CBR 10 Bingo Entry: The Book Was Better?
I spent some time pondering what I’d like to read for the “Book Was Better” category for CBR 10 Bingo. With so many options, I was falling victim to decision paralysis, when a trip to my local library helped me solve the problem. While dropping off some books, I stopped into the Friends of the Library bookstore, not expecting to find anything. But then my eye was caught by a hardbound copy of Seabiscuit in excellent condition, for the bargain price of $3.50. I could never pass up a good deal on a hard cover edition, and this would be helping the library: Win, Win!
I saw the 2003 film based on Hillenbrand’s book and enjoyed it. What I didn’t know, what I just learned from reading the book, was that there was a previous film about the horse’s life, a 1949 drama titled The Story of Seabiscuit, starring Shirley Temple. That film was panned, with an AMC critic stating, “The only actual reason to watch this film … is the black and white footage of Seabiscuit’s actual race.” According to Hillenbrand, the real footage was only used because when they tried to film the climactic race, the horse playing War Admiral kept beating the horse playing Seabiscuit (ironically, one of the Biscuit’s own sons). Hillenbrand calls The Story of Seabiscuit, “an inexcusably bad movie.”
The 2003 Seabiscuit is not a bad movie, but it’s not the book either. While I don’t go into a film (even one based on true events) expecting honesty, the embellishments of cinema are rarely more compelling than the truth. The truth is that Seabiscuit was an incredible horse, and one that was mostly overlooked by those who saw him, until trainer Tom Smith not only recognized his potential but learned how to motivate him.
Hillenbrand paints a compelling portrait of a mischievous horse and the men who knew him best. One look at the photo of Seabiscuit and Tom Smith that adorns the start of chapter 7 tells you all you need to know: the sly side-eye from the horse juxtaposed with the stern but fond glance from the man. In spite of all he did to turn Seabiscuit into a champion, Smith continued to be overlooked by his peers and wasn’t inducted into the Racing Hall of Fame until 2000, 43 years after he died. I made a quick visit to the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame website and was dismayed to see they don’t even have a photo of Smith to go along with his meager bio. Smith was never one for fame or the establishment, though, so I expect he wasn’t much bothered by the lack of fanfare.
Charles Howard, Seabiscuit’s owner, had a stable of race horses, but he seemed to have a special affection for Biscuit. When Seabiscuit had to be scratched from a major race due to injury, Howard was only moderately consoled by another of his horses, Kayak, winning instead. He was happy enough for the win, but commented to reports that he’d have been happier to see Seabiscuit in the winner’s circle. When Seabiscuit retired and sired offspring that didn’t live up to their sire’s reputation, Howard couldn’t bear to run them in claiming races (minor races where the horses are up for sale). Hillenbrand writes that when an advisor “talked him into selling an especially slow one, Howard quietly bought him back. ‘You don’t understand,’ he explained, ‘This one used to eat sugar cubes out of my hand.’ ” One gets the impression that to Howard, his horses were beloved pets that he allowed to race to satisfy their natural inclinations.
The fourth member of the partnership was jockey Red Pollard. The movie at once underplays the amount of suffering jockeys endured for their occupation (for all I know, that they still endure) and overplays Pollard’s unhappiness at the time he met Howard and Smith. Jockeys like Pollard tortured their bodies to make weight for races and risked extensive personal injury, even death. Stories of jockeys starving themselves to the extent that they couldn’t safely sit their horses come race day are abundant. Jockeys died in terrible accidents, and in the 1930s, there was no financial safety net for them. In spite of all this Pollard was, by his account, having the time of his life. True, he didn’t have much success as a jockey until he teamed up with Seabiscuit, but he was the type of jockey that would (and indeed did) keep riding long after his body told him to stop.
A word has to be said about War Admiral, the loser in the famous match race at Pimlico. If this were a work of fiction, the story would have more of a bad guy. While there was definitely an air of superiority among the east coast racing elite, War Admiral’s owner Sam Riddle was hardly a villain. Smug perhaps, but honestly, this story could just as easily have been told from the War Admiral camp’s point of view, with Howard stalking them relentlessly, hounding them for a fight. When Seabiscuit, ridden by jockey George Wolff, defeats War Admiral, Wolff feels real empathy for the loser. “He had been wrong, about War Admiral” Hillenbrand writes, “He was game.”
Seabiscuit was a larger-than-life hero in the days after the Great Depression. In 1938, more newspaper column inches were dedicated to him than to Franklin D. Roosevelt, Hitler, or Mussolini. Something as special as that comes around so rarely that a movie, however good, isn’t enough. You have to read the book to get the full measure of him. As Howard said upon seeing Seabiscuit in an early race, “We had to rebuild him, both mentally and physically, but you don’t have to rebuild the heart when it’s already there, big as all outdoors.”
Seabiscuit, the movie, is a respectable Hollywood film. To really get to know the horse, though, treat yourself and read the book.