"He had a sad little tail, barely long enough to brush his hocks. His stubby legs were a study in unsound construction, with squarish, asymmetrical 'baseball glove' knees that didn't quite straighten all the way, leaving him in a permanent semicrouch… His gallop was so disorganized that he had a maddening tendency to whack himself in the front ankle with his own hind hoof." If you are not a fan of horse racing, too young to remember the Depression or unaware of the dietary habits of sailors, you are probably thinking "Seabiscuit? What's a Seabiscuit?" The answer would be both arguably the greatest thoroughbred to set foot on a racetrack since the incomparable Man O' War, and the title of Laura Hillenbrand's painstakingly researched and lovingly recounted tale of the scrappy little horse with enough speed, brilliance and heart to capture the wild adulation of a nation hopelessly mired in the cruel quagmire of the most voracious, unforgiving economic depression it had ever known.
Told in the tradition of the oral biography (it is, after all, about a horse, and as wonderful as Seabiscuit was, he could not speak for himself), Hillenbrand wisely leaves much of the story to be narrated by the men who knew and loved Seabiscuit the best --- his owner Charles Howard, his trainer Tom Smith, and jockey Red Pollard. In turn, the lives of these three men are remembered to Hillenbrand by the men and women who knew and loved them best. In this way, Hillenbrand, a well-established thoroughbred-racing journalist, lets the story of this remarkable horse tell itself, needing only her evocative prose to guide it along. Grounding the story in the people that touched and were touched by Seabiscuit also acts as a safeguard literary device that prevents the book from careening off into the dangerous territory of over-anthropomorphization --- which would be all too easy, given the subject matter.
Many readers today may relegate the Depression to the dusty shelves of history and hard-luck stories told by immigrant grandparents, and regard horse-racing as a foreign world populated by old-money southerners, high-strung, inbred equines and freakishly short men. However, as the events surrounding Seabiscuit's Cinderella story unfold, Hillenbrand manages to give the reader both a historical perspective into the social and economic forces that shaped the sport of kings in the mid-twentieth century as well as an informative inside look into the often wretched conditions faced by the brave athletes --- man and horse alike --- who often paid for their success and failures with blood, sweat and sinew. Hillenbrand encapsulates her history and sporting lessons in the trappings of the kind of rags-to-riches story that is impossible not to relate to, the secret that makes this book a fascinating read for those new to thoroughbred racing or those (the author of this review included) pitifully ignorant of the seminal events of American history.
While the subject may seem unfamiliar to the uninitiated, to the reader living in the era of sports icons such as Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods, it is not prohibitively difficult to imagine the kind of cult following, press coverage, and attendant merchandising inspired by this small unassuming horse who reportedly had the appetite, laid back attitude and sleeping habits of a frat boy. Ultimately though, the appeal of Seabiscuit, the appeal that transcends the borders of time, sport and species, is that he combined in his short stocky cow-pony frame, the kind of magical excellence we all strive and wish for with the endearingly every-man quality that we can all relate to. Seabiscuit emerged as both prince and pauper, a beacon of hope that illuminated the sport of kings in the nation's darkest hour.
Reviewed by Mei-Ling Fong on March 26, 2002