Seabiscuit: An American Legend
Laura Hillenbrand, 2001
Seabiscuit was an unlikely champion: a roughhewn, undersized horse with a sad little tail and knees that wouldn't straighten all the way. But, thanks to the efforts of three men, Seabiscuit became one of the most spectacular performers in sports history.
The rags-to-riches horse emerged as an American cultural icon, drawing an immense following and becoming the single biggest newsmaker of 1938 — receiving more coverage than FDR or Hitler. Laura Hillenbrand beautifully renders this story of one horse's journey from also-ran to national luminary. (From the publisher.)
Seabiscuit was adapated to film in 2003 and stars Jeff Bridges and Tobey Maguire.
• Where—Fairfax, Virginia, USA
• Education—B.A., Kenyon College
• Awards—William Hill Sports Book of the Year Award;
National Book Critics Circle Award Nomination, 2002
• Currently—lives in Washington, D.C.
Laura Hillenbrand is an American author of books and magazine articles. Born in Fairfax, Virginia, Hillenbrand spent much of her childhood riding bareback "screaming over the hills" of her father's Sharpsburg, Maryland, farm. A favorite of hers was Come On Seabiscuit, a 1963 kiddie book. "I read it to death, my little paperback copy," she says.
She studied at Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio, but was forced to leave before graduation when she contracted Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. She has struggled with the condition ever since, remaining largely confined to her home. On the irony of writing about physical paragons while being so incapaciated herself, she says, "I'm looking for a way out of here. I can't have it physically, so I'm going to have it intellectually. It was a beautiful thing to ride Seabiscuit in my imagination. And it's just fantastic to be there alongside Louie Zamperini [hero of Unbroken] as he's breaking the NCAA mile record. People at these vigorous moments in their lives—it's my way of living vicariously.
She now lives in Washington, D.C, with her husband, Borden Flanagan, a professor of Government at American University. They were college sweethearts and married in 2008.
Hillenbrand's first book was the acclaimed Seabiscuit: An American Legend (2001), a non-fiction account of the career of the great racehorse Seabiscuit, for which she won the William Hill Sports Book of the Year in 2001. She says she was compelled to tell the story because she "found fascinating people living a story that was improbable, breathtaking and ultimately more satisfying than any story [she'd] ever come across."She first told the story through an essay she sold to American Heritage magazine, and the feedback was positive, so she decided to procede with a full novel. Upon the book's release, she recieved rave reviews for her storytelling and research. It was made into the Academy Award nominated film Seabiscuit (2003).
Hillenbrand's second book is Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption (2010), a biography of World War II hero Louis Zamperini (1917-).
Her essays have appeared in The New Yorker, Equus magazine, American Heritage, Blood-Horse, Thoroughbred Times, Backstretch, Turf and Sport Digest, and many other publications. Her 1998 American Heritage article on the horse Seabiscuit won the Eclipse Award for Magazine Writing.
Hillenbrand is a co-founder of Operation Iraqi Children. (From Wikipedia.)
Critics Say . . .
T]he story of this ragged-tailed racehorse [is] an allegory for Depression-era America.... [Hillenbrand's book] is a flawless trip, with the detail of good history...and the charm of grand legend.
Jim Squires - The New York Times
Seabiscuit brings alive the drama, the beauty, the louche charm and the brutality of horse racing. Hillenbrand makes the reader understand why Americans, crushed by the Depression, found so much hope, inspiration and pleasure in the story of a small horse who rose from obscurity to become a champion.
Deirdre Donahue - USA Today
Hillenbrand, a contributing writer at Equus magazine, is a deft storyteller whose descriptions of such races are especially good, filled with images of pounding hooves and splattering mud.
Mark Hyman - Business Week
Gifted sportswriter Hillenbrand unearths the rarefied world of thoroughbred horse racing in this captivating account of one of the sport's legends. Though no longer a household name, Seabiscuit enjoyed great celebrity during the 1930s and 1940s, drawing record crowds to his races around the country. Not an overtly impressive physical specimen—"His stubby legs were a study in unsound construction, with huge, squarish, asymmetrical `baseball glove' knees that didn't quite straighten all the way"--the horse seemed to transcend his physicality as he won race after race. Hillenbrand, a contributor to Equus magazine, profiles the major players in Seabiscuit's fantastic and improbable career. In simple, elegant prose, she recounts how Charles Howard, a pioneer in automobile sales and Seabiscuit's eventual owner, became involved with horse racing, starting as a hobbyist and growing into a fanatic. She introduces esoteric recluse Tom Smith (Seabiscuit's trainer) and jockey Red Pollard, a down-on-his-luck rider whose specialty was taming unruly horses. In 1936, Howard united Smith, Pollard and "The Biscuit," whose performance had been spotty--and the horse's star career began. Smith, who recognized Seabiscuit's potential, felt an immediate rapport with him and eased him into shape. Once Seabiscuit started breaking records and outrunning lead horses, reporters thronged the Howard barn day and night. Smith's secret workouts became legendary and only heightened Seabiscuit's mystique. Hillenbrand deftly blends the story with explanations of the sport and its culture, including vivid descriptions of the Tijuana horse-racing scene in all its debauchery. She roots her narrative of the horse's breathtaking career and the wild devotion of his fans in its socioeconomic context: Seabiscuit embodied the underdog myth for a nation recovering from dire economic straits.
