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Horse Play

Laura Hillenbrand's dramatically plotted biography of the Depression-era racing hero proves that there is one dead horse you can't beat.

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For the most part, the lives of animals are unrelentingly stupid and boring. Eat, mate, nap, eat, mate, nap -- it's like living in Chelsea, for crying out loud. If animals have figured prominently in literary works from the very beginning -- remember how, in the Odyssey, Odysseus' decrepit old dog, Argos, is the only one to recognize his long-absent master when he finally returns home? -- it's generally because we like to think of them as exemplifying specifically human qualities. Argos is, like his master, long-suffering and faithful, Lassie is heroic, Elsa the lion is a noble savage, Bambi is vulnerable yet resilient, Moby-Dick is -- well, if anyone can tell me the answer to that one, please call me immediately. Real-life dogs and jungle animals and creatures of the forests and deep blue seas are, of course, not so adorable, nor are they laden with convenient symbolism; if the creatures I've named above are familiar to you, it's because they're acting less like themselves than like humans in stories that are about not them but us.

It would be hard to think of a better story than the one told in Laura Hillenbrand's richly detailed and engaging new biography, Seabiscuit, about the racehorse who was so famous in the late thirties and early forties that, as the author reminds us, he outdid Roosevelt, Hitler, and Mussolini in press coverage. At just under 400 closely packed pages, this is a serious biography for any creature, four- or two-legged. In exhaustive (sometimes exhausting) detail, it follows this animal's unlikely career from his cushy childhood (he was the grandson of Man o' War, perhaps the greatest racehorse in American history) through his undistinguished adolescence (a small animal that throughout his life looked more like a "milk-truck horse" than like a Thoroughbred, Seabiscuit was fast but undisciplined at first and lost a lot of races). Finally, he is transformed at the hands of his smitten owner, his cowboy trainer, and his equally short, feisty, and injury-prone jockey into a great racer and beloved national superstar. (Inevitably, Shirley Temple, that other plucky Depression-era crowd-pleaser, starred in a movie about him.) At first, I balked at a book about a horse; but as I made my way through Seabiscuit, some bells began to ring. A child is born, blessed with every conceivable gift that genes and social standing could offer; abandoned by its family, it grows into a lonely, awkward-looking adolescent; it is plagued by lifelong weight problems; and finally, with the help of a trio of loyal friends, it defeats its sleek, dark-haired rival to attain international fame and fortune. Equine, schmequine -- this is Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella, The Wizard of Oz, and Rikki Lake all rolled into one.

Hillenbrand, a journalist who's covered Thoroughbred racing for a long time, brings tremendous enthusiasm and professional polish to her task. The beginning of her book is particularly engaging, expertly weaving together some vivid scene-setting with evocations of the wild days of racing, with its larger-than-life entrepreneurs like 400-pound "Cowboy Charlie" Irwin and its vividly named jockeys ("Scratchy Balls John" is terrific). She also brings to life the prehistories of Seabiscuit's trio of fairy godmothers: the amiable Buick tycoon Charles Howard; the laconic trainer Tom Smith, "the Lone Plainsman" whose experience in the then-still-wild West breaking mustangs would serve him well with the unruly young Seabiscuit; and especially Red "the Cougar" Pollard, a jockey who was every bit as ornery as his mount. (He is, indeed, clearly meant to be a narrative double for the horse, a kind of shadow hero of Hillenbrand's narrative.) The author presents all this in prose that, while for the most part workmanlike, on more than one occasion breaks into a full gallop ("Red Pollard was sinking downward through his life with the pendulous motion of a leaf falling through still air").

If much of this reads like a good novel, it's only half because it recapitulates story patterns familiar from myths and fairy tales; among other things, Hillenbrand has a dramatist's flair for pacing. (Like the diva in a nineteenth-century opera, Seabiscuit doesn't make his appearance till the narrative is well under way, just when you're itching for him.) Sometimes, the interruptions and suspensions of the narrative line serve important substantive purposes: Particularly moving, and upsetting, is the mini-history of the shocking conditions in which jockeys -- many of them just teenagers -- toiled to serve the trainers and the owners who sometimes literally owned them along with the horses. (Later on, there's a wonderful aside describing how Howard placed a $200 bet for the perennially broke Pollard, at the last minute "tossing in" $25,000 of his own.) It's unfortunate that these interesting and apt digressions get rarer as Hillenbrand gets deeper into Seabiscuit's story.

