An American Legend, Laura Hillenbrand, Random House.

Seabiscuit Cover

Everybody loves the underdog. Perhaps that’s why racehorse Seabiscuit (1933-47) became one of the biggest newsmakers of the late 1930s—and why this book is one of the more popular releases this year.

Although Seabiscuit was a grandson of the legendary Man ’O War, nothing about ’biscuit’s appearance said “record-breaking thoroughbred.” He was described as having “stubby legs,” “a sad little tail” and an “odd, straggle-legged [walking] motion that was often mistaken for lameness.” Early in his career Seabiscuit was considered slow and lazy—he didn’t win until his 17th race. So shaky was his track record that James “Sunny Jim” Fitzsimmons—who was responsible for two of the first three Triple Crown winners—gave up on Seabiscuit and sold him for a paltry $8,000. 

After Seabiscuit’s new owner (Charles Howard) and trainer (Tom Smith) paired him with Red Pollard—a mostly unsuccessful jockey who seemed to have a good rapport with Seabiscuit—the horse’s speed, intelligence and competitive spirit became evident. Seabiscuit began winning races convincingly, often taunting his competition by letting them catch up before pulling away for an easy victory. 

Of course, making it look easy is a sign of greatness, but things were always a challenge in the ’biscuit camp. Seabiscuit struggled with weight gain, for he loved to eat, and was notoriously slow on a muddy track—almost invariably, he was scratched when the rains came. Even more daunting, handicappers often attempted to even the odds against Seabiscuit, requiring him to carry significantly more weight than his competitors. 

Pollard had it even worse. Like almost all jockeys, he constantly battled to make weight, reducing by various extreme measures. Pollard also suffered from being blind in one eye—a condition he hid for fear of losing mounts—and raced for much of his career with a shattered leg, one of a series of injuries he suffered in racing accidents. 

None of these constraints stopped Seabiscuit from becoming a dominant racehorse. At the height of his fame, Seabiscuit defeated Triple Crown winner War Admiral in a one-on-one contest that is still considered one of the best races of all time. He closed out his career by winning the 1940 Santa Anita Handicap, bringing his lifetime earnings to $437,730—an eye-popping Depression-era investment return. 

It seems that Seabiscuit was a perfect example of the axiom that beauty—not to mention failure—is in the eye of the beholder.