Excerpted from Seabiscuit by Laura Hillenbrand. Copyright © 2002 by Laura Hillenbrand. Excerpted by permission of Ballantine Books, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Laura Hillenbrand is the author of the #1 New York Times bestseller Seabiscuit: An American Legend, which was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award, won the Book Sense Nonfiction Book of the Year award and the William Hill Sports Book of the Year award, landed on more than fifteen best-of-the-year lists, and inspired the film Seabiscuit, which was nominated for seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture. Hillenbrand’s NEW YORKER article, “A Sudden Illness,” won the 2004 National Magazine Award, and she is a two-time winner of the Eclipse Award, the highest journalistic honor in thoroughbred racing. She and actor Gary Sinise are the co-founders of Operation International Children (www.operationinternationalchildren.org), a charity that provides school supplies to children through American troops. She lives in Washington, D.C. Her website is www.laurahillenbrandbooks.com.
A Conversation with Laura Hillenbrand
William Nack, for almost three decades the turf writer first at Newsday newspaper on Long Island, N.Y. then at Sports Illustrated magazine, is the author of Secretariat, The Making of a Champion, a biography of the 1973 Triple Crown winner. Much like Laura Hillenbrand, Nack grew up riding, grooming, and messing with standardbred trail horses, and at a young age began cultivating a passion for the thoroughbred. In fact, on his way to the University of Illinois, where he majored in journalism, Nack spent one summer as a hot-walker and groom at old Arlington Park, north of Chicago. He shares with Hillenbrand a long-time interest in the history of thoroughbred horse racing, in which Seabiscuit and Secretariat played highly visible and central roles, and also a lifelong appreciation of language and literature.
WN: In the fall of 2000, while I was shopping at a supermarket in Washington, D.C., I got a call on my cell phone from Andrew Beyer, the Harvard-educated turf writer from The Washington Post. “I want to read something to you,” Andrew said. So I leaned against the coffee grinder and listened as he began: “In Tom Smith’s younger days, the Indians would watch him picking his way over the open plains, skirting the mustang herds. He was always alone, even back then, in the waning days of the nineteenth century.” Andrew read on a few more moments about The Biscuit’s trainer, the poetic recitation ending with, “His history had the ethereal quality of hoofprints in windblown snow.” When he finished, Andew blurted out, “Isn’t that just terrific?” And that’s how I was introduced to Seabiscuit. You had clearly created a world, and you had done so with a distinctly lyrical feel and touch. Where did you learn to write and who were your literary models?
LH: I think I decided I wanted to be a writer one summer afternoon in my childhood, when the neighborhood pool I was swimming in was temporarily closed due to lightning. I snatched up my towel and huddled on a big porch with the other kids, waiting out the storm. A man I had never seen before sat down on a plastic lawn chair near me, brought out an illustrated copy ofThe Rime of the Ancient Mariner and offered to read it. Most of the kids left, but two or three of us stayed to listen, sitting crosslegged on the floor around him. As he read, I slipped so deeply into the narrative that the thunderstorm around me seemed to be rushing out of the words themselves. My head was ringing with those words as I walked home. I never knew who that man was, but I never really got over that day. As a kid, I read and wrote a great deal. I used to scribble hort stories in notebooks, imitating the style of whatever I was reading at the time, then tear the pages out and bury them in my desk drawers. I was terrified of showing anyone my work, or even admitting that I wanted to be a writer. This didn’t really change until I attended Kenyon College, an ideal destination for anyone who aspires to write well. There, a woman named Megan Macomber, an English professor and writer of spectacular talent, took me aside and told me that writing was what I should be doing with my life. No one had ever said this to me before, and it had an enormous impact. She taught me so much about our language, and she teaches me still. She was one of the first people to whom I showed my manuscript ofSeabiscuit, and her comments made it so much better. If you ask me what I am reading on any given day, it is most likely going to be a work from a great author from long ago. Every writer stands on the shoulders of the old authors who have shaped and refined language and storytelling. In my mind, almost no one today approaches their greatness in either style or insight. I split evenly between history and fiction. For me, the most influential books have been Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, Michael Shaara’s The Killer Angels, Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms and The Old Man and the Sea, Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth, Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace and Anna Karenina, Bruce Catton’s Mr. Lincoln’s Army, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, and Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain. If I like something, I tend to read it again and again. I think I have read Pride and Prejudice—in my view the most perfect book in our language—eight times, and it has taught me something new each time.
