Customer Reviews: Seabiscuit: An American Legend (Ballantine Reader's Circle)
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on March 6, 2001
Let me say a few things up front: I have never set foot on a racetrack, I have watched the Kentucky Derby maybe twice on TV and I have little interest in jockeys, horse trainers or horses in general. For those who think this is a book about a racehorse, think again. It is a wonderful, descriptive work about the underdog, about triumph over adversity, about personality in animals and, most importantly, about a rarely discussed slice of America.
With a keen sportswriters eye toward detail as well as broader context, Ms. Hillenbrand has written a vivid description of an amazing animal, the three men around him and an era in American sports and history. Seabiscuit was a fascinating creature, not only for his deceptive power but for his playful, competitive nature. Ms. Hillenbrand helps us understand this horse as a person - a person you instinctively root for. His owner, a self-made success in the automobile industry, displays concern for the horse as if it were a child. Seabiscuit's trainer embodied the western spirit and had an uncanny bond with the horse - he was a real-life horse whisperer. Finally, the harrowing, rough and tumble life of a jockey during the 1930's is painted here with unsympathetic accuracy, as we learn about the trials of Red Pollard. Seabiscuit was the hub of these three lives and their extraordinary accomplishment on the racetrack.
The book builds toward two climaxes - the match race against War Admiral (which Ms. Hillenbrand desribes in such wonderful detail) and the ever elusive Santa Anita Handicap. Although historical, the book has a novel-like suspense that keeps the uninformed reader rapt and engrossed. This book, which describes the regional split between east and west coast race horses, really describes the potential and scrappy nature of the American west. Thank you, Ms. Hillenbrand, for such a terrific read.
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on May 31, 2003
Seabiscuit's "gallop was so disorganized that he had a maddening tendency to whack himself in the front ankle with his own hind hoof." And so the spell-binding story about a horse that runs with a duck waddle, a jockey (Red Pollard) who is blind in one eye, a trainer (Tom Smith) who is practically mute, and an owner (Charles Howard) who brought cars to the West is born. This unlikely group of misfits joins together through chance -- and because all three men immediately see the untapped potential in a mistreated, high-spirited, and lazy horse named Seabiscuit. This trio devotes their love, skills, and energy into turning Seabiscuit into one of the most phenomenal horse racing legends.
Tom Smith, perhaps the original "horsewhisperer", spends hours learning and understanding his horse. When Seabiscuit is first put into his care for training, the horse is nervous, paces incessantly, weighs too little, and suffers from a sore body. Tom spends time caring for Seabiscuit, showering him with affection and carrots, even sleeping in Seabiscuit's stall at night. A daily routine is introduced plus animal companionship. Before long, Seabiscuit has his own entourage: a cow pony named Pumpkin, the little stray dog Pocatell, and Jojo the spider monkey. Under Tom's care, the high-spirited Seabiscuit learns to trust, becomes calm, and, most importantly, starts winning horse races.
The triumph of Seabiscuit is ultimately the story of what any person (or animal) may accomplish when their talents are recognized, supported, and expanded. Seabiscuit, given his inauspicious start in life, could just as easily have faded away into non-existence running third tier races. However, the love and care he receives from his owner, jockey, and trainer have you cheering until the end of the book for Seabiscuit to keep running (and winning) with his heart. Not only does Seabiscuit capture the hearts of the misfit trio, he will capture yours.
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on May 26, 2003
This fascinating work of non-fiction is one of the best books I've read in a long time. Unlike a lot of historical non-fiction, this intriguing story did not read like a textbook - it read like fiction and not once did I find myself skimming the details ... too interesting to skim through!
When I first heard about this story, I wasn't sure about it - after all, I really know (or should I say "knew") very little about horse racing. Despite my misgivings, I soon realized that a major purpose of this book was not only to teach the reader about this sport via Seabiscuit's career but also to memorialize the amazing individuals (Charles Howard, Tom Smith, Red Pollard, George Woolf, etc.) who defied all odds to make such a successful racing career possible.
