Seabiscuit: greater than horseflesh

"Seabiscuit: An American Legend," by Laura Hillenbrand. Random House. 399 pages. $24.95.

Americans love a rags-to- riches story. It's hard to imagine one more amazing than the saga of Seabiscuit, the pint-sized racehorse who rose from castoff to champion in the 1930s. The cast is straight out of a Horatio Alger novel.


There is Charles Howard, the horse's owner, who headed west from New York in 1903 with 21 cents in his pocket and wound up making a fortune selling cars in San Francisco. There is Tom Smith, his trainer, who spent his childhood taming wild Mustangs on the western plains, a man who seldom spoke to people but was a horse whisperer before Robert Redford made it cool.

There is Red Pollard, his jockey, who was fond of quoting Shakespeare and Emerson (Old Waldo, he called him) and never told anyone that he was blind in one eye because he was afraid he might lose his job.


And, of course, there is Seabiscuit, a homely horse with crooked legs who started his career with 16 straight losses and was running in rock-bottom races when Smith bought him and put him on the road to stardom.

With such characters, Seabiscuit's story is an odds-on favorite to be a winner. Laura Hillenbrand cashes in with a delightful account of how this hard-luck colt rose from obscurity to become America's darling.

The foundation of Hillenbrand's success is first-rate reporting. She's done the exhaustive research necessary to bring people and places to life and she handles the sometimes unfathomable nuances of horse racing with absolute authority.

But reporting is only half the game. Hillenbrand also proves to be a wonderful storyteller, with a graceful style that can be appropriately witty, serious or taut with suspense.

The result is a book that is great fun to read. It moves along briskly and virtually every chapter is rich with memorable moments -- some hilarious, some heartbreaking. The high drama comes when Hillenbrand recounts Seabiscuit's wildly anticipated match race with Triple Crown winner War Admiral at Pimlico in 1938. It will stir the hearts of even those who know that story well.

Best of all, Hillenbrand understands that this book is more than the tale of a great horse. It's a window on an era in American history.

Seabiscuit's astonishing popularity speaks to how badly Americans needed heroes during the Great Depression. When he traveled, every train stop on the route was jammed with people desperate to get a glimpse of him. His last race drew 78,000 -- 6,000 more than this year's Super Bowl.

Seabiscuit's career also demonstrated the power of broadcasting and sports to draw Americans together. His big races were broadcast live on radio and routinely drew 40 million listeners -- nearly a third of the U.S. population at that time.


Hillenbrand's book is well-timed, arriving as thoroughbred racing gears up for its spring classics -- the Kentucky Derby in Louisville, the Preakness in Baltimore and the Belmont Stakes in New York.

But it would be a terrible shame if the audience was limited to racing fans. This is a great story beautifully told, and that's all one can ask of any book.

Stephen R. Proctor, The Sun's deputy managing editor for sports and features, has been involved in the operation of a thoroughbred racing stable for nearly a decade and has been known to wager money on horse races. His office is decorated with photos of Seabiscuit's great match race against War Admiral.