So many years at home, Lexington, Kentucky, heart of the Bluegrass, as we name it, to wrench it away from the Kentucky mountains with their hills scarred and rutted from ruthless strip mining for coal; the Anglo-Saxons or Scotch-Irish on the front porches; their songs with zithers and fiddles; bungalow churches and the enduring speech of aint’s and haint’s and hit’s down yonder, elevated by friendly philologists to an honorable heritage from old England or Scotland.
Lexington is horses, along with tobacco and Bourbon whiskey for the solace of the citizens. Not horses for plowing the fields, but thoroughbred animals for racing and for breeding future racers by way of a fantastical, almost religious, avowal of equine cloning: noble sire and pedigreed princess for mare, their Almanach de Gotha the Stud Book and The Bloodhorse, founded and published in Lexington. The horse magic of our county, Fayette, is thought to be a historic accumulation of limestone in the soil, productive of strong bones; our shining green grass, mysteriously called blue, rich for grazing. We walked over the lustrous grass, went to school by way of Limestone Street without noticeable benefit from the bone nutrients beneath the sidewalks; yet there is little reason to doubt the local gift to the modern racer whose bloodlines, according to history, may be traced to Darley Arabian, captured in Turkey in 1698 and shipped to England. A Barbary horse—the name given to Othello by Iago in an obscene passage warning the house of Desdemona: “You’ll have your daughter covered with a Barbary horse; you’ll have your nephews neigh to you; you will have coursers for cousins, and gennets for germans.”
On my street in New York one can of an evening sometimes hear the weary clop-clop of horses going home to wherever the stables may be. Perhaps it is the mounted police returning from their surveillance duties in Central Park, whose trees and bushes and dark, curved pathways may hide a purse-snatcher or an urban demon with unspeakable desires. More likely it is the forlorn hoof of the drooping horses who stand across from the Plaza Hotel, hitched to their patched-together open carriages, drivers in a battered top hat and tail coat: a faux antique for the tourists like the claw-footed settees in the junk shops. Here and there a faded memory of the unruly horse who has since the dawn of history served, under restraints, for personal transportation, chariot war games, agriculture, and, for three centuries, the sport of kings, racing each other.
Man o’War, a daunting local and national celebrity, outshining Daniel Boone, the intrepid explorer of the “dark and bloody ground,” Kentucky. August Belmont II, or Junior, sold Man o’War as a yearling to Samuel Riddle in 1918 and after a notable number of triumphs the famous horse was retired to the Riddle farm in Lexington. There he stood as stud to many successful runners, including the Triple Crown winner War Admiral. When not thus employed, the horse was visited by thousands, not a one of whom he recognized or for whom he signed an autograph. He was memorialized by a three-thousand-pound bronze sculpture, placed on a base over his grave and later settled in the Kentucky Horse Park. The greatest horse of the century by a recent vote of those who know. A sports journalist wrote: “He had a personality, and the dignity of a king. He was a great actor. Every race was a show for him and, like all great actors, he never let his public down.”
Perhaps, but there he stood in his retirement, blinking and nodding off, since horses can sleep standing up if they wish. With his burnished coat, Man o’War was better groomed than the old rake Beau Brummel; on the other hand he might have been, to the ignorant eye, a plebeian farm horse standing behind the fence in the countryside. He lost only one race and that one subject to doubts; and yet the distinguished creature, honored in life and death, was just a horse for all that.
Seabiscuit—a thoroughbred horse who won many races in the 1930s. Seabiscuit—a current, widely read book about the horse, owners, trainers, jockeys, the racing scene of the period. Passing the plain front, strewn with many crumpled, losing tickets, of OTB (off-track betting) on West 72nd Street in Manhattan, one might wonder if the addicted customers going in and out retain enough cash for reading matter other than The Daily Racing Form. Gambling, playing the horses as it is called, is hope deferred, but encouraged throughout the sport with admirable frankness. At the track, the odds are posted, the parimutuel windows are open for win, place, and show. In truth, a day at the races has its blank periods. After the thrill of the plunge out of the gates, a single race takes only a few minutes at the most and then there is a gap before the next one, ample time for amateurs to put two dollars down on a long shot, just in case.
Gambling was banned as a companion of the Prohibition movement and here is Laura Hillenbrand, author of Seabiscuit, on the legislation outlawing wagering:
The result was catastrophic for racing. At the turn of the century, well over three hundred tracks had been operating nationwide; by 1908, only twenty-five remained, and the attrition continued until World War I…. Many horsemen were forced to abandon the sport and sell off their farms and horses. Most of the rest, especially in the West, retreated to a sort of racing underground, a series of leaky-roof tracks scattered through Canada and the few American states where the sport had not been banned.
