58 pages 1 hour read

Laura Hillenbrand


Nonfiction | Book | Adult | Published in 1999

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Summary and Study Guide


Seabiscuit is a 1999 nonfiction book written by Laura Hillenbrand about the rise to fame and racing glory of an American racehorse named Seabiscuit. In the depths of the Great Depression, Seabiscuit rose from obscurity to international fame, and became a symbol of hope for many Americans. Born in 1933, he was owned by the Wheatley Stable, which had the famous James “Sunny Jim” Fitzsimmons as its trainer. Fitzsimmons found Seabiscuit to have speed, but he only used it when prodded with the whip. Still, the horse’s record was uneven, and Fitzsimmons didn’t have the proper time to invest in developing him as a winning racehorse. Seabiscuit’s owner put him in claiming races, in which any horse in the field could be purchased before the race, but no one was interested in him. Finally, a trainer named Tom Smith and his employer, Charles Howard, saw potential in Seabiscuit and bought him.

Howard had made his fortune in the automobile business and Smith had learned his trade in the fading “Old West.” When Seabiscuit came to the pair, he was mentally and physically worn out from all the racing the Wheatley barn had put him through. Smith began by working to strengthen him physically and soothe his nerves. Riders let him run freely since he resisted taking directions. Around this time, a jockey named Red Pollard came looking for work and Smith had him ride Seabiscuit to get a feel for the horse. After Pollard concluded that Seabiscuit should be treated with care and never whipped, Smith knew he had found the right man. From there, they worked to reignite Seabiscuit’s old racing instincts.  

Toward the end of 1936, the team started seeing the results of their work when Seabiscuit won his third race, the Governor’s Handicap, in Detroit. From there they moved to California, Howard’s home base, to prepare for the Santa Anita Handicap early in 1937. A new race begun only two years before, it offered a whopping $100,000 purse. Seabiscuit ran well leading up to it, winning one big race, but narrowly lost the Santa Anita Handicap when another horse came from behind to win by a nose. This was his “coming out party,” so to speak. Until then he had been largely unknown; now he had everyone’s attention. He won several more races in California before the team packed up and headed to the East Coast to take on some of the region’s best horses.

The dominant horse in the East was War Admiral, winner of the Triple Crown. He was recovering from a minor injury when Seabiscuit’s team arrived. Since Seabiscuit was back in winning form, talk soon began of a one-on-one race against War Admiral. The owner of War Admiral was hard to pin down, however, and it did not come about. Neither did the two horses meet in any races with a full field before Seabiscuit returned to California at the end of the summer season. 

In the run-up to the 1938 Santa Anita Handicap, Pollard had a bad accident with one of Howard’s other horses, Fair Knightess, and landed in the hospital with broken bones and internal injuries. He suggested that his friend George Woolf ride Seabiscuit in the Handicap in his place, and Smith began training with him. In a photo finish, Woolf and Seabiscuit lost by a nose. 

Howard continued to pursue a match race with War Admiral, and it was finally arranged for the end of May. Pollard had healed enough to start training again, and he planned to ride Seabiscuit. However, they scratched the race at the last minute when Seabiscuit was discovered to have sore knees. After a period of rest, just when Seabiscuit was ready to race again, Pollard had another accident. A skittish horse he was riding bolted from the track and slammed him into a barn, severely injuring his leg. Woolf returned to take over as Seabiscuit’s rider for the rest of the year. Just before a race in Boston, Seabiscuit suffered another minor leg injury and had to be scratched. Next, he raced in Chicago, where, running in the rain and out of shape, he finished second. Seabiscuit returned to form toward the end of summer, racing well on the West Coast before returning to the East. The match race with War Admiral was finally rescheduled for early November. Against the odds—and most people’s expectations—Seabiscuit won. 

Back in California in early 1939, Seabiscuit ruptured a ligament in one of his forelegs while running in a race to prepare for the Santa Anita Handicap. This was a serious injury, which most people thought would end his career. Howard took Seabiscuit to his ranch to rest and heal. Pollard was also there, after having spent five months in a Boston hospital, and very slowly both the horse and jockey recovered. By fall, they were planning the unthinkable: another attempt at winning the Santa Anita Handicap. Smith declared Seabiscuit sound and training began in December. Howard was undecided about who would ride him, as doctors had warned that Pollard could be crippled by another accident. In the end, he relented to Pollard’s pleas and the jockey paired up with Seabiscuit for one last race. The old Seabiscuit was back and, in front of 78,000 spectators, finally won the one race that had eluded him.