The Seabiscuit Fascination

America’s obsession with the racehorse Seabiscuit was remarkable when it first occurred in the late 1930s. The current phenomenal interest in his story is even more so, given the passage of time.

The latter started two years ago when Washington, D.C., author Laura Hillenbrand published her book Seabiscuit: An American Legend. It startled an entire industry by quickly ascending to the top of bestseller lists, and this year’s appearance of a paperback version and the glossy feature film Seabiscuit has continued the public’s fascination with a four-legged athlete who last competed in 1940 and died in 1947.

Some senior citizens might be able to remember when the horse came along in 1938 to captivate a weary nation just beginning to climb out of the Great Depression and faced with the specter of ominous military buildups in Germany and Japan. At one point, according to Time magazine, Seabiscuit was the most widely written-about “person” in the world, accumulating more inches of publicity than FDR.

Certainly, the horse deserved attention. Eventually, he defeated every rival, most notably Triple Crown winner War Admiral in a match race that provides the emotional impetus in both book and movie. At showings of the film, audiences frequently applaud when the cinematic Seabiscuit flashes across the finish line first.

If we are to believe advertising blurbs, the colt’s past and present status as an icon reflect the fact that he was a smallish, knock-kneed nag who failed abysmally as an over-raced 2- and 3-year-old before falling into the fortunate clutches of owner Charles Howard, trainer Tom Smith and jockey Red Pollard. In other words, a prime “underhorse” who battled back against long odds.

Both book and movie note that the men around him did the same. Howard, who owned a string of successful California auto dealerships, got into racing as therapy after his son was killed in an auto accident. Smith was a loner whose only asset was an ability to “talk” to horses and bring out the best in them. Pollard, abandoned by his impoverished parents, failed badly as a boxer before discovering that he had a gift for riding horses and winning races.

Traditionally, Americans admire and cherish determined battlers-human or animal-who do not yield to apparently overwhelming circumstances. This seems to explain why the nation has fallen in love with Seabiscuit twice, more than 60 years apart.

Yet none of the protagonists overcame more obstacles than author Hillenbrand.

Stricken as a college student in the ’80s by chronic fatigue syndrome-a disease for which there is no known cause nor cure-she nonetheless became a respected columnist for racing magazines. Writing her brilliantly executed book, however, took a much heavier toll over a four-year period.

An executive of the CFIDS Association of America, which works to conquer the chronic fatigue and immune deficiency that plague Hillenbrand, recently described the illness as “the worst case of flu you’ve ever had, except that it never goes away.” On many days while writing the book, she was unable to get out of bed or stand because of extreme vertigo. The best book ever about horse racing was done one word, one sentence, one paragraph at a time-and almost always agonizingly.

Book sales and the movie rights will make Hillenbrand a rich woman, but which of us would willingly trade places with her? As her illness (mentioned only briefly at the end of the book) has become widely known, it seems that that her story, more than any other, best exemplifies the qualities of talent, pluck and luck that have made Seabiscuit a household name again.

Millions of Americans have had their emotions manipulated shamelessly by the movie, but what’s wrong with that? In an entertainment era where so many films, TV shows and recordings can make us miserable, a feel-good flick is a welcome change for those of us who remember when no odds seemed totally unconquerable.

It wasn’t that long ago either-it just feels that way.

Even if you don’t know a colt from a dolt, the Seabiscuit story is worth experiencing. Both book and film remind us, none too soon, that sometimes the good guys really do win.