The most important book I read while writing the book was Shaara’s masterpiece, The Killer Angels. I sought to accomplish in my book what Shaara accomplished in his: to recreate history with the texture of a novel. His is an historical novel with invented dialogue and scenes, while mine is straight history that adheres strictly to documented facts and quotations, but his book is a splendid example of how to illuminate character with telling detail. His book underscored for me the importance of searching for minutiae about my subjects that would say the most about who they were.
WN: I’ve been covering thoroughbred racing for almost thirty years, and while I knew about Seabiscuit, Smith, Charles Howard, and jockeys Red Pollard and George Woolf—I had read stories about the Seabiscuit-War Admiral match race—I had no idea that this cast of characters was so rich and colorful. And, really unforgettable. They were better than fiction. Where and how did you first get the idea that there was a book in
the story of Seabiscuit—enough material, that is, to sustain a lengthy, non-fiction narrative?
LH: Before I wrote Seabiscuit, I was a magazine journalist. I always knew I would write a book, but I was waiting for an irresistible story to hit me between the eyes. In the fall of 1996, while working on an article on an unrelated subject, I happened to stumble upon material on Seabiscuit. I had always known the basics of the horse’s story, but knew little about the men around him. No one had ever told their stories before. That day I found a just tidbit of information, a few passages about how Charles Howard was a modern automobile man and Tom Smith was a plains cowboy. Something about that tugged at me, and I kept turning it over in my head. I thought it was fascinating that a man who had made his fortune replacing the horse with the automobile would find his true greatness by teaming up with a frontier horseman who had been rendered obsolete by the automobile.
I started poking around in more documents and doing a few interviews, and a spectacular story tumbled out of the research. What really sold me was the epic reach of the tale. By following the almost unbelievably dramatic stories of these men and this horse, tracing their paths through the widely varied, long-forgotten avenues of life from which they emerged, then traveling with them on Seabiscuit’s glory tours, you had a sweeping view of the breadth of American life in that era. I was obsessed almost immediately.
I submitted an article idea on Seabiscuit to American Heritage, which accepted it, and two weeks into my research I had so much information that I knew I had the book I had waited for. It had been worth the wait.
WN: You did a deft job at introducing all these characters, one after another, and then braiding them in and out of the narrative flow of the story. I ended up not having a favorite character in the book. I ended up liking all of them, for different reasons. All represented the pioneering spirit of the Old West, in a way, as rugged individualists who were tough and bold and devil-may-care guys—gamblers, at bottom, who were not afraid to roll the dice. Let’s talk about them. I very much liked Charles Howard, the Horatio Alger visionary who struck it rich. Did you find him appealing? He was Seabiscuit’s press agent, really, and he had himself a ball with that horse, don’t you think?
LH: Toward the end of his life, Howard was nicknamed Lucky Charlie, and it stuck. Howard was irritated by this, and once told a friend he was going to slug the next person to call him Lucky. His success wasn’t luck, he protested, and I think he was right. Howard was made not by luck, but by his own gifts. I think his achievements were a result of his ability to see possibility without concern for the package it came in, and his willingness to stake something on that possibility. He saw character before he saw anything else. If this story has a lesson, it’s that character reigns preeminent in determining potential. Howard was arguably the most important individual in this story because he was the one who saw the undiscovered greatness in horse, trainer, and jockey, assembled this motley crew, held it together, and positioned it to exploit its strengths. I admire him for that, and I adore him for his loyalty and generosity to the individuals around him. And yes, I think he had the time of his life with this horse. None of his other successes gave him so much pleasure.