Seabiscuit is a remarkable work of racing scholarship, confidently written and rich in the portraiture of the melancholy contract between an animal of over 1,000 pounds and a skinny little fellow dieting, fasting, and vomiting to meet the ordained weight, sometimes only 100 pounds. There is a measure of sentimentality, a genetic disposition, it would seem, of racing writers as well as those whose life work is the saddle, the training strategy, the buying and selling of horses. However, the author’s emotion is checked by the painful reality of much she has to tell.
The horse, Seabiscuit, is dramatically shaped for a sort of fairy tale; an unimpressive ugly duckling, although in the bloodline of Man o’War, by way of the exceptional horse Hard Tack. Seabiscuit: stunted body, low on the ground, “all the properties of a cinder block”; stubby legs, his walk a “straddle-legged motion…often mistaken for lameness.” His first trainer said, “I found out why he wasn’t running…. It wasn’t that he couldn’t. It was that he wouldn’t.” He liked to sleep; by nature more bovine than equine.
Charles Howard, the ultimate owner of Seabiscuit, started out in a bicycle-repair shop, but early saw the future of the motor car and made his fortune by shipping three Buicks to San Francisco in what was still the horse-and-buggy age and moving on from there. When there is great wealth, inherited or acquired, and so much has been bought or handed down, why not buy and raise horses and watch them run from the owner’s box? Thoroughbred racing is an endless, flowing river of expense—the farm, the barns, the manor house, the transportation of the huge beasts, their feeding, trainers, exercise riders, grooms, jockeys, veterinarians on call. Charles Howard went seriously into horses for racing and left his name in the annals of the track, even if, as a self-made man, he did not make the Jockey Club, a sort of human stud book, if you like, with the royal names of Widener, Belmont, Vanderbilt, Whitney, Phipps, among others. And then Howard’s turf was northern California, San Francisco, where he and “his close friend” Bing Crosby invested in the creation of the major track, Santa Anita Park. Seabiscuit came to the Howard stables by way of a trainer named Tom Smith, who, like many track men working for hire, had harsh experience behind him.
Smith, a lonely, quiet figure, had been around horses from his boyhood, breaking mustangs on the plains, “trimming their hooves, and bending over an anvil to forge their shoes… sleeping at their feet under the Colorado mountains.” A woeful time was spent in a sort of cut-rate Barnum and Bailey wandering show, then tending horses running in claiming races under barbaric conditions. The owner of the relentless circuit “was known to pack thirty horses onto a single four-door railcar, ship them to a race, yank them off the car, and run them without giving them water or letting them warm up…. He ran a mare named Miss Cheyenne sixteen times in twenty-one days.” In a roundabout way, Smith was hired by Charles Howard and sent off to look for
a bargain animal whose talent had been overlooked by the old-money lords of eastern racing…. In June 1936 Smith arrived in Massachusetts. He traveled from track to track, looking at hundreds of cheap horses, but he couldn’t find the one he sought. On the sweltering afternoon of June 29, at Boston’s Suffolk Downs, the horse found him.
In racing history there are many epiphanies, remembered or imagined. Watching an unwieldy horse, a three-year-old, win a race, “after throwing a fit in the starting gate,” Smith approached the unsaddled animal and their eyes met. “Darned if the little rascal didn’t nod back at me…kinda like he was paying me an honor to notice me.” As the horse was led away, Smith said, “I’ll see you again.” Thus Seabiscuit came to the Howard stables, to the trainer, Tom Smith, and finally to a jockey named Red Pollard. A tale of winning races, broken bones, chest caved in, loss of the sight in one eye, Red Pollard, noted rider.
The personalization of pets is commonplace and the horse, by man tamed and trained for various uses, is often seen as a character, even though it cannot be thought of as a pet. Tolstoy had a deep knowledge of horses, as can be found in The Cossacks and in the brilliant narrative of a steeplechase race in Anna Karenina. Vronsky, about town the night before and going off from one of the What-Shall-We-Do scenes with Anna, mounts his mare, Frou-Frou, and the race goes well at first in a detailed rendering of the sport. “She cleared the ditch as if she did not notice it, flying over like a bird.” And then Vronsky made the mistake of dropping back in the saddle and the horse sank to the ground. “Vronsky’s clumsy movement had broken her back.” Unforced errors.
Tolstoy also wrote a long, strange story called “Yardstick,” the name of the horse and the most imaginative, original, knowing horse narrative in literary history. It is told by the horse, an unfortunate creature, a skewbald, gelded by a groom because of his unsightly, unacceptable coloring. The outcast tells of his suffering, beginning with the rejection by his dam, and of his days with many others of his kind, with a Prince and a Hussar and their mistresses, the busy, treasured colts in the stalls. One of Yardstick’s most interesting ponderings is the meaning of the phrase “My horse.” “I did not understand the significance of calling me the property of man…. The word ‘My horse’ referred to me a living horse, and seemed to me strange as ‘my land, my air, my water.’”