WRANGLING ON THE RANGE #53
FOUR GREAT HORSEMEN REMEMBERED
In the life of what is perhaps the greatest racing horse to ever
run the tracks of the USA, the small, barely 15 hh, not that good
looking, actually very plain bay horse called Seabiscuit, there
were FOUR men in his life that led him to some of the greatest
triumphs any horse has ever had, a somewhat record in the number
of races he had, plus the years of life he continued to race, which is
just unheard of today.
I could not resist putting the pages from the "epilogue" of the
book "Seabiscuit - an American Legend" by Laura Hillenbrand - it
was a #1 New York Times best seller.
The FOUR MEN were owner Charles Howard; trainer Tom Smith; and
jockey Red Pollard and George Woolf.
Their after life - after the great Seabiscuit went into
retirement at the home of Charles Howard, is a somewhat sad
story, for four men who had for 5 years caught fame and fortune
with a horse that some said looked more like a "cow-pony" than a
Thoroughbred race horse.
But in respect, to what I consider were talented and outstanding
men in the Thoroughbred racing world. I'd like them to be
remembers. We have come through many chapters of the lived, the
ups and the downs of the 1930s - rough life for many jockeys,
and now the partnership must break up, after Seabiscuit finally
won the Santa Anita, in California, in 1940, and is off to the
Howard's farm for a well deserved retirement.
The four men, well bitter/sweet you could say for all of them in
certain ways. Here is how their lives went after their partnership
with the Great Seabiscuit.
On a soft April day in 1940, Smith led Seabiscuit out of the
Kaiser Suite for the last time. There had been countless requests
for appearances - the promoters of the Golden State International
Exhibition, having secured the attendance of F.D.R., wanted to
host "that other great American, Seabiscuit" - but Howard
declined them all. It was time to let the horse rest. Howard had
preceded Seabiscuit up to Ridgewood and had coaxed every
reporter, newsreel man, admirer, and friend in his address book
into driving up to attend the horse's homecoming. He proudly
introduced everyone to Seabiscuit's first foal, still wobbling on
new legs. The owner passed out cigars and showed off the sacks of
fan mail addressed to "Daddy Seabiscuit" and "Pappa Seabiscuit."
The foal delighted Pollard in particular; he was a redhead.
Howard named him First Biscuit.
Smith wasn't going to join the celebration. He preferred to
say his good-byes at the track. He slipped his fingers into
Seabiscuit's halter and led him down the shed row. A somber group
of newsmen, spectators, and horsemen quietly parted to let them
pass. Seabiscuit paused and looked toward the track, and Smith's
eyes clouded over. He led his horse up the ramp and disappeared
into the darkness. A moment later, he emerged alone.
The men who handled Seabiscuit quietly scattered. Woolf
continued his dizzying ascent, becoming the leading rider in
America. On the day in 1942 when he rode Triple Crown winner
Whirlaway to break Seabiscuit's earnings record, Pollard was up
in the stands cheering him on with his usual lack of restraint,
bouncing around the box, rooting himself hoarse, and drawing the
stares of everyone nearby. Dismounting, Woolf was swamped by
reporters asking him to confirm that "Whirly" was the best horse
he had ever ridden. Woolf was as impolitic as ever. "Seabiscuit,"
he said, "is the greatest horse I ever rode."
On a January day in 1946, Woolf rode into the Santa Anita
starting gate for a weekday race. At thirty-five, he was
preparing to end one of history's greatest athletic careers. He
was struggling with his diabetes, and friends had noticed that he
was unusually thin that winter. That afternoon, Woolf wasn't
feeling well enough to ride, but a friend needed a jockey for a
horse named Please Me. Woolf didn't need to think about it.
"There was one thing special you can say about George," Smith
would say of him. "He remembered the little fellows who were his
friends when he needed them. He never forgot about his friends.
