Thursday 25 June 2015

Laura Hillenbrand's "Four Good Legs Between Us"

"When the lives of a failed prizefighter, an aging horsebreaker and a bicycle repairman turned overnight millionaire converged around a battered racehorse named Seabiscuit, the result captivated the nation and transcended their sport."

Charles Howard, a calvary veteran, repaired bicycles for a living.  But one day, he headed to Detroit, to strike it rich in the automobile industry.  Howard introduced himself to William C. Durant, the owner of Buick, and set up shop, in San Francisco, as the sole distributor of Buicks in eight states.  The world wasn't quite ready for the horseless carriage, but that all changed after the San Francisco earthquake in which cars played a big role in transporting the wounded.  By 1908, Howard had a thriving business.  

Tom Smith, an old fashioned cowboy, had participated in the last of the great cattle drives on the American frontier.  He broke mustangs for the British to use in the Boer War.  His job was rendered obsolete with the coming of the railroad.  He was hired by various ranch owners as a horse trainer, veterinarian and blacksmith.  He never forgot about what he'd learned on the frontier; "he had cultivated a wordless, near-mystical communion with horses".  His operated by the motto: "Learn your horse." (

"Red" Pollard was the son of Irish immigrants who lost everything in the early years of the Great Depression.  Known for his spunk, he made use of that as a horse jockey and as a prizefighter.  His pugilism masked his intellect:  he was known to recite poetry and quote Shakespeare.  The life of a jockey was anything but easy.  To keep his 110 pound frame, Pollard had to vomit, undergo vicious exercise regimens and sweating rituals.  A horse blinded him in one eye after kicking him in the head and leaving debris in his brain.  

Seabiscuit, a descendant of the infamous Man-O-War, was a stubborn and reckless horse who had been "beaten up and beaten down".  Two hundred pounds underweight, he was known for pacing in his stall, lathering up when saddled, and bolting when the gate opened.  He was not your ideal candidate for a racehorse.

In 1936, millionaire Howard was looking for a winning racehorse.  Known for his "ability to recognize potential in unlikely packages", he bought Seabiscuit.  He assigned him to his trainer, the former cowboy Smith.  The first thing that Smith did was lavish Seabiscuit with affection.  Secondly, knowing he was prone to bolt, he let him do it until it was out of his system.  Thirdly, Smith calmed the horse's nerves by giving him three stallmates:  a stray dog named Pocatell, a spider monkey named Jo-Jo and a cattleroping horse named Pumpkin.  It was just what the doctor ordered.

Pollard was assigned the task of riding Seabiscuit.  The two clicked immediately.  Both were unbroken; both needed taming.  While Seabiscuit peeked too late to participate in the Kentucky Derby, a race for three year olds, he did start to win races, and he started to make headlines.  "In one year, Seabiscuit garnered more newspaper column inches than Roosevelt, Hitler, Mussolini or any other public figure."  

In 1938, a pairing of Seabiscuit and War Admiral promised to be "The Race of the Century".  Seabiscuit went out like a bolt of lightning, then slowed down to taunt his opponent, then made his trademark rush to the finish line, winning the race.  He graced the cover of Time Magazine as "Horse of the Year".  For more information on the 1938 race, read my post

Pollard had been badly injured in another race and was unable to ride Seabiscuit, asking a friend to ride in his place.  Doctors told the jockey that he might never walk or never ride again.  Later, Seabiscuit was also injured.  Pollard said:  "Old Pops and I have four good legs between us."  Horse and rider endured a slow recuperation on Howard's California ranch.

In 1940, it was icing on the cake when Pollard and Seabiscuit, both healed from their life threatening injuries, rode the racetrack at the Santa Anita Handicap.  They won the race and Howard went home a happy man, claiming the prize for the richest horserace in the world.  

Note:  Laura Hillenbrand's essay became a bestselling book Seabiscuit and an award winning movie.

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