WN: Many of the most engaging characters in racing have been jockeys, and you had two of the most engaging of all—Pollard, known as Cougar, and Woolf, known as The Iceman. Boy, what grist they provided for you! Pollard ended up like a man who’d been through a half dozen train wrecks. Woolf had his own physical problems that eventually led to his death. They had a great relationship, marked by humor and self-respect, which had its ups-and-downs in the end, right?
LH: I was so taken by the friendship between these two men. I found it amazing that the bond between them was so resilient, because they had every reason to pull away from each other. As professional rivals, they were set up in opposition to each other from their teen years on. For one to win, the other had to lose. To complicate things, George was blessed with staggering talent, while Red was not. This led to an enormous disparity in the quality of their lives on the track and off. Then Red found the “big horse,” a creature greater than anything George had ever ridden, and suddenly it was Red who was at the top of the heap. Yet their friendship remained undisturbed. What was most moving to me was Red’s generosity in obtaining the mount on Seabiscuit for George. He must have known that he was risking losing the mount for good. It testified to the depth of his friendship for George and the depth of his loyalty to Seabiscuit and the Howard team.
I think the fight George and Red had over Seabiscuit was an unavoidable event in such a relationship. Each man had a massive stake in redeeming himself aboard this horse: George wanted to make amends for having played a role in Seabiscuit’s injury; Red desperately needed to both reestablish his career, and win the race in which he had made a critical error three years earlier. I think that after more than ten years of rivalry, with so much on the line, it was inevitable that the tension between them would boil over. But in the end, it was the friendship—not the rivalry—that prevailed.
WN: Red Pollard was really your central character, at least of the two-legged variety. Certainly, he was the most diversely fascinating figure in the story, what with his courage in the face of injuries, his love-affair with Agnes, his belief in Seabiscuit, his battles with alcoholism, his humor, and his recitations from Shakespeare and Ralph Waldo Emerson—or Old Waldo, as Red called him. It is clear from the book that you liked him enormously. Why? What did you see in him?
LH: Red was in so many ways a heartbreaking figure. He was physically unsuited to riding. His intellect and erudition made him an oddball at the track, and he was incredibly accident-prone. While his peculiarities suited him to Seabiscuit, a kindred soul, he was by no means a great rider. After Seabiscuit, he was consistent only in failure. Racing punished and humiliated him. As I began to write about him, I felt only pity for this man whose ambitions so ridiculously exceeded what nature and fate bestowed upon him. But the longer I looked, the more pity gave way to admiration, even envy. For all his failures, Red lived exactly as he chose. Most of us don’t, and live narrower lives because of it. I see a beautiful dignity in him, cheerfully refusing to be defeated by all that defeats the rest of us—fear, derision, loss, pain, sheer ordinariness. He didn’t give a damn that he wasn’t winning. He just loved to ride, so he did, to hell with the consequences. For all his absurdity, Red was more free, and thus more fully alive, than anyone I have known. When I look at Red now, I don’t see the abandoned, crippled, quixotic man that most of his contemporaries saw. I see someone who was in many ways a larger man than the rest of us.
WN: Speaking of jockeys, I’ve always been struck by their collective willingness to suffer near-starvation and hot steam-baths to make weight. In fact, one of the most illuminating parts of your book deals with what jockeys go through to battle weight and keep riding. Particularly vivid was your account of how jockeys like Pollard and Woolf, down in Tijuana, Mexico in the 1930’s, used to dig holes in the giant mountain of manure and bury themselves in it to burn off weight, the fermenting dunghill being hotter than a sauna. How did you pull all those jockey horror stories together?
