Seabiscuit: An American Legend, by Laura Hillenbrand
In many cases I am able to read a book before watching the movie, but this is a case where that simply did not happen. At the time I saw Seabiscuit I was vaguely familiar with Laura Hillenbrand as an author and I knew that the movie had been based on a book, and there was a lot to like about the movie as it was well-acted and was a lovely biopic of a famous horse. The book is, of course, better than the movie, but that is largely because Hillenbrand is a fantastic historical writer who clearly knows what she is doing and because there is a lot more space within a book to include everything than in a major motion picture which is usually limited to two or three hours of material at most. Given the general level of quality of the author’s book , it is no surprise that this book is an excellent read and a worthwhile book about a wonderful horse was among the greatest in American racing history. What is a surprise is that it has taken me so long to read this book in the first place, I suppose.
This book is a chronological history of Seabiscuit and those people associated with him that contains 23 chapters in 3 parts that is about 350 pages or so in length. The first part of the book consists of 6 chapters that introduce Seabiscuit as well as owner Charles Howard, trainer Tom Smith, and jockey Red Pollard, as well as their own backgrounds, as they were brought together in order to bring the most out of a horse that had been considered undistinguished up to then. After that there are thirteen chapters that make up the main body of the work, as Seabiscuit first dominates the west coast and then where Howard seeks a match race against War Admiral in order to demonstrate Seabiscuit’s greatness, a task which takes more than a year and quite a lot of racing in order to accomplish, in the process showing Seabiscuit to be a horse with considerable populist appeal. After that the book closes with four chapters that show Seabiscuit suffering a dreadful leg injury and then coming back, along with a horribly wounded and sadly alcoholic Red Pollard, to finally win the Santa Anita race that had been the only major race that had eluded Seabiscuit before, after which there is an epilogue, acknowledgements, notes, and an index.
There is something deeply moving and tragic about the story of Seabiscuit. There is the way in which his racing was so weather-dependent, so that wet tracks made it impossible for him to run at the best speed. There is the way that he ran at a tough handicap relative to the majority of horses he raced against. There is the sad world of horseriding itself, looking at the tragedies of the lives of Seabiscuit, Pollard, Smith, Howard–including the breakdown of his first marriage and his intense rivalry with his surviving son–and many others. Seabiscuit’s story demonstrates a lot of the difficulties that people have making a living in the racing industry and also the shenanigans that have long been involved in gambling, the living conditions of jockeys and grooms, and the enforcement of rules. What Hillenbrand does that is particularly compelling is that she shows the difficulties of life in this world in a way that draws compassion without hitting one over the head with it and without losing sight of the narrative that the various facts and details serve. Without a doubt, Hillenbrand’s efforts succeed so well here because she has a solid command of what she is writing about and knows how to put facts and details into a compelling narrative. A lot of other historians of horses could stand to learn a lot from her.
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