I especially liked the chapters dealing with the difficulties of life as a jockey - the way the jockeys punished their bodies to the extreme for the honor of participating in a harrowingly dangerous sport was truly unbelievable...and I thought ballerinas were harsh on their bodies when it came to weight loss! Red was my favorite character and I can't help wondering if the author felt a particular kinship with the jockey as a result of her own struggles with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome - after all, she did have to push her own body beyond her normal physical limits to complete her research and write this amazing book!
Ms. Hillenbrand successfully incorporated the story of Seabiscuit's racing career into the historical context of the era. Seabiscuit was a much needed diversion for Americans who were suffering the depths of the Great Depression. ...And perhaps, through Laura Hillenbrand, Team Seabiscuit is still providing us all with an inspirational diversion from today's distressing headlines!
Oh - and don't skip the interview with Laura Hillenbrand at the end of the book. It was very interesting to see how Ms. Hillenbrand's own background influenced her writing and how her research helped her to resurrect this intriguing epoch in American history.
I'm excited about the movie although I hope Universal Studios does this wonderful literary work justice!
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VINE VOICEon June 21, 2002
It's hard to determine the true hero of this book. Is it the taciturn trainer, Tom Smith, who took a colt the worlds leading trainer (the still-revered Sunny Jim Fitzsimmons) couldn't truly fathom and turn the reject into a champion racehorse? Is it Charles Howard, the car salesman turned millionaire who devoted so much of his time, money and energy to his beloved horse, never second-guessing his trainer and remaining ever steadfast in every adversity, including the death of his son? Is it Seabiscuit himself, the reluctant claimer who went on to a superstardom that matched or superseded anything later achieved by Michael Jordan or Tiger Woods? Perhaps it is Johnny (Red) Pollard, the jockey who emerged from depths about as low as any human being can go to the winner's circle in America's most prestigious races? All of these would be strong candidates, but my Eclipse Award goes to Laura Hillenbrand, for rising up out of her sickbed often enough and long enough to accomplish something just as miraculous as the feats that Seabiscuit and team pulled off.
Take it from someone who spent six years of his life as an observer and worker at backstretches all around this country. I have held jobs from hot walker to trainer, at venues such as Belmont Park, Gulfstream, Santa Anita, Bowie, The Fairgrounds, Monmouth Park, etc. I also had a chance to observe some excellent horsemen for whom I worked, including Frank Whitely, Elliot Burch, Woody Stephens, and others. I had the pleasure to meet and talk with Alfred Vanderbilt, one of the characters in this story, as he was an owner of one of the trainers for whom I groomed horses. I?ve seen most of what the backstretch has to offer, from the lowliest stable-hand at a rickety bullring track in New Mexico, to the richest owner in the world purchasing horses at the Keeneland Yearling Sale. So perhaps I feel myself qualified, though it is hardly necessary, to say that Laura Hillenbrand has written the book I wish I had had the talent and fortitude to write. Her book, more than any other I have ever read, captures life on the backstretch as it is, was, and ever shall be. She has gotten to the essence of horse-racing, capturing perfectly the allure, the dreams, the utter exhilaration and despair that unfolds day in and day out behind the scenes at racetracks the world over. She has done this despite severe physical infirmities that would have stopped us lesser humans in our tracks. Reading this book left me feeling as though I had just won the pick-four at Hollywood Park. Hats off and thrown high into the air to Laura Hillenbrand for an accomplishment that will be next to impossible to match.
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on March 27, 2001
There are certain books you will be lucky enough to read in your life that will make an everlasting impression. "Seabiscuit" by Laura Hillenbrand is most definitely one of those rare books.
You do not have to be a horse racing afficionado, nor a sports fan to absolutely love this story. It brings back the life and times of an unlikely group of people and animals in early 20th Century America in such a way that you will find yourself completely mesmerized as the events unfold. If you believe that "Truth can be stanger than fiction" you will understand that such were the details of these amazing characters that no fable could equal.
I ABSOLUTELY loved this book and would recommend it to anyone who loves tragedy and triumph as told by a master writer such as Laura Hillenbrand. It had me on the edge of my seat rooting and cheering as if I was actually witnessing the spectacular events that had so many Americans hypnotized during the height of the Great Depression.