A veteran thoroughbred-racing writer whose stories have appeared in American Heritage, Talk, and other magazines, Hillenbrand here takes readers on a thrilling ride through 341 pages on the back of champion thoroughbred Seabiscuit. This is a Cinderella story in which four creatures, united for a brief period of time (1936-47), spark the imagination of an entire country. Hillenbrand combines the horse's biography with a social history of 1930s and 1940s America and incisive portraits of the team around Seabiscuit. Charlie Howard, a car dealer, bought the crooked-legged, scruffy little horse; Tom Smith, a man who rarely spoke to people but who communicated perfectly with horses, became its trainer; and Red Pollard, a half-blind jockey, rode Seabiscuit to fame. Hillenbrand's extensive research compares favorably with that of Alexander MacKay-Smith's in Speed and the Thoroughbred (Derrydale, 2000). This story of trust, optimism, and perseverance in overcoming obstacles will appeal to many readers. Highly recommended. —Patsy E. Gray, Huntsville P.L., AL
The former editor of Equus magazine retells the riveting story of an unlikely racehorse that became an American obsession during the Depression. Like all heroes of an epic, Seabiscuit had to endure setbacks, dispel doubts about his abilities, and contend with formidable rivals. Hillenbrand deftly mixes arcane horse lore with a narrative as compelling as any adventure yarn as she introduces first the men who would make Seabiscuit great and then the horse himself. Racing was a popular, often unregulated sport in the 1930s, and wealthy men like Bing Crosby and his friend Charles Howard, who became Seabiscuit's owner, fielded strings of horses all over the country. Howard, a sucker for lost causes, took on as his trainer Tom Smith, a taciturn westerner down on his luck who studied horses for days until he took their measure. Both men were well suited to invest emotionally and financially in Seabiscuit, as were the two jockeys who would be associated with him, Red Pollard and George Woolf. Howard first saw Seabiscuit racing in 1936. The colt was a descendant of the famous Man o' War, but his body was stunted, his legs stubby, and he walked with an odd gait. Smith believed he had potential, however, so Howard bought him and took him back to California. There Smith patiently worked on Seabiscuit's strengths, corrected his weaknesses, and encouraged his ability to run faster than any other horse. When Smith thought he was ready, Howard began racing the colt. Seabiscuit broke numerous track records, despite accidents, injuries, and even foul play. His fame was secured with a 1938 race against his rival, War Admiral; their contest divided the country into two camps and garnered more media coverage than President Roosevelt, who himself was so riveted by the race that he kept advisers waiting while he listened to the broadcast. A great ride.
1. Seabiscuit grew so popular as a cultural icon that in 1938, he commanded more space in American newspapers than any other public figure. Considering the temper of the times as well as the horse’s early career on the racetrack, what were the sources of The Biscuit’s enormous popularity during that benchmark period of U.S. history? Would he be as popular if he raced today? What did the public need that it found in this horse?
2. The Great Match Race between Seabiscuit and War Admiral in 1938 evoked heated partisan passions. These passions spilled over on radio and into the daily prints, with each colt leading a raucous legion of followers to the barrier at Pimlico Race Course that autumn day. What were the differences separating these two horses, and what did each competitor represent in the American experience that set one apart from the other?
3. All jockeys in the 1930s endured terrible hardships and hazards, starving themselves to make weight, then competing in an exceptionally dangerous sport. For George Woolf and Red Pollard, there were additional factors that compounded the difficulties and dangers of their jobs — diabetes for the former and half-blindness for the latter. Why, in spite of this, did they go on with their careers? What were the allures of race riding that led them to subject themselves to such risk and torment?
4. What was the role of the press and radio in the Seabiscuit phenomenon? How did Howard use the media to his advantage? How did the media help Seabiscuit’s career, and how was it a hindrance?
5. Seabiscuit possessed all the qualities for which the Thoroughbred has been prized since the English imported the breed’s three foundation sires from the Middle East three hundred years ago. What were those qualities? What made this horse a winner?
6. Horses of Seabiscuit’s stature, from Man o’ War in the 1920s to Cigar in the 1990s, have always generated a powerful gravitational field of their own, attracting crowds of people into their immediate orbit, shaping relationships among them, and even affecting the personalities of those nearest them. How did Seabiscuit shape and influence the lives of those around him?
7. Red Pollard, Tom Smith, and Charles Howard formed an unlikely partnership. In what ways were these men different? How did their differences serve as an asset to them?
8. What critical attribute did Howard, Smith, and Pollard share? How did this shared attribute serve as a key to their success?
9. In what ways was each man in the Seabiscuit partnership similar, in his own way, to Seabiscuit himself? How did these similarities help them cultivate the horse’s talents and cure his ailments and neuroses?
10. What lessons can be drawn from the successes of the Seabiscuit team? What does their story say about the role of character in life?
(Questions issued by publisher.)
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