October 27, 2015
When English teachers hand out a new book, we will not say this out loud, but we hope our students will identify with a main character–Holden or Scout, Romeo or Juliet, maybe even Odysseus or Penelope.
In that spirit, if I were handing out Laura Hillenbrand’s Seabiscuit - An American Legend to 9th graders here early in the school year, my wish would be: May you identify with Seabiscuit.
Such a critical year for so many 9th graders. The first time they look at their GPA—and are told it means something about their future. The first time many fail a class or two. The first time some 14-year-olds ask themselves: is there anyone in this building looking out for me, pulling for me to succeed? Anyone who believes I am more than that D or F?
In Seabiscuit, prior to freshmen year, there had been little to cheer about.
“Noah, the foaling groom at Clairborne, had summed it up about as well as anyone when he pulled Seabiscuit into the world. ‘Runty little thing.’ Clairborne handlers had been so dismayed with the colt that they had hidden him in the back barn when (the owner) came to look over her new crop of horses. A year of maturing had not helped much. ‘Seabiscuit was so small,’ said (the legendary trainer Sunny Jim) Fitzsimons, ‘that you might mistake him for a lead pony.’… strange-looking, shaggy, and awkward.…”
Now a high school freshman. 1936. First day of class:
“The colt was practically sneering at him. Tom Smith (his future trainer) was standing by the track rail … when a weedy three-year-old bay stopped short in front of him, swung his head high, and eyed him with an arch expression completely unsuited to such a rough-hewn animal. ‘He looked right down his nose at me,’ Smith remembered later, ‘like he was saying, “Who the devil are you?”’ Man and horse stood on opposite sides of the rail for a long moment, sizing each other up.”
The teacher checks the record of the new kid. At first glance, little promise.
“Smith flipped to the horse’s profile in the track program…. The colt’s body, built low to the ground, had all the properties of a cinder block…. blunt, coarse, rectangular, stationary. He had a sad little tail, barely long enough to brush his hocks…. Asked to run he would drop low over the track and fall into a comical version of what horsemen call an egg-beater gait, making a spastic sideways flailing motion with his left foreleg as he swung it forward, as if he were swatting at flies. His gallop was so disorganized that he had a maddening tendency to whack himself in the front ankle with his own hind hoof.”
“But somehow, after throwing a fit in the starting gate and being left flat-footed at the bell, the colt won his race that day.… He was a horse whose quality, an admirer would write, ‘was mostly in his heart, and Tom Smith had been the first to recognize it.’”
“The horse’s name was Seabiscuit.…”
More first impressions: Lazy. A wallflower. Easy to overlook.
“While every other horse at the track raised hell demanding breakfast, (Seabiscuit) slept long and late, stretching out over the floor of his stall in such deep sedation that the grooms had to use every means in their power just to get him to stand up. He was so quiet that Fitzsimmons’ assistant trainers once forgot all about him and left him in a van for an entire afternoon in brutal heat while they went for a beer.”
Potential? What potential?
“…his career prospects looked dim. He was as slow as growing grass. He barely kept up with his training partners, lagging along behind with happy ineptitude. Worked over and over again, he showed no improvement.”
But one teacher “began to wonder” if this horse might not be fooling them all. Sunny Jim Fitzsimmons commented: “He struck me as a bird that could sing but wouldn’t unless we made him.”
Even as the new student proved more than able—if still lazy—a few faculty members puzzled over how to push him. But again, with so many other— “better”—students to deal with….
“Seabiscuit had the misfortune of living in a stable whose managers simply didn’t have the time to give his mind the painstaking attention it needed.… Fitzsimmons had bigger things to worry about. In early May, a few days before Seabiscuit earned $25 for finishing fourth in a race …, Fitzsimmons and Granville (his top horse) shipped off to Churchill Downs to go for the $37,725 winner’s share of the purse in the Kentucky Derby.”
The youngster then meets a new teacher. Who sees what others had not…
“(Tom) Smith made his case with four sentences: ‘Get me that horse. He has real stuff in him. I can improve him. I’m positive.’”
Veterinarians were sent to inspect the horse.
“They were only lukewarm about his prospects, eyeing that iffy left foreleg and pronouncing the horse only ‘serviceable useful.’ But in this horse, Smith knew there was something lying dormant.”
Before a new owner, Charles Howard, would commit to buy Seabiscuit, he needed to see him perform. Unfortunately for Seabiscuit, who “did not run his best in the mud,” on the day of race—a “pouring rain.”
“Seabiscuit broke slowly and dropped farther and farther back. By mid-race he was trailing by at least ten lengths. Smith was dismayed. But Seabiscuit began to rally. Slogging through the slop, he lumbered up to his competitor, pushing as hard as he could, and passed him. It wasn’t much of race, but it was a win nonetheless. Howard was satisfied. The horse had grit.”
“I can’t describe the feeling he gave me,” Howard said later, “but somehow I knew he had what it takes. Tom and I realized that we had our worries and troubles ahead. We had to rebuild him, both mentally and physically, but you don’t have to rebuild the heart when it’s already there, big as all outdoors.”
A second chance. A new class. A teacher who believes in your possibilities. All this during freshman year, 1936.
Sophomore year: In 1937 Seabiscuit finishes second at the Santa Anna Handicap.
Junior year: In 1938 Seabiscuit wins the Hollywood Gold Cup, defeats War Admiral at Pimlico, and is named Horse of the Year.
Senior year: too amazing to give away. Turn to chapter 20, “All Four of His Legs are Broken”— and read on!
Leading us, their teachers, to ask our freshmen – how big is your heart?
And to ask of ourselves — can we see the possibilities?
Another View, a newsletter by Peter Huidekoper, represents his own opinion and is not intended to represent the view of any organization he is associated with. Comments are welcome. 303-757-1225 / email@example.com
 CREDIT LINE: Excerpt(s) from SEABISCUIT: AN AMERICAN LEGEND by Laura Hillenbrand, copyright © 2001 by Laura Hillenbrand. Used by permission of Random House, an imprint and division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved.