Seabiscuit by Laura Hillenbrand

August 29, 2012

Summary (from the publisher): Seabiscuit was one of the most electrifying and popular attractions in sports history and the single biggest newsmaker in the world in 1938, receiving more coverage than FDR, Hitler, or Mussolini. But his success was a surprise to the racing establishment, which had written off the crooked-legged racehorse with the sad tail. Three men changed Seabiscuit’s fortunes:

Charles Howard was a onetime bicycle repairman who introduced the automobile to the western United States and became an overnight millionaire. When he needed a trainer for his new racehorses, he hired Tom Smith, a mysterious mustang breaker from the Colorado plains. Smith urged Howard to buy Seabiscuit for a bargain-basement price, then hired as his jockey Red Pollard, a failed boxer who was blind in one eye, half-crippled, and prone to quoting passages from Ralph Waldo Emerson. Over four years, these unlikely partners survived a phenomenal run of bad fortune, conspiracy, and severe injury to transform Seabiscuit from a neurotic, pathologically indolent also-ran into an American sports icon.

Author Laura Hillenbrand brilliantly re-creates a universal underdog story, one that proves life is a horse race.

Liked:

  • As the description above says, this was a true underdog story, both regarding Seabiscuit and Red Pollard. Hillenbrand did a wonderful job making those historical figures engaging enough for readers to root for them even after all these decades have passed.
  • I was fascinated by the extreme measures jockeys took to “reduce” (make weight before a ride). Walking around in full winter gear even in the middle of summer is sort of understandable; willingly immersing themselves in a mound of manure (a “natural sauna”) was not. Gross!
  • As is usually the case, the book is much better than the movie. I watched the movie back when it first came out, well before reading this, and although I was able to get a general idea of the Seabiscuit story, the book just fleshes everything out so much better. I especially understand Tom Smith’s character a lot more, and have a greater appreciation for all the ups and downs of Seabiscuit’s career.
  • Red Pollard was one tough guy. Just surviving those horrific injuries was one thing; actually coming back to ride — while risking permanent disability — was insane.
  • I love that Red was aboard the Biscuit when they FINALLY won the Santa Anita hundred grander. That had to have been one of the greatest moments the sporting world has ever known.
  • I enjoyed Hillenbrand’s descriptions of Seabiscuit “mugging” for the cameras whenever he was hounded by reporters. I have zero experience with horses, but I like to think that the Biscuit knew what he was doing and knew precisely what was expected of him.
  • Charles Howard sounded like a great man. Sure, he was a self-made millionaire, which was respectable in itself. But even more importantly, it seemed that he genuinely cared for the well-being of his animals — Seabiscuit in particular — and wanted what was best for them.
  • Some of the race descriptions were truly exciting. I can clearly picture the Biscuit toying with his prey, letting his opponents catch up for a brief moment before sprinting ahead to the finish line. It sounded like the horse loved racing!

Disliked:

  • I didn’t really care for all the details surrounding each failed attempt to go up against War Admiral in a match race. Those parts were incredibly boring to me because I didn’t feel I needed to know that their previous races had been canceled because of rain, injuries, or sheer vagary. The actual match was important, of course, but a quick recap of the prior cancellations would have been more than sufficient, IMO.
  • It seemed that Hillenbrand repeated a lot of information in this book. At times it felt like the story was just going around in circles instead of moving forward. That made the book a bit harder to read than it should have been.

Rating:

I was slightly familiar with Seabiscuit’s story thanks to the 2003 movie, but Laura Hillenbrand’s book really filled in the gaps and made the whole tale so much more enjoyable. You don’t have to be a horse lover to appreciate the greatness of the equine and human athletes profiled in this work; the story crosses those kinds of boundaries and appeals to a wide swath of people. I give this one 4 stars out of 5.

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