LH: Jockeys fascinate me. They are probably the most misunderstood and underestimated athletes in sports. They are also the most mysterious. I have always watched them with awe, wondering what could make a person torture his body to participate in a sport that almost guarantees severe injury. It is that wonder that propelled me through this section of research. I interviewed a number of jockeys from that era and relatives of riders involved in this story. I also collected virtually every jockey biography and autobiography ever written. I went out on ebay every day, typed in the word “jockey” and picked through the options, finding gems like a 1906 magazine article on the careers of jockeys. The result was a harvest of disturbing and sometimes hilarious tales, and a glimpse into a vein of life that is almost completely unknown to the public, even to many racegoers. I was worried about interrupting the flow of the narrative by shaping this material into its own chapter, but it was critical to make readers understand the grim realities of being a jockey, as well as the lure of the job, so that the weight of what Woolf and Pollard would endure later, could be felt.
WN: Tom Smith was the original Horse Whisperer, wasn’t he? Of all the book’s characters, he was by far the most enigmatic and mysterious. Inarticulate to the point of saying nothing at all among hominids, he was engaging and eloquent among herbivores. It was like he had wandered in from a Cormac McCarthy novel. Your history of the man was riveting. Was he not the most difficult of these characters to understandand draw?
LH: Tom was the most difficult subject to grasp. He spent nearly all of his life drifting through places that have vanished in history, and he said almost nothing to anyone about who he was, where he’d been, and why he did what he did. Throughout the years that I was writing this book, he loitered around the edges of my dreams, in his gray suit and gray felt fedora, watching me, saying nothing. At times I was frustrated by his reticence. But soon I came to feel that by remaining silent about himself, he was telling me what was important. What mattered about Tom was not what he said, but what he did, and all he did—almost literally—was nurture horses. I think he cared very much about what the world thought of him, and his place in history, but he let the horses speak for him. Horsemanship was the beginning and end of Tom Smith. So I came to understand him through his horses and what he did with them. These animals and their accomplishments were all he left behind, and I think he intended it that way.
WN: Your description of the Seabiscuit-War Admiral match race was masterfully done, filled with tension, drama, and suspense. It formed the aesthetic center of your book. And it seemed, in the time it took for the post parade and the running of the race, that everybody in America had who kept a passel of advisors waiting while he listened to Clem McCarthy’s call of the race. How did you pull all of this together for the narrative—from films of the race, or from contemporary accounts in print? It reads as though you enjoyed writing it more than any other part of the book.
LH: I loved writing this section of the book. I researched that race and the events leading up to it in hundreds of places. I read accounts of the race in every major newspaper and magazine of the era, plus quite a few minor ones. I listened to Clem McCarthy’s radio call, playing over and over again that unforgettable moment when George leans over the mike from Seabiscuit’s back and says, “I wish my old pal Red had been on him instead of me. See ya, Red.” I obtained films of the race, taken from multiple angles, and studied them. I scoured photo archives for shots taken during the race.
The individuals involved in the match left behind quite a bit of testimony about the race. I located candid interviews that George did, describing his walk over the track the night before the race, then the race itself, detailing every decision he made, everything he experienced, everything the horses experienced. He was a remarkably attentive and observant man; in many interviews after races he recounted the position of Seabiscuit’s ears, where the horse was looking at a stage of the race, the precise position of another jockey’s hands on the bridle. Journalist David Alexander spent a lot of time with Red before and after the match, sitting in on strategy sessions between George and Red, and he recorded everything. Kurtsinger, too, did some revealing interviews, so I was able to recount exactly what he was thinking as he rode. And reporters trailed Smith and the Howards everywhere, jotting down much of what they said and did.
