Book Review: Seabiscuit: An American Legend

Written in 2003, this is still a standard in sports literature. Laura Hillenbrand has gone on to write Unbroken, another well done sports book. But Seabiscuit is still her best. Both of her books have gotten a movie deal and both of those movies have made waves at the Academy Awards.

Seabiscuit is the story of the horse that captured the American heart during one of America’s darkest times and the four men who got him there. Some how, within 100 years, this horse and it’s sport have been forgotten. As we prepare to move to another decade it is interesting to note how quickly America’s obsessions change.

90 years ago, in the 1930s, America had the Major 3 in sports as we do today. Then it was baseball, boxing and horse racing. As we have discussed baseball is struggling, boxing is shunted to the side and horse racing is only discussed nationally three times a year (and it usually is talked about in the fashion world more than sporting).

But at one time, horse racing stood side by side with baseball. This book is a fantastic read about the sport of horse racing, especially in it’s golden years. There is so much more to the sport than the Kentucky Derby and the Triple Crown. These races are just the tip of the iceberg of the athleticism within thoroughbred horses.

It is also a great read about the roles and personalities of the people around these athletic horses.

Hillenbrand in her book looks at the Howard’s (Charles and Marcela) the owners of Seabiscuit. There is a story of building and heart break. It’s a story of the tragedy of losing a son and the destruction of a marriage after that. But it also tells the story of Charles and Marcela finding a new life in each other and in horse racing. Howard is a larger character and you can feel his love for life and the spotlight come through her words. His famous friends, Bing Crosby and Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt Jr. and the rivalry with his son, all endear him to the reader.

Hillenbrand’s strength in this genre isn’t her research, which is extensive, it’s her ability to bring real people to life. No where is that done better than trainer Tom Smith.

These were real people and Hillenbrand took from the words of newspapers and accounts of those that watched it and brought these people back to life. Tom Smith is crotchety and conniving. He is unlike anyone literature has written about but also someone we know after spending nearly 500 pages with him. She examines his odd training methods and his war with the press. She admits how little she knows, he has a son come up but no one knows where he fits in the story or anything about his mother. Personal is how Smith kept his life and for the historian this is the hardest person to write about. Hillenbrand does is wonderfully.

The most disturbing parts of the book is Hillenbrand’s look at jockeys. Jockey’s during the golden years of racing had the hardest job in sports. It was cruel but it was also exhilarating. Hillenbrand clearly spent much of her research talking to jockey’s of this time. Multiple times she talks about the dangers of jockeys but when she discusses the actual accidents and the resulting injuries it is gut wrenching.

She spends much of the book on Seabiscuit’s two jockeys, Red Pollard and George Wolfe. Here the life of jockey’s from two different walks of life and success in the sport are portrayed side by side. Red Pollard, except for his time with Seabiscuit, is a failure. George Wolfe is one of the best to ever do it. It is a fascinating look at two athletes who converge on one horse. Pollard lives to an old age, crippled by his sport. Wolfe dies on the race track.

The Iceman George Wolfe

By far the best part of the book is Hillenbrand’s retelling of the races in Seabiscuit’s career. They are thrilling, compelling and so real. Here is where a sports fan, no matter their interest in the sport of horse racing will enjoy it. She puts you on the back of Seabiscuit, you can hear the thundering of his hooves, you can feel the straining of his muscles, you can see the hole that opens and together you let the Biscuit fly.

No where is she better than in the duel with War Admiral. That chapter is one of the finest I have read in not just sports literature but any literature.

The movie Seabiscuit, done the same year the book came out in 2003 is one of my favorite sports movies. It’s duel with War Admiral is spectacular. Somehow, it still isn’t as good as Hillenbrand’s writing.

I would highly recommend this book. It is a fantastic read for sports fans and history fans alike. Hillenbrand is an amazing author. Check out the movie as well, which is really well done. Here I don’t mind saying they are both great. I wouldn’t say the book is better, but they compliment each other so well.

Either way its an amazing story of one of the greatest American athletes that has been completely forgotten in a sport that is a fringe sport now.

It does make a sports enthusiast wonder, in 90 years, which sports will America be embracing and which ones will it have forgotten?

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