I "cashed a WIN-ticket" when I bought and read "Seabiscuit"
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on March 6, 2001
I'm not a big history buff or nonfiction reader, but I have to say that this is one of the most entertaining stories I've ever come across -- it really reads like a good novel. The writing is superb, the characters are rich and lively and funny, the pace is quick and the level of detail in the research is truly amazing. Most horse racing books are about either horses or gambling, but this delves more into the more universally appealing subject of the wonderful, oddball characters who got together to campaign this horse. At the same time, you really end up rooting for the little horse, too. I really couldn't put the book down. Highly, highly recommended.
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on April 24, 2001
This book was incredible. I have read a lot of books, but this is the first one I have felt compelled to share my views on. I am not a "Horse Person" by any means, but have always enjoyed a good Sports story, especially when it depicts the struggle and sacrifice it takes to overcome adversity and prevail. This is definitely one of those stories. Hillenbrand does a spectacular job of capturing the integrity and dedication that went into making Seabiscuit a legend and hero of the time period. It was clear by the history Hillenbrand related of the depression era that Seabiscuit gave America new and continuing hope. Hillenbrand also does a very thorough job of painting a picture of the sometimes harsh realities of a "jockey's life". I honestly had no conception of the amount of athleticism, pain and sheer sacrifice that is required to be a successful jockey.
Seabiscuit's story also depicts the reality that it isn't always easy to maintain values, loyalty and integrity in the face of opposition. Hillenbrand illustrates these qualities in Seabiscuit's owner, trainer and jockey extremely well. The three together, and individually, were able to maintain their values and shoot for success while always keeping Seabiscuit's welfare as the primary consideration.
I tried this book in large part because of the unanimous 5 star rating that readers had given it. While I'm not sure I would have agreed it was quite a 5 for Part One, by the time I got into Part Two, I didn't want it to end. I'd have given it higher than a 5 if I could have. It's the only book I can remember reading that had me crying at the end. Definitely one of the best books I've ever read. All I can say is, give it a try, I think you'll be glad you did.
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If you only read one book about sports this year, make it Seabiscuit. This book deserves many more than five stars for its superb portrayal of the underdog horse whose career captured the nation's heart during the depths of the Depression. In fact, the less you know about thoroughbred racing in the 1930s the more you will probably like this book.
Similar to its subject, the underdog Seabiscuit, the book, Seabiscuit, constantly surprises in many multi-dimensional ways. The best books about sports transcend sports and teach us about life. Seabiscuit is a fine example of that success.
Ms. Hillenbrand is a brilliant story teller, a fine writer, and has an eye for detail that brings you into the scenes she describes. You will feel yourself on Seabiscuit's back, looking for an opening to the rail, as you read the accounts of his most famous races.
If you do not know about Seabiscuit, this horse was an unlikely candidate for racing greatness. He was built all wrong, had a weird personality, and required unusual handling that few would provide. His career was heading nowhere when he was bought by the wealthy Charles Howard, a legendary automobile dealer in the western United Sates, on the advice of his obscure trainer, Tom Smith.
Finding ways to encourage Seabiscuit provides all of the intellectual excitement of a puzzle. Part of solving the puzzle required finding a very special jockey, one whose intelligence allowed him to be flexible. No one could have seemed less likely to play the role of top jockey based on his career track record than Red Pollard, who became the most effective jockey on Seabiscuit.
The triumverate combined to take advantage of Seabiscuit's "blistering speed, tactical versatility, and indomitable will." All of that training and work led up to a monumental match race against Triple Crown winner War Admiral in 1938. During that year, more inches of newspaper space in the United States were devoted to Seabiscuit than to FDR or Hitler.
The book has so many dimensions that they cannot all be addressed in this brief space. There is a lot of history. The biographies of the three main human characters tell you a lot about the development of the automobile, horse training, and the careers of jockeys. The colorful side stories are priceless, especially the ones in Tijuana around the old track there (where western racing migrated after betting was made illegal in California). The tales about the manure pile there are hilarious.
Each of the three main characters could have been the subject of his own very interesting biography, and much interesting detail is included here.
There is a lot of humor. You will especially like the cat-and-mouse games that Tom Smith played with the media so that they could not find out how fast Seabiscuit was running in his workouts.
