Seabiscuit’s Triple Crown

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During the 1930s the great horse Seabiscuit won races. Now in the twenty-first century the famous thoroughbred’s chroniclers have brought home an entertainment triple crown. First there was Laura Hillenbrand’s best selling book, then the excellent PBS documentary, and now the motion picture Seabiscuit.

By far the premier jewel of this triple crown of historical tale telling is Laura Hillenbrand’s best seller Seabiscuit: An American Legend. Rarely does a true story containing all the elements of best selling fiction fall into the hands of someone who excels as both a writer and a historian. Hillenbrand the historian uses personal interviews, official track chart books, racing histories, newspaper stories, and magazine articles to write an accurate and fascinating story. As for Hillenbrand the writer, the reader knows from the last sentence of the short preface — “It began with a young man on a train, pushing west.” — that this 400 page journey will be something special.

Laura Hillenbrand also knows horses and horse racing. She skillfully educates the reader about the sport of kings (the squeamish may want to avoid the chapter on the hazardous life Depression era jockeys), while telling a warm human tale of three men and a horse. Hillenbrand traces her main characters’ separate biographies to a convergence in 1936: the successful businessman-owner Charles Howard, the journeyman trainer Tom Smith, the hard-luck jockey Red Pollard, and the woebegone horse, Seabiscuit, who would join their fates together on a whirlwind ride into American legend.

The documentary Seabiscuit is another winner from a long line of thoroughbred documentaries out of PBS and the American Experience series. This version of Seabiscuit’s story clocks in at a fast sixty minutes. The documentary’s archival footage presents the viewer with raw realities. We can only wince at seeing Pollard thrown from his mount, Fair Knightess, an accident that crushed his chest and would have crushed the riding career of a less determined man. The viewer also sees Seabiscuit’s incredible speed along with all his “faults” — the crooked legs, the eggbeater gait, the short blunt body — as this son of Man o’ War, charges down the stretch in some of the most exciting races ever run.

Appearing on camera with personal comments are Pollard’s daughter Norah Christianson, former jockey Farrell Jones, writer Gene Smith, sportscaster Jack Whitaker, and the documentary’s senior creative consultant Laura Hillenbrand. Scott Glenn does the narration and his words are backed by period music — Artie Shaw and Benny Goodman swing and Bing Crosby sings popular tunes of the late ’30s. The documentary Seabiscuit is well done from the starting gate to the finish line.

The final leg of this entertainment triple crown is Universal Pictures’ Seabiscuit, a film that may well land in the winners circle at next year’s Academy Awards. The movie Seabiscuit retains the main story, but the screen play alters some facts and rearranges others. These changes do no damage to the story; rather, they enhance the cinematic tale.

Chris Cooper’s Oscar worthy performance as trainer Tom Smith is supported by the solid performances of Toby Maguire as Red Pollard and Jeff Bridges as Charles Howard. William H. Macy creates a fictional radio sports personality (loosely based on turf writer Jolly Roger), who acts as comedy relief and, through his radio program, helps explain the background of races portrayed in the movie. Serving a similar role, David McCullough narrates black and white footage, spliced throughout the movie, of FDR, bread Lines, the dust bowl and other reminders of the film’s backdrop, the Great Depression. Randy Newman’s direction is top notch, the racing scenes are exciting, and the movie successfully evokes the ’30s. At the performance I attended, when Seabiscuit crossed the finish line of his final race the screen went dark and the audience applauded.

Just as the Kentucky Derby, The Preakness, and the Belmont Stakes are three different horse races on three different tracks; so too books, documentaries, and movies are three different ways of telling a story in three different mediums. After more than a half century a winning book, a winning documentary, and a winning movie have given Seabiscuit a triple crown.