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Ron Fimrite
March 05, 2001
If looks were everything, this great champion would have been pulling a cart
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March 05, 2001

Books

If looks were everything, this great champion would have been pulling a cart

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Seabiscuit: An American Legend
By Laura Hillenbrand/ Random House, $24.95

He was a claimer, a colt with an odd gait bought at a bargain-basement price. He had a stumpy body, crooked legs, a dun-colored coat and a forlorn tail. He was sometimes mistaken for a cow pony. But Seabiscuit became the greatest racehorse of his time and, along with Man o' War, Trigger, Silver and Secretariat, one of the most famous horses of all time. His was the equine equivalent of the rags-to-riches fable so popular during the Great Depression. The public responded to his story with enormous enthusiasm. In 1938 Seabiscuit was among the nation's leading newsmakers in a field that included FDR, Hitler, DiMaggio and Mussolini. Today, more than 60 years after Seabiscuit's retirement to stud and almost 54 years after his death, his name still rings a bell, even with those who couldn't tell Seattle Slew from Mr. Ed.

It's a terrific story, but it's more than just a horse's tale, because the humans who owned, trained and rode Seabiscuit are equally fascinating. Charles Howard, the San Francisco auto mogul who rescued the colt from anonymity, was the prototypical Western pioneer of the commercial age, a onetime bicycle repairman who foresaw the future of the horseless carriage. Seabiscuit's trainer, Tom Smith, was a solitary plainsman who communicated far better with horses than with members of his own species. The jockey Red Pollard, a one-eyed former prizefighter who quoted Emerson, was down and nearly out when Seabiscuit saved him.

Hillenbrand not only ties these divergent personalities into a fast-moving narrative but also shows an extraordinary talent for describing a horse race so vividly that the reader feels like the rider. She writes about the confusion, turbulence and artistry of a race with the same grasp of sound and movement that Whitney Balliett brings to jazz in his New Yorker profiles. That is no mean accomplishment.

Hillenbrand's account of Seabiscuit's famous match race with War Admiral is alone worth the book's price. Even if your interest in horses goes no further than hansom cabs, you'll find this book engrossing. In 1949 the horse was the subject of a movie, The Story of Seabiscuit, starring Shirley Temple. Inevitably it will be filmed for the big screen again. Don't wait for it. Read the book.

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