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Heart of a Champion

Size doesn't matter
By Mike Puma
Special to

"Everybody identifies with the underdog, they want them to win. They don't always do it in real life, but this is one story where they did,"says Seabiscuit author Laura Hillenbrand on ESPN Classic's SportsCentury series.

Perhaps no horse in the 20th century captivated a nation the way Seabiscuit did in the late 1930s. At a time interest in horse racing was blossoming, the grandson of Man o' War became the people's choice for his determination, resiliency and raw talent. Many still consider his 1938 match race with War Admiral one of the sport's classic events.

A rags-to-riches story, Seabiscuit didn't begin thriving until he had run dozens of races. After beating War Admiral in their epic battle, Seabiscuit raced only once in 1939 because of a serious injury. Remarkably, he returned as a seven-year-old and won the 1940 Santa Anita Handicap, the world's richest race. His legacy might have been even greater if not for two prior photo-finish defeats in that race.

In 89 starts, Seabiscuit finished in the money 61 times (33 victories, 15 seconds and 13 thirds). He set 13 track records. When he retired in 1940, his earnings were $437,730, a record and almost 55 times the price owner Charles Howard paid for him four years earlier.

"Seabiscuit's like a hunk of steel - solid, strong," said George Woolf, the Hall of Fame jockey who rode Seabiscuit in the race against War Admiral. The horse also had the heart of a champion. "You could kill him before he'd quit," Woolf said.

Seabiscuit's best work was as an ambassador for the sport. "In the latter half of the Depression, Seabiscuit was nothing short of a cultural icon in America, enjoying adulation so intense, it transcended sport," author Laura Hillenbrand said in Seabiscuit: An American Legend.

She wrote that in 1938, when he was voted Horse of the Year, Seabiscuit was the subject of more newspaper column inches than any newsmaker, including Franklin Roosevelt and Adolf Hitler.

In 2003, Seabiscuit's story was turned into a successful movie. This came after Hillenbrand's 2001 book shot to No. 1 on the New York Times Bestseller List.

Seabiscuit was born on May 23, 1933. "Runty little thing," said the foaling groom when he pulled the horse into the world. Seabiscuit's parents were Swing On and Hard Tack, who was the son of the legendary Man o' War. Hard Tack, known for his nasty temperament, raced to limited success before entering stud in 1932. Seabiscuit's early life was spent at Claiborne Farm in Kentucky.

"Seabiscuit floated along in a state of contented, bovine torpor," Hillenbrand wrote. "Sleeping was his favorite pastime."

The horse was branded lazy and defiant by his trainer, Sunny Jim Fitzsimmons. "He struck me as a bird that could sing," Fitzsimmons said, "but wouldn't unless we made him."

Seabiscuit made his first start on Jan. 19, 1935, and came in fourth. His first win didn't come until five months later, in his 18th start, when he captured an allowance race. He finished with only five victories in 35 starts as a two-year-old, earning $12,510.

In August 1936, Howard bought Seabiscuit for $8,000 - a relatively low price even in that era - and entrusted him to crusty trainer Tom Smith, who had lived a gypsy's life.

Smith coddled Seabiscuit, showering him with affection and carrots. The whip was used sparingly and orders were issued not to disturb the horse while he was sleeping. To correct his aversion to the starting gate, Smith took Seabiscuit to a gate each morning and stood in front of him, tapping him on the chest until the animal stopped misbehaving. Seabiscuit eventually learned to stay still in the gate up to 10 minutes.

Red Pollard, nicknamed Cougar, became Seabiscuit's jockey. Never a top rider, his career was going nowhere when he saw Seabiscuit for the first time. Smith liked the way the jockey connected with the horse.

In September 1936, Seabiscuit won the Governor's Handicap, the season's main racing event in Detroit. It was his 50th race, a higher total than most thoroughbreds run in their entire career. But Seabiscuit was just entering his prime.

In December, facing the toughest competition of his career, he set a track record in the World's Fair Handicap at Bay Meadows in California. The victory left Smith confident he had the nation's best horse as the Santa Anita Handicap approached, in February 1937. The $100,000 purse was the world's richest.

In front of 60,000 fans, Seabiscuit lost to Rosemont in a photo finish. Despite the victory, Seabiscuit's popularity surged, bolstered in part by captive radio audiences and news footage shown at local movie houses. Smith began holding secret workouts. In March, Seabiscuit was a heavy favorite at San Juan Capistrano and won by seven lengths, setting a track record. Still, Seabiscuit's exploits took a backseat that year to Triple Crown winner War Admiral.

Seabiscuit made his presence felt in the East in June, when he won the Brooklyn Handicap. The victory started the clamor for a Seabiscuit-War Admiral showdown. Seabiscuit's winning streak stood at seven stakes races, one short of the all-time record. But his bid to tie the mark was snapped on a sloppy track at Narragansett as he finished third.

Security measures were taken early in 1938, when a man was arrested for plotting harm to Seabiscuit in his stable. In February, Pollard was thrown and trampled when his horse, Fair Knightness, lost her footing. Pollard was told his career was finished as he lay in a hospital bed clinging to life with a collapsed chest.

Pollard convinced Howard to have his good friend Woolf replace him as Seabiscuit's jockey. With "The Iceman" aboard, there was another photo finish at the Santa Anita Handicap - and another loss. This time Seabiscuit was edged out by Stagehand.

Even so, the clamor increased for a meeting with War Admiral. After much squabbling between the sides on a date and site, the race was set for Memorial Day at Belmont Park.

But the $100,000 showdown between Seabiscuit and War Admiral was canceled less than a week before the race when Smith detected soreness in his horse. A month later, the rivals were scheduled to meet at Suffolk Downs in Massachusetts, but Seabiscuit was withdrawn moments before the race when a strained tendon was found.

He returned a week later and finished second at Arlington Park. On July 16, he won in front of 60,000 at Hollywood Park.

Finally, the Seabiscuit-War Admiral dream matchup came to fruition on Nov. 1, 1938 at Pimlico Racecourse in Baltimore. War Admiral, who drew the rail, was the 1-4 favorite. With an estimated 40 million fans listening on radio, Seabiscuit won by four lengths to capture the $15,000 purse.

On Valentine's Day 1939, Seabiscuit's career again seemed finished after he ruptured a ligament during the Los Angeles Handicap. But Smith and Howard decided the horse had enough left to forge a comeback. That came on Feb. 9, 1940 at the La Jolla Handicap, where his jockey, Pollard, also made his return. Seabiscuit came in third and followed with a sixth-place finish at San Carlos before winning and equaling the track record in the San Antonio Handicap.

That left Seabiscuit in position for the race that had escaped his clutches twice with photo finishes. More than 78,000 fans packed Santa Anita to watch Seabiscuit, who was burdened by a high weight of 130 pounds, gain his revenge. He ran the 1 miles in 2:01 1/5, a track record that stood for a decade. It was the second-fastest 10 furlongs run in American racing history until then.

Afterwards, Howard and Smith agreed their seven-year-old horse was ready for retirement. Seabiscuit was sent to Ridgewood, Calif.

He died of an apparent heart attack on May 17, 1947, just six days short of his 14th birthday. Howard buried the horse on a secret site at the ranch. He later planted an oak sapling over the burial site, the location of which was known only to his sons.

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