Books If looks were everything, this great champion would have been pulling a cart

March 05, 2001

Seabiscuit: An American Legend
By Laura Hillenbrand/Random House, $24.95

He was a claimer, a colt with an odd gait bought at a
bargain-basement price. He had a stumpy body, crooked legs, a
dun-colored coat and a forlorn tail. He was sometimes mistaken
for a cow pony. But Seabiscuit became the greatest racehorse of
his time and, along with Man o' War, Trigger, Silver and
Secretariat, one of the most famous horses of all time. His was
the equine equivalent of the rags-to-riches fable so popular
during the Great Depression. The public responded to his story
with enormous enthusiasm. In 1938 Seabiscuit was among the
nation's leading newsmakers in a field that included FDR,
Hitler, DiMaggio and Mussolini. Today, more than 60 years after
Seabiscuit's retirement to stud and almost 54 years after his
death, his name still rings a bell, even with those who couldn't
tell Seattle Slew from Mr. Ed.

It's a terrific story, but it's more than just a horse's tale,
because the humans who owned, trained and rode Seabiscuit are
equally fascinating. Charles Howard, the San Francisco auto mogul
who rescued the colt from anonymity, was the prototypical Western
pioneer of the commercial age, a onetime bicycle repairman who
foresaw the future of the horseless carriage. Seabiscuit's
trainer, Tom Smith, was a solitary plainsman who communicated far
better with horses than with members of his own species. The
jockey Red Pollard, a one-eyed former prizefighter who quoted
Emerson, was down and nearly out when Seabiscuit saved him.

Hillenbrand not only ties these divergent personalities into a
fast-moving narrative but also shows an extraordinary talent for
describing a horse race so vividly that the reader feels like the
rider. She writes about the confusion, turbulence and artistry of
a race with the same grasp of sound and movement that Whitney
Balliett brings to jazz in his New Yorker profiles. That is no
mean accomplishment.

Hillenbrand's account of Seabiscuit's famous match race with War
Admiral is alone worth the book's price. Even if your interest in
horses goes no further than hansom cabs, you'll find this book
engrossing. In 1949 the horse was the subject of a movie, The
Story of Seabiscuit, starring Shirley Temple. Inevitably it will
be filmed for the big screen again. Don't wait for it. Read the
book.

B/W PHOTO: RANDOM HOUSE

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)