There were also many living sources on this race. I placed ads in racing publications and cold-called dozens of racing organizations and officials in hopes of finding people who witnessed the race. Many people came forward to share intensely vivid memories of that day. One man mailed photographs he had taken as a boy when he snuck into the barn area to watch Seabiscuit and Pumpkin. What was most amazing was that nearly every one of the witnesses I spoke to still thought it was the greatest horse race they had ever seen. I can’t describe how moving it was to hear a hard boiled ninety-year-old horseman choke up as he relived what he saw that day. This race was the research mother lode. I had accounts from every possible vantage point, not only on the track and in the in-field, grandstand, and press box, but in Red’s hospital room, Riddle’s box, Howard’s box, and the Oval Office. The wealth of information enabled me to tell the story of that race in great detail, and from anyviewpoint I chose.
WN: One of the problems in doing historical non-fiction is finding people still alive who actually witnessed what you were writing about. You did find people who were around at the time, such as Alfred Vanderbilt, Jr., Seabiscuit’s exercise riders, and jockey Tommy Luther and his wife Helen. Did these voices bring fresh and special vibrancy and life to the narrative?
LH: So much of history goes unrecorded. Newspapers, magazines, and recordbooks, by virtue of lasting the longest and being most accessible, form the mainstay of the historian’s diet. They are indispensable, but because they are mainly concerned with basic facts, they are often one-dimensional. In these sources, historical figures have a certain sameness; what they said and did is dryly recorded, but their interesting edges are usually polished off.
This isn’t the way we experience history when we view it first hand. We see all the small things that illustrate a person and an event—things that few people ever think to record, but that tell us a great deal about who the historical players are and why their actions are important. So much of what is truly interesting and illuminating in history resides only in memory, which outlives events for only a brief time. In researching Seabiscuit, I wanted to capture as many of those memories as possible before they were lost forever.
I caught many eyewitnesses to this story in the last months of their lives. These men and women put flesh on the bones of this tale. Without them, we would have known the basics of Seabiscuit’s career, but we never would have known about the girls of the Molino Rojo and the runaway manure mountain at Tijuana; Red’s secret blind eye; Frenchy Hawley’s explosive “Slim Jim” experiments, and many of the grisly details in the lives of jockeys; what Red said to George on that scandalous live national radio interview in 1938; Smith and Howard’s secret strategy for the War Admiral match race negotiations; life on the road with Ten Ton Irwin; how Tom taught Seabiscuit to outbreak War Admiral; the use of frog as a ringer, and dozens of other things. These are the details that, for me, made my subjects and their time real and accessible. They made the story much more intimate. Memory is, of course, a fallible source, and everything had to be cross-checked, but over and over again, I was amazed at how accurately these people recalled the events. And aside from facts, these people communicated the emotions that attended the events, the feel of America in that era.
WN: You were faced with a real problem involving momentum in this book. There were two legitimate endings to it. The first, of course, was the end of the Seabiscuit-War Admiral match race, the culmination of the 1938 racing season and one of the greatest events in the history of American sport. The second was the 1940 Santa Anita Handicap, the last race of his career and the Big One that had always gotten away. You were faced with the problem of building dramatic tension right through the match race, an event that left readers breathless, and then re-building it again for the hundred grander—a tough writing job, to be sure, but you pulled it off. How did you come at this problem? Was it difficult to solve?
LH: I was concerned about the pacing through these two races, and the events in between. A year and four months passed between the match and the 1940 handicap, a space of time in which Seabiscuit tumbled from the top of the racing world to the depths of serious injury, then, slowly, climbed all the way back to the top again, alongside his crippled jockey. Part of what made this progression enthralling for those who followed it was the considerable time it took for it to happen. It was, as Pollard phrased it, “a long, hard pull,” and the slowly building tension of this time loaded his final race with emotional import for the participants and the public. But in terms of recounting it in print, so little happened in the space between the two races—compared to the dense sequence of events that had preceded that time—that I was worried that it would be hard to pace the book in a way that would impart the same exhilaration, almost hysteria, that the public felt upon witnessing the horse’s incomparable final performance.
