Laura Hillenbrand, Seabiscuit (Ballantine Books, 2001)
What's so special about a horse that lived nearly a century ago?
Well, this horse was mentioned more times in the newspaper than was Hitler, and this was during World War II.
It wasn't just that he was fast, though he was that. He had spirit, and a drive to win that put the other horses straight out of the spotlight, and made him shine. Along with his owner, Charles Howard, his trainer Tom Smith, and jockey Red Pollard, he was an unbeatable success. Throughout the 1930s and '40s the Howard stables lived by the 'Biscuit, and though they raced other horses, he was their pride.
Charles Howard became involved with racing in the mid-1930s after the death of his young son Frankie. Although he was one of the first successful Buick salesman in the country, his wealth afforded him no respite from his grief. A friend convinced him to purchase several racehorses, and he also invested in the building of Santa Anita Park, which remains one of the country's best racecourses even today.
Smith was a cowboy, in a rapidly disappearing wilderness. He was becoming obsolete, and seemed uninterested in adapting to any other lifestyle. He had a way with horses which extended beyond simply getting them to do what he wanted. He seemed able to communicate with them, in fact far better than he could with humans. In addition to this, he had a wealth of equine medical knowledge, allowing him to treat and save many horses that most people would count for lost.
Pollard was a man living out of his element, but with an ability to adapt and survive that was remarkable. Raised in a wealthy, intellectual family he might have had a very different path in life, were it not for the 1929 stock market crash. Like so many others at that time, his family found themselves suddenly in poverty, living in shacks and taking whatever work could be found. Along with his more literary abilities, Pollard retained a skill with horses which not only helped him make a living, but eventually made him famous.
Gathered together, this motley cast became a national story, hard luck cases making good at a time when few others were. They gave the country something to put their hope behind, and although there were many trials, including life-threatening injuries for both Pollard and Seabiscuit, they always came through for the fans.
This is an incredible story, and although the racing community remembers, for the most part it's been lost to the general public. With Laura Hillenbrand's excellent biography, that is thankfully no longer true.
Before writing Seabiscuit, Hillenbrand was a magazine journalist. Though her writing style retains that influence, it builds into a story so engrossing you forget that what you're reading are facts. It seems every bit a novel as much as a biography, and I think Hillenbrand was the perfect author to capture this tale.
Since its publication in 2001, readers have gone Seabiscuit crazy. Not satisfied to simply read and discuss the book, millions flocked to see the movie, released in 2003 by Universal Pictures.
For anyone with interest in horses or racing, this world reflected by Hillenbrand will no doubt be familiar. But even for those who have never before given a thought to the subject, Seabiscuit is too good a story to miss.