Seabiscuit, An American Legend is a book that my friend Alex lent to me late last year. So it is kind of embarrassing that I only finished it this time or, almost a year later. I just have a tendency to give more priority to books that I bought or actually wanted to read more than the ones suggested to me. Alex wanted me to read this. So I did, but with so much effort.
On its first page, the awards and accolades are listed. The rave reviews are on the succeeding pages. I don’t easily trust “good credentials” of a book. Even negative comments, if I found one. As a reader, to see is to believe. I have to experience it before I believe in it.
Seabiscuit, An American Legend, is a true story that happened during the Great Depression. An inspiring one that is why Alex wanted me to read this. And he shared to me how much he liked the book. He has always been a fan of underdog stories, or stories of people who triumphed over their own personal tragedies, stories of unlikely heroes, and in the case of Seabiscuit, a horse who forgot what it was like to be a horse. With the help of Charles Howard (the owner), Tom Smith (the trainer), and Red Pollard (the rider), they were able to bring out the best in him. And they were right to believe that Seabiscuit, despite his quiet demeanor and weak and “unfit” appearance, was more than what he seems. Investing all they’ve got to turn him to become a fierce racetrack horse than he was before, they’ve managed to build up the career of Seabiscuit once more. And Seabiscuit, in return, pulled up these unknown people from obscurity to become sports celebrities.
As a reader, it was fascinating to witness how from their humble beginnings they were able to catapult themselves to a position of superior status. Because Howard, Smith, and Pollard also got their own sad stories to tell about their journey before they became well-known. And once they were on top, they really seized that moment of glory while it lasted.
I used to think that horse racing is a sport for the poor, a gambling sport, unlike equestrian or horseback riding which I think is a sport for the rich. But with the help of this book, I’ve come to see jockeys in a different dimension now.
Hillenbrand wrote: “To pilot a racehorse is to ride a half-ton catapult. It is without question one of the most formidable feats in sport. The extraordinary athleticism of the jockey is unparalleled. A study of the elements of athleticism conducted by Los Angeles exercise physiologists and physicians found that of all major sports competitors, jockeys may be, pound for pound, the best overall athletes. They have to be. To begin with, there are the demands of balance, coordination, and reflex. A horse’s body is a constantly shifting topography, with a bobbing head and neck and roiling muscle over the shoulders, back, and rump. On a running horse, a jockey does not sit in the saddle, he crouches over it, leaning all of his weight on his toes, which rest on the thin metal bases of stirrups dangling about a foot from the horse’s topline. When a horse is in full stride, the only parts of the jockey that are in continuous contact with the animal are the insides of the feet and ankles—everything else is balanced in midair. In other words, jockeys squat on the pitching backs of their mounts, a task much like perching on the grille of a car while it speeds down a twisting, potholed freeway in traffic. The stance is, in the words of University of North Carolina researchers, ‘a situation of dynamic imbalance and ballistic opportunity.’”
Seabiscuit, An American Legend is not just about a horse named Seabiscuit and the struggles and triumphs of Charles Howard, Tom Smith, and Red Pollard. This book, I believe, is also dedicated to every jockey who won and died on the racetrack, every jockey who competed with an empty stomach just so they could bring food to their starving families.
Hillenbrand wrote: “The racetrack casualty list was full of stories of the cruel, the bizarre, and the miraculous. In 1938, leading Agua Caliente jockey Charlie Rosengarten gave up the mount on the favorite, Toro Mak, to a struggling rider named Jimmy Sullivan, who needed money to feed his wife and newborn baby. Rosengarten watched in horror as Toro Mak, sailing toward a sure victory, inexplicably crossed his forelegs and fell, crushing Sullivan to death. After a spill that knocked him unconscious, facedown in a puddle, Eddie Arcaro would have become the first jockey in history to drown on the job had a photographer not rushed out from the stands and turned his head to allow him to breathe. Steve Donoghue, who rode in Europe and the United States in the interwar years, was once on a horse that clipped heels and fell, spilling him onto the track in front of a mob of onrushing horses. He was an instant from being trampled to death when an elderly woman suddenly materialized out of nowhere, grabbed hold of him, and dragged him under the rail. She left him in the safety of the infield, and vanished. Donoghue never saw her again.”
With all these danger and death that awaits every rider, no matter how they great they are, why are there still so many young men desiring to become a horse race rider or a jockey back then, like Red Pollard and George Woolf?
Hillenbrand wrote: “For all its miseries, there was an unmistakable allure to the jockey’s craft, one that both found irresistible. Man is preoccupied with freedom yet laden with handicaps. The breadth of his activity and experience is narrowed by the limitations of his relatively weak, sluggish body. The racehorse, by virtue of his awesome physical gifts, freed the jockey from himself… For the jockey, the saddle was a place of unparalleled exhilaration, of transcendence. ‘The horse,’ recalled one rider, ‘he takes you.’ Aboard a racehorse in full stride, wrote Steve Donoghue, ‘I am so completely in the race that I forget the crowds. My horse and I talk together. We don’t hear anyone else.’ At the bottom of the Depression, when wrenching need narrowed the parameters of experience as never before, the liberation offered by the racehorse was, to young men like Pollard and Woolf, a siren song.
“On the ground, the jockey was fettered and muted, moving in slow motion, the world a sensory vacuum after the tenfold high of racing speed. In the saddle, emancipated from their bodies, Pollard, Woolf, and all other reinsmen sailed eight feet over the world, emphatically free, emphatically alive. They were Hemingway’s bullfighters, living ‘all the way up.’”
After reading Seabiscuit, I was wiping my tears away. Now I believe why it got so many awards and became a motion picture starring Tobey Maguire. Then I texted Alex about it who was on a sick leave (until now). I told him I cried because of the book.