Say that about George." Please Me was an ordinary horse in an
ordinary race, so Woolf used weekday tack. When he walked out to
the paddock, he left his lucky kangaroo-leather saddle in his
For George Woolf, the last sensations of life were the sight
of Santa Anita's russet soil and the curve of Please Me's neck,
the coarse feel of mane in his hands, the smell of the horse's
skin, the deep roll of his breathing. As Woolf and his mount
passed the grandstand and banked into the first turn, some
witnesses thought they saw Please Me stumble. But most saw Woolf
sink from the saddle, unconscious, his dieting and diabetes
finally taking their toll. He slid into the air. There was
the awful dissonance of a lone horse galloping riderless. There
was terrible speed and terrible, sudden stillness.
The sound of the Iceman's head striking the track carried
over the crowd. Woolf's friends turned away.
Fifteen hundred people came to say good-bye to Woolf.
Genevieve, widowed at thirty-two, sat in a front pew. Gene Autry
sang "Empty Saddles in the Old Corral," his voice wafting out
over rows and rows of faces, spilling back to the church's opened
doors, down the steps, and filling the street. Pollard was among
them, sobbing for his best friend. "I wonder who has Woolf's
book?" he said later. "Saint Peter, or some other bird?"
Three years later a wistful bugle cry carried over the empty
track at Santa Anita, and sixteen thousand people gathered by the
paddock to witness the unveiling of the George Woolf memorial
statue. Much of the price had been footed by Please Me's owner,
Tiny Naylor, who sold a horse at auction and donated the proceeds
to the statue fund. The rest had come from the California Turf
Writers Committee and countless contributions from trackers and
fans the world over. Genevieve joined Charles Howard in the
center of the paddock to hear a eulogy delivered by Joe
Hernandez, the man who first called Woolf "Iceman." The jockeys
lined up in silent attention before Woolf's veiled likeness,
their hats over their hearts. The cloth was slid from the statue.
Woolf's handsome face looked out across Santa Anita once again.
He stood just as he always had in life, hand on hip, chin up,
radiating insouciance, the kangaroo-leather saddle over his arm.
His gaze fell to the east end of the paddock and rested on the
life-sized bronze image of Seabiscuit that Howard had placed
"George Woolf is at Santa Anita, there near the paddock, facing
[sculptor Tex] Wheeler's magnificent figure of Seabiscuit," wrote
the Thoroughbred Times's Jack Shettlesworth. "He'll be there as
long as Santa Anita stands. Santa Anita will be there as long as
people feel anything about anything in racing."
Howard lobbied to get Smith named champion trainer of 1940,
but Smith would never have the respect he deserved. Owner and
trainer continued to work together until the spring of 1943, when
Smith underwent back surgery and wound up in a yearlong
convalescence that forced Howard to replace him. They parted
amicably, and Smith went, of all places, to the East, signing on
as trainer for cosmetic queen Elizabeth Arden Graham.
Graham was a woman of famously dubious sense, and working
for her was a tall order. She demanded that her trainers apply
her beauty products to her horses. Prone to premonitions, she
once dreamt that her filly had climbed a tree and called her
trainer in the middle of the night to see if the dream had come
true. "I climbed all the way up in that tree," replied the much
abused trainer, "and if [the filly] was up there, she got back in
that stall all right." She was also famous for firing workers for
absurd reasons; she once dismissed an exercise boy because his
hair was "remarkably bushy and profuse." She went through
trainers like chewing gum. But once she found Smith, she was
sold. She loved the way he nurtured her horses. "There's
something about Tom Smith," she said, "that gives you
confidence." He humored her insistence that stalls be perfumed
and horses be slathered in cold creams, trained just as he
wanted, and won everything in sight. "I try not to hurt her
feelings," he once said, "and yet do it my, way," He soon became
the leading trainer in America.
Smith was sitting in Graham's box one afternoon when an
ancient man hobbled up to him. It was Samuel Riddle, easing down
in his last years of life. For years, Riddle had burned with resentment
over War Admiral's loss to Seabiscuit, turning his head away when
he saw Smith, never speaking a word. But this day Riddle halted
in front of Smith and directed his first words to him since the
race. "Tom," he said, "you and that George Woolf are the only
ones who ever outdid me."
On November 1, 1945, one of Smith's horses, a claimer named
Magnific Duel, was being prepared for a New York race when a
Jockey Club official saw a groom spraying something up the
horse's nostril. The atomizer he took from the stall contained
2.6 percent ephedrine, a decongestant. Smith was in deep trouble.
