Laura Hillenbrand: Seabiscuit: An American Legend

Laura Hillenbrand: Seabiscuit: An American Legend

On Mar. 2, 1940, a jockey named Red Pollard was lifted into the saddle of a horse named Seabiscuit for the annual $100,000 Santa Anita Handicap. Pollard had raced little in the two years since a riding accident shattered his legs, and Seabiscuit had only entered a couple of competitive races in the year since rupturing a knee ligament. To most readers of Laura Hillenbrand's biography Seabiscuit: An American Legend, the outcome of the race will be in doubt until the author reveals whose nose crossed the line first. That element of suspense is less a measure of how little-known the title animal is—he's still one of the most famous horses in thoroughbred-racing history, up there with Man O' War and Secretariat—than an indication of the sport's waning popularity, and the subsequent loss of devotees to pass the legends along. Hillenbrand has been writing for prestigious racing journals for more than a decade, and Seabiscuit is the clear culmination of her work to date. The result is vivid in its descriptions of the men who collaborated on the making of a champion, and of their differing routes from Depression-era America to the winner's circle. The infirm, alcoholic Pollard and his best friend and replacement jockey George Woolf together learned how to exploit Seabiscuit's personal eccentricities during a race. Behind the jockeys stood trainer Tom Smith (a stoic cowboy) and owner Charles Howard (a millionaire auto salesman), who worked with and against the publicity machine to maintain their horse's position as one of the best known and most successful athletes of the late '30s. Hillenbrand cannily assumes that Seabiscuit's saga, from washed-up claiming horse at age 3 to warmly loved American hero by his retirement at 7, will be fresh news to many, so she builds tension from chapter to chapter, detailing the injuries and adverse track conditions that made the horse's run remarkable. The agonizing two-year struggle to arrange a match race between Seabiscuit and his East Coast rival War Admiral makes up the bulk of the book's midsection, and climaxes in Hillenbrand's gripping play-by-play of the contest, in which the Biscuit team's strategy simultaneously pays off and backfires. The remainder of Seabiscuit is haunted by the question of what a champion and his entourage are to do after the laurels have wilted, a question only momentarily delayed by a late-career comeback. The fact that the same question also haunted an economically suffering America at the time of Seabiscuit's glory only makes Hillenbrand's equine biography more moving, and pertinent even to those who've never bet a trifecta.

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