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Charles Howard & Seabiscuit: Marketing An American hero


Seabiscuit the racehorse and owner Charles S. Howard
Seabiscuit and Charles Howard (public domain)

Seabiscuit came along exactly when the American people needed him to. He was foaled at Claiborne Farm in 1933 - the midst of the Great Depression. He was the grandson of the iconic racehorse Man o’ War and though royally bred, Seabiscuit looked nothing like the great horse he descended from. Man o’ War stood 16 ½ hands high with flawless legs and the obvious look of a champion; Seabiscuit was small, knobby-kneed, and loved nothing more than sleeping and eating.

Seabiscuit began his career with Triple Crown-winning trainer Sunny Jim Fitzsimmons. Despite Seabiscuit's awkward appearance, Fitzsimmons actually believed that the little horse had potential. But Fitzsimmons was too focused on training Omaha, a colt that won the Triple Crown during Seabiscuit’s two-year-old season in 1935, to give Seabiscuit the time he needed. Seabiscuit was thought to be too lazy to accomplish anything near what Omaha was accomplishing. His racing record didn’t do much to help him either; Seabiscuit failed to win any of his first 17 races.

Eventually, though, Seabiscuit started to put the pieces together and won five of his 35 starts as a two-year-old, including three stakes races. He even set a track record of :59 ⅗ in the five-furlong Watch Hill Claiming Stakes at Narragansett Park. Still, the hard-raced horse was growing more unhappy with each start. Even the great Sunny Jim Fitzsimmons couldn’t figure out how to get the horse to reach his full potential. The horse would continue down this unremarkable path until Charles S. Howard, Tom Smith, and Red Pollard came into his life.

Charles S. Howard was familiar with the struggles of building something great; though he was born into money, Howard refused his family’s wealth. He moved to San Franciso in 1903 with just 21 cents in his pocket to open a bicycle shop. Two years later he opened a Buick franchise but failed to sell a single car.

Howard’s luck changed when a deadly earthquake struck San Franciso in 1906. He was the only person in the city with cars to help the injured; the tragedy turned Howard’s life to prosperity. This, combined with Howard's excellent marketing tactics, allowed him to absolutely thrive. Years later, Howard found himself spending quite a bit of time at Tijuana Racecourse in Mexico - he was looking for an escape after the tragic death of his 15-year-old son Frankie and the thrill of horse racing and gambling (the latter of which was illegal in the United States at the time) was exactly what he needed. It was here that Howard's love of horses and horse racing began to grow.

The stock market crash in 1929 left California with a need for revenue and Charles ‘Doc’ Strub, a former pro baseball player and investor, knew exactly what could bring it - a racetrack. Desperate for funds, the California government re-legalized gambling, and with the help of multiple investors, including Charles Howard and Bing Crosby, Strub’s Santa Anita Park was born. It opened its doors for the first time on December 25, 1934.

Headlining the Santa Anita Park meet was the Santa Anita Handicap, a race worth $100,000. It was the biggest purse in the world and an unfathomable amount of money to the average American at the time. Charles Howard, much like everyone else in the world, wanted to win it. Thus, in 1935 Howard and his wife Marcela purchased a string of 15 racehorses. Always with an affinity for the underdog, Howard selected only the most down-on-their-luck horses. In this quest for creating a stable capable of winning the “hundred-grander”, Howard hired the unorthodox “Silent” Tom Smith as his trainer.

Tom Smith was a special trainer. He grew up riding in great cattle drives, then breaking wild mustangs for the British cavalry, and later for the U.S. Cavalry. Eventually, Smith was hired by C.B. “Charlie” Irwin as an assistant trainer and blacksmith. Smith worked for Irwin for many years and times were difficult; he was sleeping on a cot in a stall and working hard to nurse Irwin’s overworked horses back to health. Smith spent his time with the Irwin barn learning everything he could and, eventually, he was hired by Charles Howard.

Smith knew how to listen to the horses in his care; he was known to sit in a stall with a horse and stare at them for hours, learning everything about them to be able to transform them into real runners. Together, Howard and Tom began winning races with his longshot, bad-looking horses.

In August 1936, Howard asked Smith to look at another horse he was thinking of purchasing. That horse was Seabiscuit. Smith had actually seen the horse in the paddock for a race at Suffolk Downs.

