Laura Hillenbrand probably never anticipated her non-fiction horseracing book would become a Best Picture nominee, grossing more than $120 million at the box office. Gary Ross set out to make a period film that would hopefully capture the hearts of movie audiences, just as his equine subject did sixty-five years earlier. It proved a great success, and though he strayed from Hillenbrand’s best-selling source material when he felt necessary, the author found herself pleased with how the script had materialized. “Right away when I started reading it,” Hillenbrand said, “I was just filled with rapture. It’s so lyrical and beautiful. He has taken what is a wonderful story—he has infused it with his creativity.” Beautiful, yes. The film earned Academy Award nominations in cinematography, costume design, and art direction, stunningly depicting Depression-era America in both aesthetics and spirit. But what about the history buffs and racing enthusiasts? Would they be satisfied?
Ross opted to make a film about three lives—four really, if you count the horse. Each of these men was broken. A wounded career. A dying profession. A dead son. Red Pollard, Tom Smith, and Charles Howard needed one another, and all of them needed Seabiscuit, a thoroughbred nearly as crippled as the nation itself. The story progresses episodically, more like real life than any standard Hollywood drama. Such was the story of Team Seabiscuit. There were a lot of ups and downs, and Ross did his best to include as much of that as he could. He ends on a high note, because the horse himself went out on top(though Red Pollard and Tom Smith would suffer thankless fates in the twilight of their lives). The film eluded some of the facts and embellished others, but it wasn’t afraid to highlight the flaws of its heroes either. Hillenbrand was satisfied. So were critics and audiences. Fans of the sport had a few qualms, but most were able to see beyond them and marvel as this most remarkable and unlikely tale was resurrected for the screen.
Seabiscuit was the most written about figure in 1938, Hillenbrand boasts. There was more written material dedicated to Seabiscuit than FDR and Hitler combined. The horse “took off as a folk hero,” said Gary Ross. But what made him so special? For one, he had an owner who reveled in singing his praises. Charles Howard, played by Jeff Bridges, takes every chance he gets to plug his favorite investment, and the press ate it up. As the film recounts, Howard lost his son Frankie in a car wreck. Frankie was not Howard’s only child (as the film implies), but the budding automotive empire Howard had been building came to a screeching halt after Frankie died. His marriage was crumbling, so Howard looked elsewhere for serenity—and opportunity. He found himself in Tijuana, Mexico, a long way from the familiarity of San Francisco, the town where he built his fortune. A former cavalryman, Howard turned to horses. He bought them and raced them south of the border, where he also soon found himself a new wife. Together, they found a horse no one else wanted. But first, they happened upon an equally outcast horse-trainer.
Chris Cooper’s turn as Tom Smith may be a tad favorable. Cooper, an award-winning actor, could have been wasted if his performance was identical to Smith’s personality. “As a general rule,” Hillenbrand says, “Smith didn’t talk. He had a habit of walking away when anyone asked him questions, and he avoided social gatherings because people expected him to speak.” He hated the press, but often had fun frustrating them. Smith commonly even went so far as to substitute Grog, Seabiscuit’s old stable pal, for Seabiscuit himself, thus throwing off reporters and spectators alike. The two horses were the spitting image of one another, and Tom saw this as a perfect method to conceal his actual training techniques. Smith came from somewhere in the west, though no one knows where exactly. He was a horseman in the age of the automobile, and his kind were growing obsolete. What he lacked in human communicative skills, he made up for in his understanding of horses. Cooper’s magic touch in the film is not far from the truth. Tom Smith could rehabilitate horses at death’s door. He saw particulars no one else did, and he won with horses that had no business racing at all.
Seabiscuit was one of those horses. Ross’s depiction of the colt is loyal to “The Biscuit” —lazy, hungry, and awkward. He slept more than he should have, ate more than his fill, and ran with a herky-jerky style that kept him winless in his first seventeen starts. The grandson of the great Man ‘o War (not mentioned in the film), Seabiscuit had the pedigree to be a champion. He just never put it together. But true to form, Smith saw something in him. A chance encounter with Howard led to a partnership between these two men at opposite ends of the spectrum. They had their horse, now they a rider.
