Four Misfits

December 9, 2003

As a young boy, I was introduced to the genteel and unforgiving world of horse racing, visiting Claiborne and Hermitage Thoroughbred farms in Kentucky. There I saw my first Thoroughbred stallion and forever fell in love with the "sport of kings." Yet, in spite of growing up glued to the TV every first Saturday in May for the Kentucky Derby and visiting the races whenever I could, I never heard of Seabiscuit except for the occasional reference in a Marx Brothers movie. I thought it was an apocryphal horse, or perhaps a joke left over from vaudeville that, were I old enough, I'd understand.
Seabiscuit, though, was no joke. With an implausible gait that made his front legs look like eggbeaters when he ran, he dominated not only the sport, but the American experience. The Tobey Maguire movie naturally focused on the human characters of the Seabiscuit saga. Leaving the theater, I facetiously asked my daughter, "So, which one was Seabiscuit?" She laughed and said, "I think he was the one in front." 
The book, Seabiscuit: An American Legend, actually is several stories, and it is author Laura Hillenbrand's skill in weaving these stories together that makes this a book you want to read again and again. For me, though, the story is the horse.
Seabiscuit's persona nearly did him in. He slept for hours, was lazy and ran like a nag, at one point losing 17 straight races. Were it not for Tom Smith, the unknown trainer who rescued Seabiscuit from obscurity, the horse could have ended up as glue. But Smith saw something no one else did -- he recognized this was no nag, but a prima donna. 
True, Seabiscuit was a historic force. In 1938, he was the most-covered news story, surpassing Adolf Hitler for media coverage. As a riches-to-rags-to-riches tale, he came to represent hope for Americans slowly emerging from the Great Depression. Combined with the stories of "a jockey too big, a trainer too old, and an owner that doesn't know the difference," how Seabiscuit dominated the American psyche is, in itself, an interesting lesson in history and courage. It is Hillenbrand's artful recounting of his match races -- with Ligaroti and another with War Admiral, the way he fought off Kayak in the Hundred Grander before racing's largest crowd -- that gives readers a true sense of this horse's spirit and personality.
Hillenbrand's meticulous and lyrical storytelling won numerous accolades, and Seabiscuit was named book of the year by more than a dozen major magazines. The story behind the story, though, is how Hillenbrand overcame tremendous obstacles, in the form of chronic fatigue syndrome and immune dysfunction syndrome, to research and complete the book. "As I lay in bed over the years, I wished that somebody prominent would go out and make an articulate case for CFS patients," she said in an article in the Smithsonian. "So when Seabiscuit's success gave me the opportunity to take on that role, I thought, OK, that's what I'm going to try to do." At times, she wrote longhand with her eyes closed because of her vertigo. In another interview with Michael Neff of SolPixInterviews, she said: "The process of writing Seabiscuit was an immensely demanding one; I gave everything I had to it, and collapsed afterward." 
Publishers loved her idea for the story so much that they started a bidding war, and before she had written a word, she had a contract and also had sold the movie rights. This stunning tale of four misfits -- owner, trainer, jockey and horse -- dominating the American experience was recognized immediately as a powerful saga of courage, perseverance and grace. Like Hillenbrand's own story, Seabiscuit: An American Legend is an inspiring tale of overcoming much to achieve greatness.

Tanner, BBA '79, MBA '85 (University of North Texas), PhD '88 (University of Georgia), is associate professor of marketing and associate dean for undergraduate business programs in the Hankamer School of Business. He and wife, Karen, own and operate Jett Creek Farm, a Thoroughbred breeding farm. Their 3-year-old filly, Majestic Miss Em, will be running in coming months.