The challenge facing any biographer -- any writer of nonfiction, really -- is how to give a satisfying narrative shape to the often unsatisfyingly random facts of a real, lived life; it doesn't matter if the life belonged to Jackie Onassis, Seabiscuit, or -- even -- the number zero. (See below.) If Hillenbrand's narrative explodes out of the starting gate with satisfying crispness, it tends to get bogged down in the backstretch -- the longish period during which, after he first showed his real promise, Seabiscuit kept running, and mostly losing, a number of races of mostly middling and occasionally not-so-middling importance, such as the 1937 Santa Anita Handicap, the $100,000 race that Charles Howard, who helped build the track, was burning to win.

You know that Hillenbrand is using this lull in her subject's life in order to build suspense for the great, improbable late-career triumphs: the extraordinarily hyperpublicized 1938 match race against his arch-rival War Admiral (Roosevelt kept a roomful of aides waiting in order to listen to the race) and the 1940 Santa Anita. But this section of the book is muddied with too much information, and the going gets a bit sluggish. (Another sign that Hillenbrand's obsession with the great horse has blinkered her: She keeps telling you that "the little horse had drawn more newspaper coverage in 1938 than Roosevelt, who was second, Hitler . . . Mussolini . . . or any other newsmaker" -- but since most of the column inches she's counting filled the sports sections, it's a skewed statistic. You could argue that there was no bigger story in 2000 than Dave Eggers if all you read were the weekly book reviews.)

I was briefly tempted to think that Hillenbrand was up to some kind of narrative meta-joke with all this; after all, the strategy that helped Seabiscuit win his famous match race against War Admiral was to bolt out of the gate, then slow down in the stretch a bit, and finally let loose in the homestretch. That's exactly how Seabiscuit reads. The narration of the animal's improbable wins in his two biggest events -- both of which occurred when he was nearly 6 years old, an age at which most horses have long since been put out to stud, and one of which followed a serious leg injury -- is as gripping as the last quarter of any well-written novel or play. Or movie. In the last few pages of her book, Hillenbrand describes, with uncanny emotion, the last moments of Seabiscuit's final race: The sounds of the crowd "fell away," the horse and rider moving together in perfect, fluid harmony as if in silence; Pollard's strange thought, "We are alone." As those of us who love horse movies know, that eerie, we-are-alone moment has already been committed to celluloid; it's the beautiful climax of the film The Black Stallion. As it happens, Seabiscuit is now being developed for Universal Pictures, and why not? However many legs its hero has, this story is one that should prove irresistible to millions of humans.

Next to sports, my least favorite subject is science; so between Seabiscuit and A Hole at the Center of the Universe, K. C. Cole's new book about the mathematical idea of "nothing," you can imagine what kind of week it's been. Actually, a great one. Like Hillenbrand, Cole is passionate about an esoteric subject, and -- forced, I couldn't help thinking, by the very abstractness of her subjects -- she writes with terrific vividness. From its revolutionary role in math ("Roman numerals were about as useful for math as hood ornaments") to its theoretical significance for black holes, the Big Bang, the structure of the universe, string theory, zero (a.k.a., nil) is well served by a flair for explanatory metaphors and verbal figures that most novelists would ache for ("Think of a galaxy flying through space as a ballerina taking off on a giant leap across the stage"). There's no pretense to original thinking in this breezy survey, and a lot of this book has a skittish, predigested feel; but all in all, it's quite something. Coles's book now joins the growing shelf of books about zero. Nothing has never been so big.

Seabiscuit: An American Legend
By Laura Hillenbrand.
Random House; 399 pages; $24.95.
The Hole in the Universe
By K. C. Cole.
Harcourt. 274 pages; $24.


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