Late in the summer of '55, having just begun to prowl the
cigar-lit grandstands and sun-dried aprons of Chicago racetracks,
I awoke one morning to find myself in the unblinking eye of the
wildest, woolliest sporting storm to blow through Chicago since
...well, as my father used to say, since Dempsey and Tunney
fought the Long Count at Soldier Field in the fall of '27.
Swaps and Nashua were at it again.
The colts, two of the finest 3-year-olds ever to appear in the
same year, were set to battle at old Washington Park, Chicago's
South Side course, in what was being whooped along as the
greatest match race on the planet since Seabiscuit and War
Admiral ran at Pimlico on Nov. 1, 1938, the epochal clash of
regions, lifestyles and social classes. But that had been 17
years, a Great Depression and one long world war ago.
A few weeks before the match, as I hung on the outside fence near
the 1/16 pole at Washington Park, suddenly there he stood,
Swaps, all 1,000 gleaming pounds of him, with a face as finely
chiseled as a cameo, gliding out of the grandstand shadows and
into the afternoon sun. He had been brought out between races to
parade for the folks. His rider, Bill Shoemaker, guided him to
the outside rail. "Be gentle with him," said Shoemaker. "He won't
bite you." Swaps dropped his nose over the fence. As hands
reached up and stroked his soft muzzle, he pricked his ears. His
eyes, brown and gentle as a doe's, flicked over the faces looking
up at him. And then, slowly, he backed up, turned and walked
away. It was only a moment, but there began the setting of the
hook that has kept me tethered to the sport for nearly 50 years.
By the end of the week I had slipped into my wallet a small
picture of Swaps that remained there, ultimately in lamination,
for nearly three decades (until a thief lifted my wallet the
night of a prizefight at Madison Square Garden). Even today,
almost 50 years later, the race is nearly as painful for me to
watch on grainy film as it was in real time. Vaulting from the
gate under the staccato pop of Eddie Arcaro's whip, Nashua
sprinted in a wide-eyed panic to the lead, stole the march on
Swaps, a horse that everybody thought was faster, repelled all
challenges down the backside, then slowly pulled away around the
final bend. He won off in a flourish by 6 1/2 lengths.
My memories of that surreal afternoon resurfaced like old flotsam
at a recent screening of Seabiscuit, directed by Gary Ross and
based on the best-selling book by Laura Hillenbrand, and not just
for the eerily similar themes that the Seabiscuit-War Admiral
match race engendered but also for the even more haunting
similarities in the two great matches. That Pimlico match in '38
is the emotional center of the picture, the most artful racing
movie Hollywood has ever done.
If Ross occasionally plays loose with the facts, he remains true
to the core of the story, and many of the racetrack scenes evoke
more sharply than ever before on film a sense of the surpassing
grace and power of the running horse, the sound of rolling
thunder of the hooves and a sense of the precarious, perilous
nature of the jockeys' existence as they bound along hell-fired
at 40 miles an hour, monkeys on a stick, wind-sheared and often
screaming at each other in the din. For them, it is a world that
can turn suddenly violent with the exploding crack of a cannon
bone or under a runaway rogue. Never has this been captured more
graphically than in the extraordinary sequence in which
Seabiscuit's jockey, Red Pollard (Tobey Maguire), is thrown off a
bolting horse and dragged through the stable area, one foot
caught in a stirrup, his broken body bouncing off posts and
Hillenbrand's book, Seabiscuit: An American Legend, was No. 1 in
hardcover last year, and today it is back atop The New York Times
best-seller list, giving it 69 weeks on the list, making it one
of the most successful books on sports ever written. While it is
well-organized and beautifully paced, with touches of lyrical
writing throughout, surely the source of its appeal is that it is
a wonderful story that also happens to be true, as warm and fuzzy
as nonfiction can get without suggesting a collaboration of
Horatio Alger and Sylvester Stallone.
Wisely, Ross organized his movie as Hillenbrand did her book,
introducing the three main human characters early and then
weaving them in and out of the story's narrative. Owner Charles
Howard (Jeff Bridges) goes from being a bicycle repairman in New
York City at the turn of the century to an automobile dealer in
California, rising to claim vast riches as the car replaces the
horse. He decides to start a racing stable. Trainer Silent Tom
Smith (Chris Cooper), an old mustang breaker and horse whisperer,
rides alone off the vanishing plains on a horse, builds a
crackling fire and awaits his destiny. Howard finds him there
among the tumbleweed and hires him as his trainer. Smith finds
Seabiscuit, an underachiever himself, and sees something he
likes, so Howard buys him.
All they need now is a jockey. Pollard, tossed in poverty, comes
out of the rough-and-tumble tracks of the Great Northwest, where
jockeys fought hand-to-hand on horseback, rode cheap horses in
the afternoon and made whiskey money by getting their brains
scrambled in saloon fights. A raconteur, he quotes Shakespeare
and Emerson in the jock's room. Down but not out, blind in one
eye, he one day runs into Smith. And Seabiscuit.
They formed as unlikely a foursome as racing has known--Howard
the carny-barking huckster, Smith the enigmatic loner, Pollard
the injury-prone journeyman who saw Seabiscuit as his final
chance and the unprepossessing horse himself--the knob-kneed,
crooked-legged Biscuit. Under Smith's divining eye, with Pollard
in the irons, The Biscuit grew into the runningest machine in
America, a rolling road show from coast to coast, ultimately a
national hero as popular as FDR, a blue-collar bay with a
working-stiff jockey and this weird trainer who talked to horses
with his hands. And, finally, there was George Woolf, one of the
greatest riders in the history of the American turf, mounting The
Biscuit to save the day when Pollard got hurt before the race
with War Admiral.
