“Separately they were nothing more than a failing jockey and a broken down horse. Together they would become the hard luck heroes for a troubled nation.” – Seabiscuit PBS Documentary
In 1938, America was hurting. Not only was the nation poor, scared, hungry, and gearing up for war, but it was also broken. The Great Depression had ravaged so much more than the economy. It left men feeling like little more than discarded and helpless animals. America needed some good news. She needed a hero to rally behind. She needed to see one of her own climb out of the pit and ascend back into the Promised Land.
Short, chunky, distrustful, abused, knobby-kneed and so often defeated, Seabiscuit was the most unlikely hero of them all. Descended from equine royalty, Seabiscuit had been found wanting. In the hands of trainers who did not understand his personality, he was relegated to the grueling work of making better horses feel more confident than they deserved to feel. He was badly raced and forced to lose so often that he learned no other way of competing.
In August of 1936, automobile entrepreneur Charles Howard bought the three year old disappointment on the recommendation of his ranch horse trainer, Tom Smith. The unorthodox Smith, had locked eyes with the colt, and felt intuitively that he understood him. Smith argued that the Biscuit was something truly special who had been seriously misunderstood and undervalued. While most horses were evaluated for their feet, Smith argued that Biscuit would win with his heart and his head.
Tom worked to restore Seabiscuit’s health and his spirit for the next two years, winning races along the way. Equally broken and blind in one eye, jockey Red Pollard was another unusual but genius pick by Smith. The horse and the jockey understood each other almost right away and would go on to understand each other for the rest of their lives.
In November 1938, Seabiscuit was slated to compete against racing legend, War Admiral. The race was dubbed a “David and Goliath” pairing and “The Match Race of the Century”. Howard, a marketing wizard, knew how to compare his horse and jockey to the spirit of the everyman American. America could not help but identify with the “failing jockey and broken down horse” (Seabiscuit PBS Documentary) and see themselves in this Cinderella story. If Seabiscuit had not existed, someone would have needed to have invented him.
This story is so beautiful on many levels. I get emotional every time I read about it or watch a movie related to it. Charming and exciting, it has been captured and retold many times. Fans simply cannot get enough of this fairytale true story, so families have a lot of choices when it comes to sharing the story with their children. In this article, we are going to review several of the most famous family friendly versions of the story. In a future article, I will deal with the more mature version as laid out in the Laura Hillenbrand book, Seabiscuit: An American Legend, and the 2003 film based on Hillenbrand’s work.
Ralph Moody, author of the Little Britches books, is one of the greatest horse story tellers I have ever read. His passion for horses breathes a special kind of life into the stories he relates. Our family has loved many of his books, but this one has to be one of the best. Utterly family friendly, Come On Seabiscuit reads like an exciting adventure story. Equally good in print and in audio, we have used it as a family read aloud as well as a quiet time listening book. In the near future, my nine year will likely read it independently for his daily reading time.
In 1939, Charles Howard produced a documentary of his famous horse. For many years that documentary was considered lost. In 2003 the rediscovered documentary was colorized and re-released to coincide with the new film based on Laura Hillenbrand’s book Seabiscuit: An American Legend. The documentary is titled Seabiscuit: the Lost Documentary (1939). Old as it is, my children were enthralled by it. Seeing the real Seabiscuit and Red Pollard on film made them feel as though they were being transported back in time. Understanding that the quality of the film is quite vintage, it was still a viewing treat.
As part of the “American Experience” series in 2003, PBS did a feature length documentary on Seabiscuit. It was beyond watchable – it was downright exciting. As a family we appreciated all of the details that the Moody book had not included. As a reader, I appreciated the interviews with Pollard’s daughter and friend as well as that of Laura Hillenbrand. Family friendly, well done, and interesting to watch, it really enhanced our appreciation of the Moody book.
In her second to last film, Shirley Temple starred in a 1949 fictionalized version of the Seabiscuit story. True to it’s era in movie making, it does not even try to be faithful to the story but reinvents it with the biases of that time. Horse lovers and history buffs will be pleased to know that footage from the actual match race with War Admiral as well as the 1940 Santa Anita Handicap race is spliced into the film. Modern viewers, however, may not appreciate the coarse Hollywood portrayal of immigrants and characters of color. While not faithful to the true story, and ethnically insensitive, it is generally wholesome and family friendly. Until younger viewers are mature enough to watch the 2003 film, this is a sweet Seabiscuit story with some historical footage. Our family purchased it in a four-pack of classic Hollywood horse films including Black Beauty.
In a future article, I will talk about why the 2003 film is absolutely not family friendly. Beautiful, expertly made, emotional and substantive, it is also appropriately dark in places, has some off-color language, and includes a brothel scene that just can’t be easily explained to young viewers. This is a film for adults and mature teens. Objectionable as some parts are, it is very compelling.