Seabiscuit the horse raced a notorious career in the 30s, including against rival War Admiral in 1938 at Pimlico Racetrack. In Laura Hillenbrand’s book Seabiscuit, the racing stories captivated me, but I learned more about the horse, the owner, the trainer, and the jockey than I expected. Hillenbrand writes her work after dedicated research, and you get the sense that she could back up every sentence with not one, but maybe even two sources. She delves into character histories. She enriches their lives into people we can all relate to.
In particular, I followed Red Pollard, the jockey, for soon to be obvious reasons. Pollard, “an elegant young man, taughtly muscled, with a shock of supernaturally orange hair,” escaped poverty when he took up riding at 15. Jockeys like Pollard had no place but the track to call home. He prizefought to eat. He advanced through the ruthless bush leagues. He elevated his stagnant career when he started riding Seabiscuit.
To my surprise, Hillenbrand mentions visually impaired people a few times in the book, so I considered social norms of the era. This book does not paint a positive picture. For instance, Pollard helps a blind trainer in Tijuana, “seeing that Duran was incapable of handling many of the training duties, the seventeen year old took them on himself.” He would read race notes to him after riding, making up things occasionally to brighten the trainer.
Or, take the buffoon character of the clerk of scales. One cheater, “earned a place in reinsman legend by fooling a profoundly myopic clerk of scales by skewing the readout to register him at 110,” even though he weighed 140.
Seabiscuit’s jockey becomes one of these people. A chance head injury leads to blindness in Pollard’s right eye. A half-blind jockey? Fear led him to keep this a secret, as:
“Had they known of Pollard’s blindness, the stewards would rightly have banned him from racing. With virtually no depth perception and no ability to see horses to his outside, he was far more vulnerable to positioning errors. He could unwittingly charge straight into a wreck. It was an injury that should have ended his career.”
I related to Pollard when I read he stands for a winner’s circle photo, “his head tilted so his good eye focused on the camera.” It’s easier for me to position myself like that than request extra snaps be taken if others care that my eye is closed. Unlike him, I’m not hiding my blindness.
His burden of blindness creates an interesting dilemma. Risk yourself and others for the thrill of riding a racehorse that most admit, you ride the best or coming clean and giving up. After close calls (one leading to a suspension) and injuries, he keeps riding. It makes me think he felt there was nothing else he could do. Or, perhaps he had other things he could do, but the satisfaction he gained from horse racing would never transfer to another job.
Seabiscuit’s owner continues to support him after suspension saying, “Nobody fits my horse better than that boy.” That attitude leads the jockey into the biggest race of Seabiscuit’s career at a time when Pollard and the horse endure serious injuries that threaten their place.
Hillenbrand’s Seabiscuit offers a compelling story. I recommend this book as a great summer read. Seabiscuit made me wonder: how many people risk everything to keep doing what they love? Would you?
What did you think of Seabiscuit?