“The colt was practically sneering at him. Smith was standing by the track rail when a weedy three-year-old bay stopped short in front of him, swung his head, and eyed him with an arch expression,” The Observer wrote of Smith’s first time meeting Seabiscuit. “'He looked right down his nose at me,' Smith remembered, 'like he was saying, ‘Who the devil are you?’ Man and horse stood on opposite sides of the rail for a long moment, sizing each other up. Smith watched the animal's rump swing around and go. Thin, yes, but he had an engine on him.”

Seabiscuit ended up winning the race. He and Smith met eyes again when the horse came into the winner's circle; Smith nodded and he swore the horse nodded right back. It was as if they knew they would one day meet again to change each other's lives.

[Video: Watch Seabiscuit: American's Legendary Racehorse here]

It was a deal. Howard purchased Seabiscuit from the horse’s trainer Fitzsimmons for just $8,000. It took some time for the horse to come into his own in Howard's barn; he was underweight, lazy, and a menace to everyone that had to work with him. The horse disliked running and spent most of his days pacing in his stall. But with his watchful eye and unending patience, Smith was able to transform Seabiscuit into a horse that learned to love the feeling of running - and winning.

They partnered Seabiscuit with jockey Red Pollard. Like Howard, Pollard had been born in affluence. However, his family lost their brickyard in a flood in 1915 and Pollard was thrown into a life of poverty. For many years he struggled as a jockey; he was tall, standing 5 foot 7, and had lost vision in his right eye when a rock hit him during a race - a secret he kept as he would not have been allowed to ride had his loss of vision been known. Much like Seabiscuit, Pollard was down on his luck when Smith asked him to ride.

The unlikely team of an owner who turned tragedy into fortune, a trainer who rarely spoke, a half-blind jockey, and a rundown horse began to climb their way up the ladder of horse racing together. They began winning handicaps and even setting records. The American people were smitten and Charles S. Howard knew that his horse was exactly the type of hero his country needed.

The Depression left each American looking for a way to escape. People flocked to the theater to lose themselves in movies and crowded around radios to listen to sports coverage. Thoroughbred horse racing’s popularity soared during this time; the exciting narration style of a race call over the radio was prime entertainment.

Howard always had a knack for marketing and he was keen to use this skill on Seabiscuit. He didn’t only want the horse to be a success on the racetrack, he wanted him to become an American hero. The horse’s story was enough for people to flock to racetracks across the country to watch him race. They heard the story of this run-down, losing horse turning his luck around to become a star and wished to have the same thing happen to them.

Howard took advantage of the American People’s desire for escapism by making sure that the press was always reporting on Seabiscuit's exploits. He was known to send champagne to reporters and call them with scoops. The press would even gossip about Seabiscuit in the same way that they gossiped about the big stars in Hollywood.

“One inventive scribe wrote that trainer Tom Smith poured two quarts of Golden Rod beer for Seabiscuit to drink before each race,” PBS published. “If this brew is denied the stallion, the imaginative writer wrote, the horse ‘whinnies and stomps to indicate displeasure.’”

The public love for Seabiscuit grew and grew every year, especially by 1938 when Seabiscuit had two incredibly close calls in the Santa Anita Handicap and was slated to run in a match race against Triple Crown winner War Admiral. Movie theaters played coverage of his races and his picture was all over the newspapers. Seabiscuit was the #1 newsmaker of 1938, ranking above President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Adolf Hitler. 40 million people tuned in to listen to Seabiscuit defeat War Admiral in their long-awaited match race.

The press weren’t the only ones to take advantage of Seabiscuit’s incredible rise to the top. His likeness was used to promote everything from hats, to hotels, pinball games, to laundry services, and even crates of oranges. Something regarding Seabiscuit was around every corner - “Seabiscuit-itis” had taken over America.

Seabiscuit tore a ligament in his ankle shortly after his famed triumph over War Admiral in their match race. In the final display of his greatness, Seabiscuit recovered and finally won the $100,000 Santa Anita Handicap in 1940. His fairytale story had culminated in the most incredible way possible.

Thanks to Charles S. Howard’s ability to promote his horse to the press, every single American knew of Seabiscuit’s great story. They were all touched by his story of going from a rundown, losing horse to a horse capable of winning the best races and defeating great horses. His story still inspires us 82 years later and likely will forever.

2009 U.S. Postal Service stamp commemorating Seabiscuit's win over War Admiral
A 2009 stamp commemorating Seabiscuit's win over War Admiral.

About: Champions of the Track works to create new fans of horse racing through entertaining, engaging, and educational content. Made by fans of horse racing, for fans of horse racing. Powered by KPB Media.

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