Before the triumphs and travails of the jockey Red Pollard, consider the hard life of so many. “No athletes suffered more for their sport. The jockey lived hard and lean and tended to die young, trampled under the hooves of horses or imploding from the pressures of his vocation.” A young jockey named Thomas Dowell turned up, half-starved and disoriented, at a bus station in Columbus, Ohio. The police took him to the station to offer medical help; when the doctor left the cell for a moment, “Dowell slipped his belt off, coiled it around his neck, and hanged himself.” Another jockey, Tommy Luther, had his head split by a steel overhead beam at the starting gate, recovered, only to be hurt in a later race when “the filly he was riding abruptly tripped over her own legs and plunged headfirst into the track…. Three horses…struck her from behind. Their hooves cracked into Tommy’s head as they fell.” From this monstrous collision, little Tommy also survived.
Red Pollard, who would ride Seabiscuit, was born in 1909, in Edmonton, Alberta. It was a respectable family, prosperous until a flood destroyed the father’s business and the family’s fortunes were swept away. Young Red did not take to the schoolroom, but in a world where books are as scarce as lessons on the harpsichord, Pollard was living “on the road of the racing circuit, sleeping in empty stalls, carrying with him only a saddle, his rosary, and his books: pocket volumes of Shakespeare, Omar Khayyám’s Rubaiyat, a little copy of Robert Service’s Songs of the Sourdough, maybe some Emerson, whom he called ‘Old Waldo.’” Before racing, Pollard spent some time as a boxer, another punishing sport, which, without much success, he abandoned for a racing career that started at bottom-level tracks. He was just fifteen, a bit tall at five feet seven, but weighing only 101 pounds. In spite of the unlikely volume of the essays of “Old Waldo” in his pocket, Pollard’s life was not that of a gentleman.
The life: the body of a jockey was a hell of infirmity, as if stricken by a wasting disease:
Water, because of its weight, was the prime enemy…. Most drank virtually nothing…. Then there were sweating rituals, topped by “road work,”…donning heavy underwear, zipping into a rubber suit, swaddling in hooded winter gear and woolen horse blankets, then running around and around the track, preferably under a blistering summer sun…. Most jockeys ingested every manner of laxative to purge their systems of food and water…. [An inventor] dreamed up a foul-smelling recipe for self-parboiling [consisting of] …piping-hot water mixed with three to five pounds of Epsom salts, one quart of white vinegar, two ounces of household ammonia, and a mystery lather he called Hawley’s Cream.
The jockeys were to steep in the mixture. The inventor’s estimate of the cumulative weight loss by 1945 was “12,860 pounds—more than six tons.”
Pollard began riding in shabby tracks in Montana and Vancouver in the 1920s. After an unpromising beginning, he improved sufficiently to win a stakes race at Agua Caliente in Tijuana; from there he, a scrawny knight, rode forth to meet his first rite of passage—an appalling injury. In a morning workout with a negligible horse, a rock or clump of earth “flew up from under the animal’s hooves and struck Pollard in the head. The object slammed into Pollard’s skull over the visual center of his brain…. For the price of a 50-cent galloping fee he was probably never paid, Pollard lost the sight in his right eye forever.” He went on riding, keeping the blind eye a secret and adding to it a remarkable sum of shattered limbs.
Requiring that its human competitors straddle erratic animals moving in dense groups at extremely high speed, race riding in the 1930s, as today, was fraught with extreme danger. Riders didn’t even have to leave the saddle to be badly hurt. Their hands and shins were smashed and their knee ligaments ripped when horses twisted beneath them or banged into rails and walls…. With the advent of the first primitive, unpadded starting gates in the early thirties, some riders actually died in the saddle…. The only thing more dangerous than being on the back of a racehorse was being thrown from one…. Serious insults to the body, the kind of shattering or crushing injury seen in high-speed auto wrecks, are an absolute certainty for every single jockey. Today the Jockeys’ Guild, which covers riders in the United States, receives an average of twenty-five hundred injury notifications per year, with two deaths and two and a half cases of paralysis.
Seabiscuit, a cranky, resisting, and funny-looking horse, Tom Smith, a taciturn, intuitive trainer, and Pollard, “his winning percentage dropped to a lamentable 6 percent,” met in 1936 at the Detroit Fair Grounds track. Smith was looking for a rider and when Pollard ambled over to the stall he was remembered by Smith from years back somewhere in the West. The trainer: troubled days and nights, consid-erations obscure and heavy with consequence; the daily judgment of the ground of the track, the bones, aches, and moods of the horse, the wizened souls of the jockeys. Nevertheless, Tom Smith cast a cold, experienced eye on Pollard and thought, maybe. At Seabiscuit’s stall, Pollard took a cube of sugar from his pocket. Seabiscuit took his time: “There came a tentative sound of nostrils drawing the air, weighing the scent. A black muzzle materialized, licked up the sugar, and touched the jockey’s shoulder.” The touch on the shoulder, yes, like a lover’s caress. Another man-and-horse epiphany.