Johnny “Red” Pollard was not your typical jockey. Dropped off on the racetracks at fifteen by his parents, he began riding in bush league races. The film blames the Depression for Red’s abandonment; actually, he was left in safe hands with a guardian his parents trusted (who truly abandoned him, much to the Pollards’ dismay). It was still four years before the market crash when Red said goodbye to his family. It ultimately was not because they couldn’t afford him, he simply loved racing. The 5’7’’ Red spent time in Tijuana carousing with prostitutes, collected cash prizefighting, quoted Shakespeare and Ralph Waldo Emerson, and spent time with friend and fellow jockey George Woolf. Ross included all of this. But Red’s career was going nowhere. He was losing races and losing money. Enter Tom Smith -- just as he had with his undersized horse, Smith chose to believe in this oversized jockey.
Ross did everything within his power to honestly capture the personalities, tragedies, and triumphs of these three men. He retold Seabiscuit’s seven consecutive stakes wins, his photo finish loss in the 1937 Santa Anita Handicap, the hunt for Samuel Riddle’s undefeatable War Admiral, Red’s devastating injury, the long anticipated match race with George Woolf aboard, and the storybook comeback for the Santa Anita win in 1940 with a seven-year-old horse back from injury, and a jockey who heard he’d never walk again. Ross picked up on Smith’s nighttime training tactics, Red’s blindness, and even the eye-contact rule, which always acted as a catalyst to propel the hopelessly competitive Seabiscuit to victory. However, in a film covering multiple years of detailed activity, Ross was bound to miss quite a few points.
Steve Haskin, senior editor of The Blood-Horse (a thoroughbred magazine), wrote:
This was definitely a Hollywood film, and several scenes and lines can be picked apart for their inaccuracies. The character of Tom Smith was softened, and War Admiral's owner Samuel Riddle came across as a man with a great rapport with the media. Don't expect to see Red Pollard's wife, who did not exist in the movie, and do not by any means compare the chart of the 1940 Santa Anita Handicap with the race seen on screen. And there was no reason to describe War Admiral as being nearly 18 hands, with the average moviegoer not knowing what that means and the racing fan laughing over such an absurdity.
We’re led to believe that George Woolf rode Seabiscuit for the first time in the big match race with War Admiral in 1938, when in reality, he had filled in for Pollard after Red’s first life-threatening accident during a race, which did not make the film. There is no mention of the second photo finish loss in the 1938 Santa Anita Handicap, or the match race with Ligaroti, a horse trained by Howard’s son Lin and owned by Bing Crosby (each time, Woolf rode). In total, Woolf rode Seabiscuit eleven times, nine coming prior to the War Admiral race, an event that was scheduled and cancelled numerous times, by both Smith and Riddle’s team. It got to the point where even the fans believed that Seabiscuit was afraid to race War Admiral, a fact Ross chose not to include. Ross also neglected to touch on racing’s weight system that each horse had to endure. Hillenbrand had much to say about this, as it often was the difference between victory and defeat. The film’s finale—the improbable victory at the Santa Anita Handicap (the “hundred grander”)—was not Pollard’s first race since his horrifying leg injury. He and Seabiscuit won the San Antonio Handicap a little more than a week earlier.
The film was well-received upon release, but no one seemed to think it a masterpiece. A.O. Scott of The New York Times summed it up this way: “The main problem with SEABISCUIT, indeed, is a surfeit of reverence. It turns the thrilling celebration of a collection of rambunctious, maverick characters into an exercise in high-minded, responsible sentimentality.” Discrepancies aside, SEABISCUIT proved a winner with the same kind of people the underdog racehorse did between 1937 and 1940…the people. Seabiscuit was merely a horse, but he proved he could be much more. The film offers the same message. It can’t save us from our trials, but it is old-fashioned, warm-hearted escapism at its finest.
“Most of the extras seen in the stadium scenes of Seabiscuit were blow up dolls with painted on clothes.”