The stories also involve a lot of diplomacy. The background leading up to the match race with War Admiral will remind you of the peace negotiations to end the Vietnam War.
Finally, there is much tragedy. Horseracing is dangerous (especially for the jockeys), and many paid the price is a variety of ways.
I cannot remember a sports book that captures so many dimensions of fine book writing and story telling. I was reminded of Death in the Afternoon by Ernest Hemingway as I read this book, but I think that Seabiscuit is the better book.
After you finish enjoying the book, look around you. Where is there hidden potential waiting to be tapped? Do you have a Seabiscuit-like opportunity you can develop? Probably.
Be flexible in looking for great potential!
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on October 28, 2001
Laura Hillenbrand is a wordsmith of the top rank. She has written a great book about a horse who has largely been forgotten except by veteran racing fans: Seabiscuit. Seabiscuit, a descendent of the legendary Man O' War, had a rather modest racing career at the beginning having started from the claiming ranks. Thanks to a great trainer, he galloped his way up to the stakes level after having literally dozens of races under his girth. Seabiscuit was not the only colorful character in this claimer-to-champion saga. His trainer Tom Smith was a controversial character who loathed publicity and yet at the same time encouraged it. For example, Hillenbrand's stories of Smith's attempts to thwart the media and racing timers from reporting Seabiscuit's workouts (because Smith feared the weights assigned by the track would be so great as to hamper the horse's considerable ability) are hilarious. Seabiscuit's regular jockey, Red Pollard, was a man who loved to quote Shakespeare but also had to cover up a disability that may have contributed to one of Seabiscuit's most famous losses: Pollard was blind in one eye. Like most jockeys he battled a weight problem. (In one chapter, Hillenbrand writes brilliantly and humorously of the struggle of jockeys like Pollard to make the unnaturally low weights required of racing.) Finally, Seabiscuit's millionaire owner, Charles Howard, was perhaps the least colorful of the horse's connections, but he lost faith in neither Smith nor Pollard. He was the glue who held this unlikely hodgepodge together.
Hillenbrand slowly but very entertainingly works the Seabiscuit story to the legendary 1938 match race with yet another descendent of Man O' War, 1937 Triple Crown winner War Admiral. She doesn't ignore the Admiral's connections either. Sam Riddle comes to life, as do the horse's infamous temper tantrums on the racetrack. There are constant difficulties in getting the two great horses together on the same track on the same day, including jockey Pollard's injuries (vividly described by Hillenbrand), Seabiscuit's injuries, and other delays. When the horses finally do get together (with the underdog Seabiscuit clobbering the Admiral), Hillenbrand writes with such vividness that you feel you are right there at the track witnessing the race. (She was fortunate enough to have obtained rare footage of this race and several other Seabiscuit races.)
After the climax of this famous race, Hillenbrand continues the Seabiscuit saga to the deaths of the principals. On the last page she writes of Howard having buried Seabiscuit to a secret site at his ranch where he had an oak sapling planted where the great horse was buried. She writes: "He told only his sons the location of the grave and let the oak stand as the only marker. Somewhere in the high country that was once Ridgewood, the tree lives on, watching over the bones of Howard's beloved Seabiscuit."
What a great writer. What a read.
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on May 3, 2001
Perhaps I am one of the few readers who remembers clearly when Seabiscuit was racing. As a child I read everything I could lay my hands on about animals and particularly horses. Man O' War was a favorite of mine, and War Admiral, Seabiscuit and Man O' War's many other progeny were household names. I still read everything I can that relates to horses, both fiction and non-fiction. I'm always interested, although frequently disappointed, as I was in the highly touted "Horse Whisperer".
Laura Hillenbrand's book exceeds most other horse-related books I've read. She writes extraordinarily well in a style which never bogs down in the wealth of information she handles and is never intrusive, overblown or irritating to the reader. This book is truly one I couldn't put down, and in fact I couldn't bear to have it end and read with fascination every single one of the wealth of footnotes she included.
I confess to being a "horse person", but I don't need to recommend this book to horse people, who will discover it themselves. I specifically recommend it to my friends who couldn't care less about horses or racing but who love a good story, good writing and an author who has done her research, knows her subject and can introduce you to a unique world of fascinating and dedicated people who truly love their work.
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