New York did not allow any medications in racing horses. Though
Smith was not present when the incident occurred and there was no
evidence that he knew what his groom was doing, by racing law he
was responsible for anything his employee did. The Jockey Club
suspended him immediately, pending a hearing. Smith was aghast.
"I am absolutely innocent," he said.
At the hearing, pharmacologists testified that the dosage in
the atomizer was far too low to have any effect on the horse's
performance. The horse had tested negative for any trace of the
drug. In a quarter century of training, Smith hadn't received a
single black mark on his record. It made no sense that, while
training the leading barn in America, winner of half a million
dollars in purses in 1945, he would have had any interest in
tampering with a $1,900 claimer. From a betting standpoint, he
had even less to gain; the horse was a heavy favorite, and would
have paid only a few cents on the dollar. His defense convinced
nearly everyone in racing and the public that he was not
deserving of punishment, but it was not enough for the Racing
Commission. In an extremely controversial decision, Smith was
banned from racing for one year.
In his seventy years, Smith had never known a life apart
from horses. He had nowhere to go. He came to Santa Anita, but
officials wouldn't let him in. He spent his days sitting alone
out on Baldwin Avenue, just outside the track fence, watching his
sport go on without him. Graham may have been the strangest of
eccentrics, but she was loyal. She paid for a prominent lawyer
for Smith, hired his son Jimmy to train in his place, and gave
him back his job the minute he was reinstated in 1947. He repaid
her by promptly winning the Kentucky Derby with her horse Jet
But the damage had been done. Unquestionably one of the
greatest trainers who ever lived, Smith was excluded from
racing's Hall of Fame for more than forty years after
his death. His reputation was ruined; racing officials tailed him
around after his reinstatement, trying to catch him in some
nefarious act. Smith was bitter for the rest of his life. He
toyed with the officials, pretending to hide things in the hay
and sending his pursuers on wild-goose chases, hoping to be
accused again so he could be exonerated and make fools of the
officials. When Time asked him to speak about the Racing
Commission, Smith was typically pithy. "Those bastards."
He descended into obscurity just as he had risen from it. He
eventually parted with Graham and wound up training a single
horse at Santa Anita. When he was seventy-eight, a stroke stilled
him. His family nursed him at home until his worsening condition
made home care impossible. He was sent to live his last days in
the antiseptic confinement of a sanatorium, where his family sat
with him through his final hours. At Forest Lawn in Glendale,
California, on a cold day in 1957, they buried the man the
Indians called the Lone Plainsman. Almost no one came.
(What a tragic end to one of the most brilliant racehorse
trainers of all time - indeed, what a tragic end to a most
remarkable story of cowboy horse trainer - one of the greatest
ever. But as long as this Website is up on the Internet, Tom
Smith will be remembered by thousands the world over for his
unique talent with race horses - Keith Hunt)
Pollard had exhausted every physical and emotional reserve
to get himself back to the Santa Anita Handicap, and he emerged
near collapse. Agnes was afraid for him. They finally had some
money, so the two left town immediately for a long vacation.
There Pollard coped with what he called his "nervous reaction" to
the strain, and the two of them discussed their fixture. When
Pollard came back, he had an announcement to make. "My pal's quit
racing," he said. "I'm not getting any younger, and I've had more
than my share of serious accidents. Maybe I won't be lucky in
escaping with nothing worse than broken bones next time."
"I'll never throw a leg over another horse," he said, "unless
it's for a canter in the park."
Howard offered him a job as his stable agent. Impressed with
the work Pollard had done to get Seabiscuit back to the track,
Howard hoped to have the redhead succeed Smith when the old
trainer finally took down his shingle. Pollard took the job.
One day in early May 1940, Pollard limped down the shed rows
at Santa Anita in his best impersonation of a run. Agnes was in
labor, and he was desperate to find someone with a car. He found
a teenaged kid who could drive, dragged him out to his car and
pressed him into service. Pollard reached the hospital a few
minutes later and promptly fainted from the excitement. He was
hospitalized alongside his wife, who delivered a little girl that
Pollard named after his sister Norah. Pollard would have known
her anywhere; her voice, even as a baby, was a deep baritone like
his. In a few years, a son, John, would follow.
