‘Seabiscuit: An American Legend’ by Laura Hillenbrand (1999)

What a book! What a story!

For a time, Seabiscuit was the most famous individual in America.  In 1938, the horse received more coverage in American newspapers than FDR, Hitler, or Mussolini.

Seabiscuit: An American Legend tells Seabiscuit’s story of adversity, success and fame through the lives of the three men (arguably four) who turned him into such a success.  Owner Charles Howard made millions introducing cars to California, often accepting horses as trade ins.  Tom Smith, the trainer, who saw Seabiscuit’s potential when even the most famous trainers in the US had missed it.  And Red Pollard, the half-blind,well-read jockey who couldn’t catch a break until he joined up with Seabiscuit.  The fourth, partly overlooked man, was jockey George Woolf who rode Seabiscuit in some of his most famous races when Pollard was injured.

The most fascinating aspect of the book is just how famous Seabiscuit was.  He became a sensation almost overnight (despite finishing second in a race) as people became captivated by his emergence from nowhere to take on the very fastest horses.  Despite the ever-present risk of him being scratched from a race before it began, tens of thousands flocked to see him every time.

Seab

Seabiscuit’s one-on-one race with War Admiral was the Pacquio v Mayweather of its day.  The challenge that fans were dying to see but looked like would never happen. But Seabiscuit’s fans got much luckier than modern boxing fans and got to actually (eventually) see these two great champions compete at their very peak.

Hillenbrand has sketched a vivid tale of adversity, triumph and pre-WWII America. The book is exceptionally well written and flows like a great piece of fiction.  The characters come to life, the stakes feel real and the joy and despair of horse and humans alike shines through.

There is a lot of material in the book about horse racing and horse training generally.  While its not a sport I’m particularly knowledgeable about, I found the details fascinating and it helped me get much more into a story that could easily have become and over-sold underdog tale.  Hillenbrand paints such a clear picture of what a jockey must have experienced that it puts the reader right on the horse’s back and made me nervous about the outcome of often low-stakes races that happened 80 years ago!

Seabiscuit: An American Legend is regularly placed on lists of the greatest sports books.  It fully deserves it’s place at the very pinnacle.

Seabiscuit

 

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