In 1938, a single, legendary figure stole the national spotlight from FDR, Hitler and Mussolini. The figure in question was not human. He was a thoroughbred racehorse named Seabiscuit. The short, bandy-legged horse who against all odds showed the speed, strength and heart necessary to succeed in the sport of kings, Seabiscuit attracted massive crowds to his races throughout the 1930s and 1940s. Laura Hillenbrand's fascinating and well-researched book Seabiscuit: An American Legend tells the story of this underdog, giving an old legend new life.

While providing an authoritative account of the horse's storied career, Hillenbrand focuses on the men and women who helped Seabiscuit become a champion. She writes about Red Pollard, dubbed "The Cougar," the jockey who repeatedly piloted Seabiscuit to victory, even riding races on a previously shattered leg. George Woolf, whose statue stands near Seabiscuit's at the Santa Anita racetrack, and who rode the horse when Pollard's injuries prevented him, also comes to life here. Woolf was a notoriously flamboyant figure around the racetrack, and Hillenbrand includes the most beguiling stories about his life.

As horses go, Seabiscuit was as idiosyncratic as they come, with an appetite and a predisposition for sleep that were as legendary as his unlikely short-legged build. Hillenbrand tells of him resting on his side in a train car and whinnying for food when his trainer put him on a diet. Yet even some of his early keepers could feel the promise in him; as Hillenbrand reports, one saw "something in Seabiscuit's demeanor perhaps a conspicuous lack of sweating in his workouts, perhaps a gleam in the horse's eye that hinted at devious intelligence."

The knowledge of horses Hillenbrand amassed as a writer for Equus magazine shows in her descriptions of Seabiscuit's injuries and gaits. Her panoramic descriptions of the characters that surrounded the racehorse and her ability to bring a past era vividly to life make this narrative succeed. Describing Seabiscuit's loss to Stagehand in a photo finish, Hillenbrand writes about how horse and owner handled the news: "Howard looked at Seabiscuit. The horse's head was high and light played in his eyes. He didn't know he had lost. Howard felt confidence swell in him again. " 'We'll try again,' he said. 'Next time we'll win it.' "

Eliza R.L. McGraw lives and writes in Cabin John, Maryland.

 

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