Eventually Pollard took out a trainer's license and tried to
do for a barnful of horses what he had done for Seabiscuit in
1939. It didn't work out. Describing himself as "a barnacle on
the wheels of progress," he quit. With nothing better to do, he
took out a jockey's license, strapped his fur-lined leg brace
back on, and returned to riding. This time he had a safety net.
Evidently with Howard's blessing, he had joined the newly
established Jockeys' Guild, the final realization of Tommy
Luther's community-fund insurance idea. He was voted onto its
first board of directors.
The war came down on Santa Anita a few months later. The
horses were shipped out and men and women and children were
shipped in, Japanese-Americans interned in stalls meant for
animals. The Kaiser Suite became home to an entire family, the
Satos. When the Satos and their unfortunate brethren were moved
out in 1943, the track became Camp Santa Anita, a massive
ordnance storage site and open-air Army barracks for thousands of
soldiers. Seized by patriotic fervor, Pollard galloped off to
join the military. Due to his innumerable injuries, he was deemed
such a spectacularly unfit soldiering prospect that all three
services rejected him. He went back, once again, to race riding.
Agnes had had enough of lugging her babies through hotels and
rental places. They journeyed east and bought a little house in
Pawtucket, Rhode Island. He rode with less and less success,
winding up back in the bush leagues. He spent part of each year
on the road, travelling alone from motel to motel, and the rest
booting horses around Rhode Island's declining Narragansett Park,
soon to meet the bulldozer, where he and Pops once raced.
He continued to endure horrific injuries, falling so often
that he quipped about having a "semiannual comeback." He never
received anything but the worst care. He went down one day at
Narragansett and was taken to the hospital, but no one ever came
to look him over, so he just got up and went home. It wasn't
until much later that he learned that he had walked out on a
broken hip. After breaking his back in a spill in Maryland in
1942, he was carried to a hospital in a laundry basket. The
injury knocked him out of the sport for a year and left him with
one leg shorter than the other. A 1945 head injury incurred in a
Florida race cost him a handful of teeth and nearly his life.
"When I woke up, the parish priest leaned over me and whispered,
'The Devil has no stall for you,' so here I am," he told
reporters after awakening. "And I guess I'll be here forever, me
He nearly was. His brilliant red hair slowly went gray, his
blind eye paled, his battered body aged, and still he rode
racehorses. He rode alongside kids who hadn't even been born when
he first offered a sugar cube to Seabiscuit, but he never let the
latest teenaged hotshot get the best of him. Shouting, "No room
at the bar!" he would cut off the rail route and make some poor
kid go around the long way.
He came home at night and Agnes tended to him. So many phone
calls told her of terrible crashes that she came to fear the
phone's ring. On some mornings the back door banged open to
reveal a host of muddy racetrackers, carrying a bloodied Red in
from another fall. She prayed for his safety every day, but never
complained to him. She understood, as would her children, that
her husband would have suffocated in any other life. He was in
constant and serious pain, but didn't speak of it. He still
carried a rosary and little volumes of poetry in his pocket, and
still gave away most of the money he earned. His children grew up
knowing to be careful around their father's game leg, which never
fattened up to anything much thicker than a broomstick. Pollard
wove his books into his children's lives but did not teach them
about horses. He never once brought them to the track to see him
ride and didn't tell the stories of his youth. The closest his
daughter, Norah, ever came to the races was to comply with his
request to paint a cougar on his helmet.
By 1955, when he was forty-six, he couldn't make it any
longer. "Maybe I should have heeded the rumble of that distant
drum when I was riding high," he once said. "But I never did.
Trouble is, you never hear it if you are a racetracker. Horses
make too damned much noise." He called David Alexander from
across the country to tell him the news. "I'm hanging up my
blouse for good," he said. "I wanted you to be the first to know.
You can't first-past Father Time."
"It's about time," said Alexander. When the writer paid
tribute to him in a lengthy article in Time, Pollard called him
up and sang every verse of "You Made Me What I Am Today. and I
Hope You're Satisfied," then hung up.
