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Seabiscuit: The Little Horse That Could

Tom Smith leading Seabiscuit, George Woolf up, after Pimlico Special 11.01.1938. From the Keeneland Library - Morgan Collection. This image is protected by copyright and may not be reproduced in print or electronically without written permission of the Keeneland Library.

On May 23rd, 1933, a mare by the name of Swing On gave birth to a bay colt by Hard Tack. Hard Tack was a son of Man o’ War and Swing On was by Whisk Broom II. The newborn colt had been bred by Wheatley Stable and carried good blood, but was small and his knees were set forward. Atop of this, his hocks were higher than his knees and he had inherited some of his sire’s bad temperament.

The colt grew up on Claiborne Farm before being sent to trainer “Sunny" Jim Fitzsimmons, trainer of both Swing On and Hard Tack. Unfortunately, Fitzsimmons was unimpressed with both horses and therefore was unimpressed with their poorly built colt.

The small bay was named Seabiscuit and put into training. Fitzsimmons worked the colt hard and didn’t have the time on his hands to really focus on him with horses like Omaha in his stable. So, he sent the horse to his assistant trainer V. Mars.

Seabiscuit was raced thirty-five times as a two-year old, performing poorly in most of them but managing to win five and place second in seven others. He was also able to set a track record. The colt raced nine more times for his first trainer and owner when he was a three-year old before being purchased by Charles and Marcella Howard and sent to a quiet trainer by the name of Tom Smith.

Seabiscuit arrived to his new connections in poor shape. He was sore, tired, and two-hundred pounds underweight. Plus, he was quite lazy, paced in his stall, acted up at the start, and was difficult for grooms to handle. Smith knew that Seabiscuit had potential, but he needed some of his problems fixed before he could begin winning. He first attempted to give the horse a “social life” by putting a goat in his stall. Seabiscuit promptly grabbed the goat by the neck and dropped it outside of his stall. The stable pony Pumpkin was placed in Seabiscuit’s stall afterwards. The two were friends ever since, sharing a stall or in neighboring ones with a hole cut between them for communication. He even developed relationships with a stray dog and a spider monkey. Smith also outfitted Seabiscuit with leg braces and kept his legs bandaged.

Seabiscuit eventually calmed down and began racing for his new connections with the jockey Red Pollard aboard. He made his first start on August 22, 1936. He ran less often than he had with his other connections and was winning more often. He captured the Detroit Governor's Handicap and Scarsdale Handicap before being shipped to California where he won the Bay Bridge Handicap and World’s Fair Handicap.

The colt was flourishing from the love, care, and patience given to him by his new owners, trainer, and jockey. He started off his four-year old season with a win and began working his way up to the Santa Anita Handicap, the most prestigious race in California at that time. His chances for winning it looked good, but he was narrowly defeated by Rosemont, revealing to Tom Smith that Seabiscuit’s jockey was blind in his left eye and therefore couldn’t see the other horse coming.

Despite his loss, this race garnered Seabiscuit national attention and adoration from fans who saw themselves in this colt. Charles Howard recognized the celebrity his horse was gaining and used his entrepreneur background to market his horse, racing him in seven different states and even in Mexico that year. Seabiscuit continued to win, even with handicap weights increasing with every start. He won eleven of his fifteen races that year, many of them stakes or handicap races, and was that year’s leading money earner. Two of his losses were photo finishes and he only finished off the board once. He was named Champion Handicap Horse and the only thing preventing him from earning the title of “Horse of the Year” was War Admiral’s Triple Crown win.

Seabiscuit and Tom Smith. Keeneland Library - Morgan Collection. This image is protected by copyright and may not be reproduced in print or electronically without written permission of the Keeneland Library.

Unfortunately, in February of 1938, Red Pollard was crushed by Fair Knightess during one of their races, causing his chest to cave in and breaking his ribs and an arm. Later that year, his leg was fractured due to a runaway horse and was re-broken when he stepped in a hole at Howard’s farm. In Pollard’s absence a few jockeys were tried but Seabiscuit would ultimately be ridden by George Wolff, a friend of Pollard. Together, the two tried to take the Santa Anita Handicap, but Seabiscuit was beaten in a photo finish by a horse who was carrying thirty pounds less than him.

That year, many opportunities arose for a match race between War Admiral and Seabiscuit, but each time they were scheduled to meet, one of the horses would scratch for various reasons. Before meeting War Admiral, Seabiscuit participated in a match race against Ligaroti, winning despite fouling from Ligaroti’s jockey.

On November 1st, 1938, Seabiscuit and War Admiral met. 40,000 people packed Pimlico Race Track and 40 million more listened on the radio. Wolff, following advice given to him from Pollard, allowed Seabiscuit to get a glimpse of War Admiral during the race. It was all Seabiscuit needed to pull away to a four length win. War Admiral had run his best time for the distance of the match race (1 3/16 miles) but was unable to defeat Seabiscuit. Seabiscuit was named Horse of the Year.

Instead of retiring him, a decision was made to keep Seabiscuit running. He started off his six-year old season with a start in an allowance race at Santa Anita, finishing second. Unfortunately, Seabiscuit ruptured a suspensory ligament during the race and was sent to Howard’s farm to recover with his old jockey Red Pollard. Together, the two slowly healed. They returned to the races with a third in the La Jolla Handicap and then finished out of the money San Carlos Handicap. In their third race back, the pair won the San Antonio Handicap by two and a half lengths.

Seabiscuit and Red Pollard tried once more for the Santa Anita Handicap, desperate to accomplish the feat. 78,000 people came to watch the race. Seabiscuit won by a length and a half. The crowd went crazy and it took Seabiscuit and his connections quite some time to reach the winners circle. The win made Seabiscuit the all-time leading money earner. On April 10th, 1940, Seabiscuit was retired to Ridgewood Ranch. He held a record of 89:33-15-13 and had earned $437,730.

In retirement, Seabiscuit sired 108 horses including Sea Sovereign and Sea Swallow. He was exercised by ranch hands when they checked cattle and often carried Charles Howard on trails. Over 50,000 people visited Seabiscuit at Ridgewood before he died of a heart attack on May 17th, 1947 at 14 years old. He was buried in a secret location, marked only be an oak tree. The little, knobby kneed horse was what what America needed at the time. He was tough and gutsy and proves what horses that are shown love and patience can achieve.


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Sources: TB Greats

Sources from Seabiscuit's Wikipedia Page

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