Heart and Hoof

Marjorie Garber

  • Seabiscuit: The Making of a Legend by Laura Hillenbrand
    Fourth Estate, 399 pp, £16.99, May 2001, ISBN 1 84115 091 6

‘Let us consider the names given to horses – not ordinary horses . . . but racehorses,’ writes Claude Lévi-Strauss, opening an excursus on equine onomastics in The Savage Mind. The names of thoroughbreds are ‘rigorously individualised’ and ‘rarely, if ever, describe them’. What counts is the way they can be seen to derive from the horse’s pedigree. They form part of a language system, a new name showing a certain relation to that of the sire the horse is ‘by’ and perhaps the dam it is ‘out of’. The names, that is to say, depend on human associations of word with word.

In Josephine Tey’s brilliant little mystery novel Brat Farrar, set in English horse country, a child’s toy, rough-hewn in the shape of a horse, is remembered through a grown-up’s joke about its pedigree: ‘Travesty, by Irish Peasant, out of Bog Oak.’

Seabiscuit, the hero of Laura Hillenbrand’s celebrity biography, was by Hard Tack out of Swing On, and had a brother called Grog. In fact, Grog, less successful on the track, would come to play a strong supporting role in Seabiscuit’s story as the hero’s stand-in and decoy, called on for photo opportunities and to deceive the press, who were anxious to know how the horse had gone in its secret workouts but were duped into clocking Grog’s times instead. For this is a feel-good tale set in the Depression about a small horse who could really run. ‘The Biscuit’, as his handlers called him, had run 43 races by the time he was three, more than many horses run in their entire careers. No matinee idol, he was ‘built low to the ground’, with ‘all the properties of a cinder block’: a short tail, stubby knees and an eggbeater gait. Compared to his great rival War Admiral, an exquisitely handsome son of Man o’ War, Seabiscuit was the underdog.

Like other Depression survivors, Seabiscuit was badly treated, overworked, underrated and finally triumphant. After the Crash the familiar rags to riches story could perhaps be credible only when its hero was a horse, who could not be suspected of seeking wealth for its own sake, but for the sake of reversals of fortune in general. The story of Seabiscuit is in fact oddly linked to the rise of the horseless carriage, another reversal in the fortunes of his species that he seems to overturn. For it was the wealth of Charles Howard, Seabiscuit’s owner, amassed by selling Buicks, that made possible his love affair with racing, and his particular and passionate love affair with the bandy-legged colt who became a national hero. ‘The day of the horse is past, and the people in San Francisco want automobiles,’ Howard wrote. ‘I wouldn’t give five dollars for the best horse in this country.’ That was in 1908. By 1936, now the millionaire owner of a stable of thoroughbreds, he gave a little more – $8000 – for a horse being sold from the bottom ranks of Sunny Jim Fitzsimmons’s string, a string that included two Triple Crown winners – the Triple Crown consisting of the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness Stakes and the Belmont Stakes. By 1940, when he won the $100,000 Santa Anita Handicap in a time that would not be rivalled in a decade, Seabiscuit had won 33 races, set 13 track records (two of them carrying 133 pounds and four more carrying 130, in a sport where 128 pounds was the usual limit), and earned $437,730 in prize money, a world record – nearly sixty times his price at auction.

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