Pollard wound up sorting mail in a track post office, then
working as a valet, cleaning the boots of other riders. His
racetrack injuries worsened as he aged, and he slowly became a
prisoner in his own body. He struggled as hard as he could
against his alcoholism but never beat it.
One day in the waning years of his life, Red Pollard stopped
talking. Perhaps it was a physical problem. Perhaps the old
raconteur just didn't want to speak anymore. When on rare
occasions a reporter turned up to ask about Seabiscuit, Agnes
answered the questions while Red sat by, mute.
In 1980 Agnes was hospitalized with cancer. Though only
seventy, Pollard was suffering from so many physical problems
that he could no longer get along without her. His children had
no choice but to place him in a nursing home. He knew this
ground. The home had been built over the ruins of Narragansett
The Cougar slipped away one day in 1981, uttering not a word
in parting. Agnes was with him when he stopped breathing. His
heart kept beating for several minutes, then went still. No cause
of death was ever found. It was as if, Norah remembers, "he had
just worn out his body." Agnes died two weeks later.
(Again, somewhat of a sad way to end a most remarkable life as a
jockey, one of the best ever. It would have been nice if he and
Seabiscuit could have retired with Howard on his ranch, and with
his wife Anges and children, lived happy ever-after - Keith Hunt)
CHARLES HOWARD AND SEABISCUIT
Seabiscuit and Howard grew old together in the slow rhythms
of Ridgewood. Howard's hair thinned; Seabiscuit's muddy bay coat
darkened. Howard kept the horse with Kayak in a handsome red barn
and installed a walking ring that led right up to the door of
Howard's house. He hung a sign on the pillared gates to the
ranch, out on the Redwood Highway, that read: RIDGEWOOD, HOME OF
SEABISCUIT. VISITORS WELCOME.
The visitors came, fifty thousand over the years, as many as
fifteen hundred at a time. Howard erected a little grandstand by
his horse's paddock and ushered the spectators in to watch him.
Kayak thrilled the crowds by galloping around his adjacent
paddock in all his black splendor. Most of the time, all
Seabiscuit did was stretch out on his side, drowsing in the shade
of his paddock oak tree. Occasionally, he would raise his head
and look the spectators over, then drop off to sleep again. Once
in a while he'd get up and amble over to his admirers, licking
their cameras and sticking his tongue out to be scratched.
With each spring the foals came. Howard doted on them as if
they were his own children. "They are the finest foals I have
ever seen," he said when the first crop came, "and I am not
prejudiced when I say this." They all had their father's amiable
personality, and most of them had his homely little body too.
Nearly all were homebreds, the products of Howard's moderately
bred mares; the ranch was more than six hundred miles from the
nearest major breeding farm, and few breeders wanted to subject
their mares to such a long haul. So Howard used his own mares,
pampered and overfed their babies, and sent them into training
fat and happy.
When the "Little Biscuits" reached racing age and went south
to the tracks, the public flocked in to see them. Thousands of
admirers came out to watch their workouts, and on race days full
houses packed in to cheer for them and for proud old Howard. The
owner issued Christmas card photos of Seabiscuit standing with
his foals. The cards became hot items across the nation. One
racetrack, Chicago's Arlington Park, re-created one in a giant
A few of the Seabiscuits could run. Sea Sovereign and Sea
Swallow became stakes winners, as did a chip off the old block, a
grandson named Sea Orbit, who ran sixty-seven times, winning
twenty-two, including a long list of elite stakes races in
California. One of Fair Knightess's foals, Phantom Sea, became
stakes-placed. But most of the Seabiscuits were poor racehorses,
and because Howard refused to let them suffer the indignity of
running at their ability level, in claiming races, few of them
won anything on the track. Howard didn't seem to notice. After an
advisor talked him into selling an especially slow one, Howard
quietly bought him back. "You don't understand," he explained.
"This one used to eat sugar cubes out of my hand."
