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Seabiscuit: An American Legend (Ballantine Reader's Circle) Paperback – March 26, 2002
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From The New Yorker
Horse stories are staples of young-adult fiction. Hillenbrand, a veteran equestrian writer, attempts something quite different: a full-length biography of the Thoroughbred Seabiscuit, a California racehorse who became one of the sporting world's biggest celebrities in the late thirties. Because her subject left behind few interesting interviews, the author fills out her portrait with people who helped guide Seabiscuit to glory: his owner, Charles Howard; his trainer, Tom Smith; and a hard-luck jockey named Red Pollard. While fans waited for a horse-to-horse showdown with War Admiral, the darling of the Eastern racing establishment, Seabiscuit set several records and battled various injuries. Unfortunately, many of the races are recounted in breathless, melodramatic prose. Far more interesting are the sections that detail the gruelling, hazardous life of a jockey; Pollard, a failed prizefighter with a taste for literature, emerges as the story's true hero.
Copyright © 2005 The New Yorker
“Fascinating . . . Vivid . . . A first-rate piece of storytelling, leaving us not only with a vivid portrait of a horse but a fascinating slice of American history as well.”
–The New York Times
“Engrossing . . . Fast-moving . . . More than just a horse’s tale, because the humans who owned, trained, and rode Seabiscuit are equally fascinating. . . . [Hillenbrand] shows an extraordinary talent for describing a horse race so vividly that the reader feels like the rider.”
“REMARKABLE . . . MEMORABLE . . . JUST AS COMPELLING TODAY AS IT WAS IN 1938.”
–The Washington Post
Top customer reviews
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The book tells the story of the horse and the exceptional team of owner, trainer and jockeys that combined to create that phenomenon. At the same time the details behind and within the 2 minutes of a horse race. The book is totally fascinating and I read it once every few years for both the content and excellent story telling of Hillenbrand. Another favorite by her is "Unbroken" about an exceptional track star in the 1940's.
Even so, the book starts with a bit of a whopper: The claim Seabiscuit was a bigger newsmaker in 1938 than FDR or Hitler. Snopes.com picks this one apart, though it doesn't change a jot of my admiration for the book or its author. Some authors work with dry data and musty factoids. Hillenbrand resurrects passions and reassembles the texture of the times from living memory. You may get a tall tale or two, but more important is an immersive feeling of what it was like to have been a witness to something so ridiculously grand and heart-tugging.
As much as the book is about the horse, it's even more about his most regular rider, the half-blind, busted-down, habitually unlucky Red Pollard. When Pollard and the Biscuit came together, history was made, and made again. Hillenbrand puts you with Pollard in the saddle.
"With the crowd on its feet, Pollard spread himself flat over Seabiscuit's withers, reins clutched in his left hand, right hand pressed flat to Seabiscuit's neck, head turned and eyes fixed on Professor Paul's broad blaze," she writes.
The fact Pollard suffered so much to get where he was comes across vividly. Hillenbrand herself suffered from a decades-long chronic exhaustive condition while writing this, and seems to channel her experience in Pollard especially, "sinking downward through his life with the pendulous motion of a leaf falling through still air." It accounts for some undeniable lack of critical reserve, but at the same time, her poetic turns of phrase and ability to lay out the technical dimensions of the sport and of Seabiscuit's abilities (including the horse's unorthodox, swivel-legged gait) break through the jargony boundaries of horseracing in high, readable style.
About the most difficulty I've had reading this book (three times already) is from the fear of getting my heart broken, even when I think I know what happens next. Seabiscuit was no natural world-beater; he lost to more than a few horses and was an underdog from his earliest racing days to his final run. Pollard got injured so badly on a racetrack he was thought to be at death's door, then went back only to suffer another catastrophic injury that everyone but Pollard thought had ended his career.
"Getting back on the horse" is a common term these days; Pollard's story gives it deeper meaning. In Seabiscuit he found his ticket to glory, with Hillenbrand you get to share his ride.