To recapture the pacing of the story as it played out in 1939 and 1940, I delved as deeply as possible into the horse’s injury and first retirement. I worked as hard as I could to gather every detail about the day of the horse’s injury, and was able to find quite a bit. I wanted to provide the same kind of detail for the retirement period, but because the horse and the men spent it in a remote place, out of view of reporters, there was much less to be found. I was lucky in that I located people who were there, and Howard and Pollard later spoke of that time to the press and to their families. Hopefully, what I found was enough.
WN: How long did it take you to research and write Seabiscuit? When and where did you begin the project? When did you turn in the final draft?
LH: I began the research in the fall of 1996, while writing the article for American Heritage. The article became the framework for a book proposal, then the book itself. I spent the first two years working from an excruciatingly tiny apartment in Washington, D.C. It wasn’t the easiest place to work. My apartment was on the corner of a very busy intersection, less than one block from a firehouse and directly across the street from the Taiwanese consulate. That year, a tiny but surprisingly noisy group began camping out in front of the consulate, protesting Taiwanese policy. They set up a loudspeaker and played a rallying song, apparently in Chinese, sung by children. I have no idea what they were singing, but it sounded like, “Hidee-ho hidee-ho hidee-ho hidee-ho! Fight! Fight fight fight!” They played it over and over, hour after hour, day after day, as loud as they could get it, apparently to torment the consulate workers. Hearing this song just once set my teeth on edge; hearing it hundreds of times was maddening. The song became the soundtrack to my writing process. I parked a radio on my desk and worked while blasting music in an attempt to drown out the fight song outside, but it didn’t help much. I conducted most of my interviews from that apartment, via telephone. I kept having to ask my interviewees to stop talking for a moment while the sound outside died down. I taped and transcribed all of my interviews, but at times all I could hear on my tapes were horns, sirens and the infernal hidee-ho song. In 1998, my book deal made it possible for me to move out of the hidee-ho apartment and into a little house farther downtown, where I spent the next two years finishing up the book. I turned in the manuscript in September 2000.
WN: Much has been said and written about the illness that has plagued you for years, a condition apparently prompted by a case of food poisoning that you suffered in 1987: Chronic Fatigue Syndrome exacerbated by vertigo. Could you recall how and when you first came down with this condition? What are the symptoms?
LH: In the spring of 1987 I was a sophomore at Kenyon College, majoring in English and history. I was nineteen, healthy and fit, playing tennis and cycling several times a week. On the night of March 20th, while traveling back to Kenyon from spring break, I developed apparent food poisoning, and became sick enough that my roommates called paramedics. For three weeks, I couldn’t seem to shake the stomach upset. Then one morning, I awoke so weak that I was unable to sit up. It took me two hours to work up the strength to stand. I expected the exhaustion to pass, but it didn’t. For weeks, I couldn’t even make the short walk to the dining hall. There was no way for me to attend class or do my work, so I had to drop out of school. I spent the next eight months bedridden. I was under siege from constant infections, unremitting fever, chills, soaking night sweats, acute light sensitivity, balance and cognitive problems. In the first month alone I lost twenty pounds, weight I couldn’t afford to lose; I finally leveled off at one hundred pounds. I was diagnosed with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome by the head of infectious diseases at Johns Hopkins.
Though my health has fluctuated since then, and at times I have enjoyed improvement, I’ve never recovered. There have been stretches, sometimes lasting several years, in which I have been totally bedridden. In early 1993, I developed extremely severe, chronic vertigo—a neurological abnormality apparently caused by CFS—which causes the sensation of spinning, pitching, and rolling. For two years, I was unable to read or write because of it. I have been dealing with the vertigo, on top of my other symptoms, on some level ever since, and it continues to make reading and writing very difficult.
WN: How did the illness affect your ability to write the book? Were there long periods when you could neither do research nor write? Did you get discouraged, at times? What kept you going?