Hollywood took the tale of Seabiscut's life, deleted
everything interesting, and made an inexcusably bad movie, "The
Story of Seabiscuit," starring Shirley Temple. They cast one of
Seabiscut's sons in the title role. When they set up to film the
War Admiral match race, they deliberately chose a woefully
sluggish horse to play War Admiral. Unfortunately, the Seabiscuit
son was even slower. Every time they tried to shoot the race, the
colt playing War Admiral beat the colt playing Seabiscuit, no
matter how hard the jockeys tried to prevent it. Eventually, they
gave up and substituted film of the actual race.
Seabiscuit settled well into his retirement. Knowing he
needed activity, Howard taught him how to herd cattle. The horse
loved it, nipping at the animals' rumps and torturing them as he
had once tortured War Admiral and Kayak. Every day the ranch
hands rode him out with Pumpkin on a five-mile jaunt, trotting up
and down the California hills, cantering alongside the lake,
pausing to graze on the mountain grass. He became very fat-1,250
pounds-and blissfully happy. Every fall he would pose for family
portraits, sometimes with Marcela aboard, and Howard would have
the photos printed in huge numbers and mailed to everyone he
When the war came, Howard looked into building a bomb
shelter for the horse but eventually gave up the idea. He worked
to help the war effort, donating an ambulance to the British Red
Cross, which named it Seabiscuit. Howard printed patriotic
messages on all the Seabiscuit Christmas cards and mailed
Seabiscuit's shoes off to bomber pilots as good-luck charms. Two
bombers were named for the horse. The navy's Seabiscuit bomber
was painted with the horse's smoke-breathing likeness. The air
force's Seabiscuit, which was shot down off the coast of China in
1944, had the horse's name painted across its nose.
As Seabiscuit aged, Howard faded. His heart began to fail
him, and his life slowly contracted. Marcela, who adored him to
the last, nursed him through his final years. He showered her in
flowers and little love notes, written in a wavering hand. He
found one last success on the track, this time with the great
Noor, winner of the Santa Anita Handicap and conqueror of Triple
Crown winner Citation. "Guess you've got another Seabiscuit on
your hands," said a reporter after Noor's greatest win. Howard,
thin and unsteady, straightened up and raised his chin. "Sir," he
said, "there will never be another Seabiscuit."
When his heart became too frail for him to endure the thrill
of seeing his horses run, Howard came to the track anyway,
sitting in the parking lot and listening to race calls on the
radio in his Buick. In what is believed to be the last photograph
ever taken of him, he was at the racetrack, standing in the
winner's circle. After leaving the track, he would go back to
Ridgewood to be near the horses. On beautiful days, he would
throw a saddle over Seabiscuit, and together they would walk into
the hills to lose themselves in the redwoods.
On the morning of May 17, 1947, Marcela met her husband at
breakfast and told him his rough little horse was gone, dead of
an apparent heart attack at the relatively youthful age of
fourteen. The onetime bicycle repairman, whose own heart would
fail him just three years later, was beside himself with grief.
"I never dreamed," he said, "the old boy would go so quickly."
Someone broke the news to Pollard, who was plugging away on
claimers at Suffolk Downs. His mind rolled back over all those
years. "It seems only yesterday," he said.
Howard had the body carried to a secret site on the ranch.
After Seabiscuit was buried, the old owner planted an oak sapling
over him. Howard, a vigorously public man, made his last gesture
to his horse a private one. 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 once was Ridgewood, the
tree lives on, watching over the bones of Howard's beloved
(My what a story of a man and his horse. What a kind and loving
relationship. What a somewhat sad ending in the number of years
Seabiscuit lived, for a horse to die at 14, that is indeed very
young, but then there was nothing quite "normal" about this
little Thoroughbred horse that when all is taken into
consideration, was THE GREATEST Thoroughbred race horse of all
time. Three men, nay four including Woolf, and one horse, were a
fivesome that was a fairy-story tale. It is a true life story
that a fairy-tale by Walt Disney could not have dreamed up any
better. It's a story that makes your heart soar high. A story in
a depression decade that lifted people up with hope and
determination to battle on. No wonder, after Seabiscuit won his
final race at Santa Anita, as the sun set in the west, one lone
spectator stood in the silence of the racetrack and shouted out:
"Hooray for Seabiscuit ... Hooray for Seabiscuit" - Keith Hunt)