The greatest confrontation between glamour and grit that ever occurred on American soil took place at four in the afternoon on November 1, 1938, at Pimlico racetrack, on a day when almost everything in the country seemed to stop for two minutes, while a radio audience of 40 million, among them President Franklin D. Roosevelt, listened in.
Glamour was War Admiral, a magnificent horse, a Triple Crown winner who had won the Belmont after ripping off part of a hoof at the starting gate; as he approached the winner’s circle, his underside had dripped with blood. He was undeniably great, but he also was privileged; if he had not been born with a silver spoon in his mouth, he had been born with a silver feed bag dangling near it. He was a son of Man o’War, the greatest racehorse ever; he had been bred and reared in one of the richest and most well-known barns in the country. Raised with the expectation of greatness, War Admiral did not disappoint, proving himself in his very first outings. Physically, he was the platonic ideal of the racehorse: “He was the picture of exquisite, streamlined elegance,” writes Laura Hillenbrand, author of Seabiscuit: An American Legend. “Even at a standstill, he was a glittering thing.”
Grit was Seabiscuit, a short, thickset, and nondescript animal who was, except in his talent, War Admiral’s opposite in every conceivable way. He too was descended from Man o’War (as a grandson), but he hardly looked regal. Described variously as a “masterpiece of faulty construction,” and an “equine catastrophe,” he looked like an accident waiting to happen: his knees were misshapen, his legs wouldn’t straighten, and his left foreleg jabbed out when he ran. He was slightly shorter than War Admiral but looked far more cumbersome: “The colt’s body ... had all the properties of a cinder block,” Hillenbrand tells us. “His neck was thick, his head heavy, his tail stubby, his boxing-glove knees crouched.” His appearance did not recommend him, and his temperament did not help. As he was lazy at first, his trainer tried to rouse him by racing him frequently, and in return he turned obdurate, fighting his jockeys and deigning to run only sporadically. At three, the age at which War Admiral would storm his way through his Triple Crown season, Seabiscuit was at the very bottom of the racing world’s pyramid, running in claiming races for miniscule purses. His trainer’s mistakes reinforced his behavior. Raced thirty-five times as a two-year-old, he lost almost every time.
Seabiscuit was sore, underweight, and chronically angry when he was spotted in the summer of 1936 by Tom Smith, the trainer hired by Charles Howard, an auto magnate edging his way into the horse-racing business who bought him weeks later for $8,000, a rock-bottom price in those days. Smith nurtured the horse, coddling him and unwinding his neuroses, channeling his stubborn defiance into an unfettered desire to win. And win he did. On September 7, 1936, he won his first race for Howard. By February 27, 1937, when he lost by a nose to an established champion in the Santa Anita Handicap — the famed “Hundred Grander” — he had become a star. By the end of 1937, the year of War Admiral’s Triple Crown triumph, the public was clamoring for a match race between them. War Admiral was the four-to-one favorite. They were neck and neck at the quarter pole when Seabiscuit pulled away from the tiring champion. He went on to win by four lengths.
This was not the end of Seabiscuit’s triumphs, or his woes. In February 1939, he ruptured a ligament, which was widely seen as a career-ending ailment for the six-year-old horse. Everyone expected him to retire to Ridgewood, the Howard ranch in Arcadia, California. No one expected him to return a year later, to win the Hundred Grander on his third and last effort at the great age of seven, after two heartbreaking near misses. He beat horses three and four years younger than he was and set a track record, a year after sustaining a serious injury. Seabiscuit retired as the biggest money winner in horse-racing history. He also retired a legend, loved not only for greatness (which War Admiral also possessed in abundance), but for his many displays of fortitude. “He came along in the worst years of the Depression,” Hillenbrand says. His grit reflected the national spirit. “The ability to triumph over hardship — that’s the journey, the journey toward the American dream.”
Seabiscuit not only had grit, but he was a grit magnet, attracting people with large reserves of untapped talents who also were battered by life. Tom Smith was a breaker of mustangs driven off the prairie, rootless and drifting when hired by Howard. Red Pollard, his jockey, was blind in one eye, had survived a series of near-fatal accidents, and had been abandoned by his parents and guardian at the tender age of fifteen. Howard had lost a son in an accident, when the child tried to drive one of his autos and plunged into a ravine. The traumatized horse proved to be the salvation of these three men: they came to the rescue of the floundering animal, and he came to theirs. Seabiscuit gave their lives focus, direction, and meaning; he gave them their place in the world and material fortune. He took lives that might have been stunted or tragic and made them important and grand. In Seabiscuit’s years, the country was run by a man who could not stand alone, could not walk unsupported, and lived in terror of fire, as he could barely drag himself along the floor with his arms. He spent years and a fortune trying to walk again, and when he couldn’t, he went back into politics anyway. The people who elected him four times made Seabiscuit a legend. They knew grit and valued it.
And no one defines grit more than Seabiscuit’s author, stricken with chronic fatigue syndrome (complicated later by vertigo) at the much too young age of nineteen. An athlete and onetime aspiring jockey, Laura Hillenbrand found herself frequently bed-ridden. Her world shrank to the size of the room where she worked, and once she found Seabiscuit, she worked all the time. “I worked whenever I had strength, often at odd hours, and I often worked until completely exhausted,” she said in an interview. When too weak to lift books, she worked on the manuscript. When too dizzy to read, she did interviews. When too dizzy for that, she lay down and wrote on a pad with closed eyes. Writing the book took almost five years of this kind of effort. A week after its release, it was a best-seller, and she was world famous. She is the fourth person rescued by Seabiscuit’s magic. By Seabiscuit’s magic, and by his grit.