Thanks to a popular 2003 movie starring Tobey Maguire, the legendary Seabiscuit was introduced to a whole new generation. The story of this amazing little horse has captivated race fans and the general public for almost 100 years. At a time when the United States was suffering its worst financial despair, Seabiscuit emerged as an enduring symbol of how an underdog can overcome huge obstacles and rise to great heights.
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Seabiscuit’s humble beginnings
As a foal, Seabiscuit didn’t turn too many heads. He was born with physical deformities and was very undersized for a thoroughbred. This was disappointing because Seabiscuit was well-bred. His sire, Hard Tack, was himself a son of the legendary Man O’ War. As he grew into a young colt things did not improve. Seabiscuit frequently ate more than horses larger than himself and took long naps throughout the day. He was branded lazy by his trainer, Sunny Jim Fitzsimmons.
EZ Horse Betting Fun Fact
Seabiscuit is actually named after his sire, Hard Tack, but in an amusing way. Hardtack, or “seabiscuit” is the name for a type of cracker eaten by sailors..
When he finally made it to the racetrack the results were less than stellar. He promptly lost his first seventeen races. In many of them he finished way behind most of the field. Seabiscuit was largely ignored by Fitzsimmons and became a laughing stock around the barn. Fitzsimmons was so disappointed by Seabiscuit’s efforts that he entered him in multiple claiming races (a race where each horse is for sale) but no one took the bait.
On June 29, 1936, down-and-out trainer Tom Smith saw Seabiscuit at Suffolk Downs. He was impressed enough to recommend the horse to automotive entrepreneur Charles Howard. The rest, as they say, is history.
Three men, one horse, and a big dream
Under the patient handling of Tom Smith, Seabiscuit began to show improvement. Smith chose jockey Red Pollard as Seabiscuit’s rider. Howard, Smith, and Pollard were no stranger to adversity. In many ways they related to the little horse because all of them had been given up as worthless causes.
Seabiscuit began to win handicap and stakes races, the most important and competitive races on the track. With each victory his legend grew. America was in the midst of the Great Depression and many people took hope in what Seabiscuit was accomplishing. Additionally, the racetrack was the only place where you could take your last dollar and perhaps double it with a bet on the little horse. An extra dollar meant extra food. Seabiscuit became the champion of the poor and the working class.
These people showed up in huge numbers to watch Seabiscuit race on the West Coast. Unfortunately, the racing industry players on the East Coast, long considered the Blue Bloods of American racing, were less than impressed. They considered Seabiscuit, and the people that cheered him on, to be inferior. The famous Triple Crown winner War Admiral was stabled and trained on the East Coast by Samuel Riddle. Despite winning the most money of any thoroughbred in 1937, Seabiscuit was shunned in favor of War Admiral for the prestigious American Horse of the Year Award. This did not set well with Charles Howard, and Seabiscuit’s owner embarked on a campaign to challenge War Admiral to a race.
Seabiscuit’s date with destiny
The connections of War Admiral initially wanted nothing to do with Seabiscuit. They considered a race against him to be a waste of their time. Public pressure created by Howard’s media campaign, however, forced the hand of War Admiral’s handlers. A race was scheduled for November 1, 1938 at Pimlico Race Course in Maryland. Seabiscuit’s fans came on trains from all over the country. An estimated 40,000 people attended the event and many more listened on their radios at home.An injury to Red Pollard forced Smith to enlist the services of George Woolf to ride Seabiscuit. Woolf was nicknamed the “Iceman” for his cool and calm demeanor. He was also a tactician and planned a strategy for defeating War Admiral.
Prior to the beginning of the race, Woolf took his time warming Seabiscuit up. He knew that War Admiral was notoriously antsy before a race and he wanted to fray the horse’s nerves by making him wait. The horses began the race from a walk-up start with no gate and Seabiscuit established an early lead. Woolf had spoken with Pollard and received the advice to relinquish the lead so that Seabiscuit could look his bigger opponent in the eye before making a final dash for the wire. Woolf gently eased Seabiscuit back, allowing War Admiral to catch up. When Seabiscuit saw his rival he gave Woolf another burst of effort and crossed the wire in front to the delight of thousands of fans that had packed the infield. Seabiscuit’s legend was etched in stone.
Seabiscuit had some success following his defeat of War Admiral, but he will always be remembered as the little horse with a big heart that overcame to odds to defeat a champion.
Seabiscuit was retired and lived out his remaining years at the Ridgewood Ranch in California. It is estimated that 50,000 people visited Seabiscuit at his retirement home before he passed away. He was buried on the Willits Ranch at the request of his owner, Charles Howard.
The 2003 film Seabiscuit garnered 7 Academy Award nominations, including one for best picture, and in 2009 the United States Postal Service honored Seabiscuit with a postage stamp bearing his likeness.