's stubborn determination. Seabiscuit is an American classic.
My Thoughts:

I'm not sure why I haven't read Hillenbrand's book before this. It could be due to the fact that I watched a PBS show on Seabiscuit after her book came out and just never felt compelled to go ahead and read it. That was a mistake.... and Hillenbrand has the awards and accolades to back up any and all recommendations to read Seabiscuit. Let me make it clear that I have no interest in horse racing and I still enjoyed Seabiscuit very much. What Hillenbrand has given us in Seabiscuit is a slice of life during a certain period in American history, and the story of a group of misfits and an underdog. Hillenbrand does a wonderful job writing this nonfiction account in such a manner that it is just as compelling as any fictional novel. Very Highly Recommended - one of the best

On a personal note my Grandpa loved horses. He had models of horses lined up on top of the buffet in my grandparents dining room. I believe he even had a print of Seabiscuit among his horse pictures. I can remember playing games with him that involved rolling dice. While the specific game is lost to my memory, there is one thing that I will always remember. As he shook the dice, Grandpa always yelled "Come on, Seabiscuit!" That is where a true cultural icon is found, in the oral history of a family. My grandfather was born 3/18/1897 and passed away on 9/16/92. He served in WWI, in the navy. He gave me the scarf he wore with his Navy uniform, all of his Horatio Alger books, and the impulse to yell "Come on, Seabiscuit!" whenever I roll dice.


The subject of the most newspaper column inches in 1938 wasn't even a person. It was an undersized, crooked-legged racehorse named Seabiscuit.
In the latter half of the Depression, Seabiscuit was nothing short of a cultural icon in America, enjoying adulation so intense and broadbased that it transcended sport. pg. xviiii

They had come from nowhere. The horse, a smallish mud-colored animal with forelegs that didn't straighten out all the way, spent nearly two seasons floundering in the lowest ranks of racing, misunderstood and mishandled. His jockey, Red Pollard, was a tragic-faced young man who .... came to his partnership with Seabiscuit after years as a part-time prize fighter and failing jockey..... Seabiscuit's trainer, a mysterious, virtually mute mustang breaker named Tom Smith, was a refugee from the vanishing frontier, bearing with him generations of lost wisdom about the secrets of horses. Seabiscuits owner, a broad, beaming, former cavalryman named Charles Howard, had begun his career as a bicycle mechanic before parlaying 21 cents into an automotive empire. pg. xx

In the 1920s California was not the place to be for a man in a sinning frame of mind. The temperance folks had given America Prohibition, and had thrown in a ban on gambling while they were at it. A guy couldn't cavort with women, and thanks to the ban on cabaret dancing, he couldn't even watch women cavorting by themselves. If he was discovered in a hotel room with a woman not his wife, his name would appear in the section of the newspaper reserved for public shaming. pg. 12

In 1933 California agreed to legalize wagering on two conditions. First, tracks had to use the pari-mutual wagering machine instead of bookmakers.... Second, wagering would be heavily taxed. Racing was reborn. pg. 16

He [Tom Smith] had grown up in a world in which horsemanship was as essential as breathing. Born with a prodigy's intuitive understanding of the animals, he had devoted himself to them so wholeheartedly that he was incomplete without them. pg. 20

Howard was blessed with an uncanny ability to see potential in unlikely packages, and he had a cavalryman's eye for horsemen. He took one look at Smith and instincts rang in his head. He drove Smith to his barn and introduced his horses to their new trainer. pg. 29

The colt [Seabiscuit] was a descendant of the mighty Man o' War through his sire, the brilliantly fast, exceptionally handsome Hard Tack, but his stunted build reflected none of the beauty and breadth of his forebears. The colt's body was built low to the ground, had all the properties of a cinderblock. Where Hard Tack had been tall, sleek, tapered, every line suggesting motion, his son was blunt, coarse, rectangular, stationary. He had a sad little tail, barely long enough to brush his hocks. His stubby legs were a study in unsound construction, with squarish, asymmetrical "baseball glove" knees that didn't quite straighten all the way, leaving him in a permanent semi-crouch. Thanks to his unfortunate assembly, his walk was an odd, straddle-legged motion that was often mistaken for lameness. pg 33-34

The only thing Seabiscuit took seriously, aside from his beauty rest, was eating, which he did constantly, with great vigor. pg. 38

Writing this book has been a four-year lesson in how history hides in curious places.....
The story wasn't lost. It was scattered all over North America, tucked in back pockets and bottom drawers. A remarkable quantity of information came from an odd assortment of memorabilia...
My greatest source was living memory. acknowledgments, pg. 342


Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Lisa said...

I never finished reading this one. I read about 3/4 of it, and loved it, then saw the movie, and then... just didn't finish. That was when the movie came out and now I'd have to start over.

Lori L said...

I never saw the movie, just the PBS show which caused me to put off reading the book. It really is a great book.