Race after race, anxiety among the handlers; the owner’s tears for loss of prestige and purse and celebrations as elaborate as weddings for a major victory. Laura Hillenbrand, in her microscopic recreations of every moment from the morning workout, the balking steeds at the starting gate, the midstretch to the finish line and back to the paddock for a chat with horse, rider, trainer, and owners, seems as close as Clem McCarthy on the radio to actions that took place over sixty years ago.
The Santa Anita Handicap of 1937 with Pollard on Seabiscuit: sixty thousand fans and the world’s largest purse. In the midstretch, Seabiscuit a full length ahead of the threatening runner, Rosemont:
Without warning, horse and rider lost focus. Abruptly, inexplicably, Pollard wavered. He lay down his whip on Seabiscuit’s shoulder and left it there…. With just a few yards to go, Pollard broke out of his limbo…. They drew even again. Rosemont and Seabiscuit flew under the wire together.
The stewards, after waiting for the photo, declared Rosemont the winner. Pollard, his lapse like that of Count Vronsky on Frou-Frou, offered a lame excuse, not generally believed. However, the trainer and owner retained him and he survived to ride again and to receive impressive injuries. It happened on a horse with the name of Fair Knightess to indicate she was a filly. (The naming of horses often occasions the spell-check bell on a writing machine, but not necessary when you come upon the horses who bore the names Nijinsky, Nureyev, and Stravinsky.) With Pollard on top, the forelegs of Fair Knightess were kicked out from under her by another horse caught in a bottleneck. “She pitched into a somersault at forty miles per hour…. Pollard went down with her…. The left side of Pollard’s chest was crushed” and he had broken ribs, internal injuries, a concussion.
Seabiscuit proved to be an exceptional runner, winning seven consecutive stakes races, with the all-time record eight, and many other spectacular trophies. In racing history, the hyperbole about the greatly successful horses is startling and, we must trust, factually true, at least on the adding machine. “In 1938, near the end of a decade of monumental turmoil, the year’s number-one newsmaker was not Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Hitler, or Mussolini. It wasn’t Pope Pius XI, nor was it Lou Gehrig, Howard Hughes, or Clark Gable. The subject of the most newspaper column inches in 1938 wasn’t even a person. It was an undersized, crooked-legged racehorse named Seabiscuit.”
A king must acknowledge the monarch across the border with just as many castles, decorated carriages, soldiers lined up for a ceremonial march in the square, and thoughts of border encroachments. The rival royal horse was War Admiral, son of Man o’War, winner of the Triple Crown—and handsome, prodigious, violent. It was felt there should be a one-on-one contest between the two, leading to dramatic negotiations among the owners about the purse, the post weight, the chosen track, the time of year. Owners, metaphorically arrayed like the jockeys in the silks of their stables, also take unto themselves in their English shoes the glory of their thoroughbred’s velocity. At last the “great race” was set for Belmont, on Long Island:
Belmont officials, anticipating the largest crowd ever to attend a horse race in America, had… spent $30,000 to publicize the race and prepare the track…. Millions had been wagered. Silversmiths had already cast an elaborate trophy…. The horses were on the cover of Newsweek….
But the race was called off when, a few hours before post time, the trainer noted a soreness in Seabiscuit’s knees: horses are valuable property and surprisingly vulnerable, or not surprisingly. War Admiral in a race left part of his forehoof on the track and had to retire until it grew back. The vulnerable Pollard, who was to ride Seabiscuit in the scratched race, later, galloping a horse that slammed into a barn, had his right leg nearly sheared off below the knee.
A second race between Seabiscuit and War Admiral arrived and once more, almost at the starting gate, Seabiscuit was withdrawn with a sore tendon and a sore, booing crowd. At last at Alfred Vanderbilt’s Pimlico track in Maryland, the two horses met: again, huge crowds, “keyed to the highest tension I have ever seen in sport,” according to Grantland Rice. At the White House radio, “FDR was so absorbed in the broadcast that he kept a roomful of advisors waiting.” Seabiscuit won: “Tens of thousands of men, women, and children vaulted over the rails, poured onto the track, and began running after him.” Pollard followed the race in a hospital room. My horse, my horse.
An old peasant and his old, rickety horse caught in a malevolent snow storm, immobilized as trees in a lunar landscape; and not to melt in the rising sun. Gentleman, after a night of cards and drink, rousing the sleeping valet to saddle the dreaming horse, give him a kick and the whip and get the slurping clubmen home. Cats and dogs are pets, but the horse has ever been and ever will be a servant. The twentieth century sent the creature into obsolescence, except for private riding, certain urban duties, useful servitude in poor, backward parts of the world. The animal remained in history for racing, for polo, for sport, which, by a ferocious stretch of the name, includes an activity known as horsepulling, a span of fun-time in country fairs such as I have seen in Maine.