LH: Writing this book was immensely important to me, but my illness made it very hard. I had to accept that there would be a large physical price to pay for undertaking this project, and that I would have to pare away the rest of my life to save my strength for what I wanted to do. For the four years that I researched and wrote this book, I did virtually nothing else. I devoted everything I had to it. I had my office set up so that there was a refrigerator, cereal boxes, bowls, spoons, and a giant jug of water right by my desk, allowing me to keep working without wasting energy on fixing meals. I stacked my research books in a semicircle on the floor around my chair so I wouldn’t have to get up to get them. I couldn’t travel to my sources, but found ways around that by making maximum use of the Library of Congress’ interlibrary loan service, the Internet, my fax machine, email, and, of course, my telephone. For the most part, my body held together. I worked whenever I had strength, sometimes at odd hours, and I often worked until completely exhausted and dizzy. There were days when it was almost impossible to move, but I usually found something I still had the strength to do. If I was too dizzy to write, I did interviews. If I was too weak to sift through books, I sat still and wrote. Sometimes I worked while in bed, lying on my back and scribbling on a pad with my eyes closed. Though it was hard to do this, there was never a point at which I became discouraged. These subjects were just too captivating for me to ever consider abandoning the project. The price I paid was steep. Within hours of turning in the manuscript, my health collapsed completely. The vertigo returned in force, and I was unable to read or write at all for several months. I also became markedly weaker and was rendered almost entirely housebound again. Well over a year later, I still haven’t completely recovered. But it was worth it.
As difficult as the illness made the writing and research process, I think I also have it to thank for spurring me into the project. Being sick has truncated my life dramatically, drastically narrowing the possibilities for me. For fifteen years, I have had very little contact with the world. The illness has left me very few avenues for achievement, or for connecting with people. Writing is my salvation, the one little area of my life where I can still reach out into the world and create something that will remain after I am gone. It enables me to define myself as a writer instead of as a sick person. Because of this, I felt an immensely powerful motivation for writing this book, and writing it as well as I could.
WN: No book on horse racing—and very few on any sport—has ever held the top spot on the New York Times best-seller list, as Seabiscuit did for six weeks. Had you ever imagined, when you began the project, that you would have the No. 1 best-seller in the nation? Looking back now, how would you describe the experience?
LH: Wildest dreams have a long reach. I think every writer dreams of having a No. 1 New York Times best seller; I certainly did. But only a tiny percentage of books ever make the list, so you have to be realistic. I think every writer, especially a first-time author like me, has a set of reasonable expectations, goals they can be satisfied with. I tried to be very realistic. This was a story that, no matter how fascinating the human characters and events were, centered around a racehorse, and no racing book had ever been a major success. I thought this was a fantastic story, but that a lot of people would pass it up simply because of the subject matter.
When I first imagined making this story into a book, my hope was that I could find a small equine-topics publisher that would be interested in it. I hoped to be able to sell maybe 5000 copies, out of the trunk of my car if I had to. That was okay with me. I just wanted to tell this story. Even after Random House bought the book rights, and Universal Pictures the movie rights, I kept my aspirations very modest. So I really wasn’t prepared for the call I got in March, 2001 from my wonderful editor, Jon Karp, telling me that after only five days on sale, the book was already on the best seller list, at No. 8. It was No. 2 the following week, and hit No. 1 the week after that.
That phone call began a very wild ride. After having lived in com- plete obscurity and isolation for so many years, I was suddenly on TV and radio, and in newspapers and magazines. In one day, I was interviewed seventeen times. Readers recognized me on the street. I received thousands of emails. My phone was ringing constantly. I got huge stacks of mail, including letters from both President Bushes. It was completely overwhelming. Physically, fulfilling the obligations that came with the success was very hard to do, but it was also indescribably gratifying. All the work had paid off.
The thing I will look back on with the most pleasure is the fact that these men and this horse are remembered again. They deserve to be. I hope they would be happy with the work I did.
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?