Like Dempsey-Tunney before and Swaps-Nashua after, that match had
magical themes. War Admiral was owned by Sam Riddle, perceived as
yet another rich and crusty stanchion of the Eastern
establishment, the man who owned War Admiral's sire, the immortal
Man o' War. The Admiral won the Triple Crown and was feted as his
sire's greatest son. So it was East versus West. Old money versus
new. Blazing saddles against blase sophisticates. The Admiral's
vaunted speed against The Biscuit's storied grit. Belmont Park
against Hollywood Park. String ties versus bow ties. Old America
versus new. Behind it all, the Seabiscuit phenomenon had no less
than the Great Depression as its backdrop. No wonder the horse
and his handlers had such enormous appeal. Down one day, they had
risen to survive and prevail the next. The Seabiscuit story
squeezed a national nerve.
The release of the movie and the concomitant spike expected in
book sales will undoubtedly spur interest in the sport that has
not been seen since the '70s, the decade that produced seven of
the greatest racehorses in history--Secretariat, Forego, Ruffian,
Seattle Slew, Affirmed, Alydar and Spectacular Bid--with crowds
tuning into races or descending on tracks everywhere to watch
them run. This year, not only did a huge crowd stand in
bone-chilling rain to witness Funny Cide's run for the Triple
Crown in the Belmont, but TV ratings for the event also soared to
heights not seen in racing in almost 15 years. The gelding's
rags-to-riches quest, with his gaggle of owners arriving at the
gates of Churchill Downs and Pimlico in a rented school bus,
tapped into the same warm sentiment that turned Seabiscuit into a
The book has been viewed by some as a chance to inspire a
renaissance in a sport that was once among the most popular in
America, but no book or movie is going to bring back the crowds
that filled the tracks back when the grandstand aprons were seas
of fedoras in Movietone black-and-white and racing was the one
game in town suited for adults only. Still, the Funny Cide
phenomenon--unfolding as though inspired by Seabiscuit's
ghost--vividly demonstrated the power that the sport still has to
draw large crowds. The young gelding dropped out of nowhere to
win the Derby, at odds of almost 13-1, and two weeks later--when
he sailed to a 9 3/4 length victory in the Preakness Stakes--he
became the newest "people's horse," bearing upon his ample back
every dreamer who ever saw himself as owning a Triple Crown
winner. From Alsab to Stymie, from John Henry to Real Quiet to
Cigar, the hard-knocking horses of the plain folk have always
spun their magic. None did this more seductively than Seabiscuit.
The movie vividly captures The Biscuit's appeal, and the visceral
appeal of racing. With two actual jockeys riding the horses in
the movie's big race--recently retired Chris McCarron is on The
Admiral as Charles Kurtsinger, Gary Stevens on The Biscuit as
Woolf--the scenes ring evocatively true, to art as well as to
history. There is Woolf driving Seabiscuit hard from the barrier,
his horse outgunning the supposedly faster War Admiral to the
first turn, and then Woolf allowing The Admiral to join him down
the backside, eyeball-to-eyeball. The horses hurtle as one around
the last turn and into the stretch, with Woolf finally asking The
Biscuit for all he has left and then turning to yell at
Kurtsinger as he pulls away, "So long, Charley!"
The crowd roared Seabiscuit home, embraced him in cheers at the
Pimlico winner's circle and made of him a chapter in turf lore.
America was on the back of that horse, and instinct tells us that
our affection for the animal traces deep along the taproots of
our history and culture. Whether it is Swaps dropping his head
over the rail at old Washington Park, his muscles shifting
supplely beneath his golden coat; or Seabiscuit and War Admiral
straining neck and neck around the turn for home; or Secretariat
winning the Belmont Stakes by 31 lengths; or the seal-coated
Ruffian racing on the lead, right to her grave--they all cast a
curious spell. At the heart of the movie and its match race, if
you peel all the human layers away, what is left to behold are
these two majestic-looking beasts--quite simple and so generous
with their manifest gifts, oblivious to celebrity and adulation.
Alone, running in tandem, they cast this movie's spell.
COLOR PHOTO [COVER INSET] Seabiscuit Rides Again Plus 50 Greatest Sports Movies
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY FRANCOIS DUHAMEL The film version of Seabiscuit's win over War Admiral had Hall ofFame jockeys in the irons for verisimilitude.
B/W PHOTO: AP Seabiscuit won big over War Admiral in '38.
COLOR PHOTO: FRANCOIS DUHAMEL (BRIDGES, COOPER) Owner Charles Howard (played by Jeff Bridges) made his moneyselling cars...and dreams.
B/W PHOTO: BETTMANN/CORBIS (HOWARD/HORSES, POLLARD/HORSE) [See caption above]
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOFEST (MAGUIRE) Accident-prone Red Pollard (Tobey Maguire) was often down, butnever out.
B/W PHOTO: BETTMANN/CORBIS (HOWARD/HORSES, POLLARD/HORSE) [See caption above]
B/W PHOTO: AP (SMITH/HORSE) Trainer Tom Smith (Chris Cooper) was a taciturn, enigmatic horsewhisperer possessing a special touch.
COLOR PHOTO: FRANCOIS DUHAMEL (BRIDGES, COOPER) [See caption above]
TWO COLOR PHOTOS: FRANCOIS DUHAMEL (2) Ross (left) stuck close to the narrative structure created byHillenbrand (right) for her book and managed to capture thevisceral thrills, the grace and the power of horse racing onfilm.
COLOR PHOTO: LAUREN CHELEC (HILLENBRAND) [See caption above]