[From the San Gabriel Valley Examiner, Sept. 25, 2002]

         LAURA HILLENBRAND'S "SEABISCUIT:" A CRITICAL APPRAISAL

One look at the dust jacket photo indicates that something's terribly wrong 
with Laura Hillenbrand's best selling, book-of-the-year, "Seabiscuit: An 
American Legend."  In the Santa Anita winner's circle are owner Charles S. 
Howard and jockey Red Pollard.  With them is a headless horse, apparently 
Seabiscuit.  That missing head symbolizes the untold story of Seabiscuit's 
dramatic "victory" in the 1940 Santa Anita Handicap, the centerpiece of 
Hillenbrand's brilliant but distorted look at California's great Depression 
Era thoroughbred.

Lost amid recent revelations that several respected writers of popular 
history are guilty of plagiarism, another form of literary deceit has gone 
unnoticed in the euphoria surrounding the reception of Hillenbrand's book.  
After disappearing from the hardback best seller lists which it led for 
months, Hillenbrand's absorbing tale of three men and a horse has made a 
winning comeback, like the great steed it champions, putting away all the 
competition in the paperback market.  Universal will soon turn it into a 
major motion picture, starring Tobey Maguire.  But if the screenplay is 
true to Hillenbrand's misrepresentation of what was a truly inspiring 
racing story, the film will have a fatal flaw. 

No one has charged Hillenbrand with plagiarism.  Her fault is a sin of 
omission, so far recognized only by a few old-timers who vividly remember 
March 2, 1940, when Seabiscuit finally won the Santa Anita Handicap after 
two heart-breaking losses and became, for then, racing's all-time 
money-winner.  

Seabiscuit's victory, the climax of her story, did not need doctoring to 
make it worth retelling.  But by disregarding a vital factor in the race's 
outcome, Hillenbrand turned what critics have deemed a masterpiece of 
writing and research told by a gifted author into a questionable work of 
fiction.

To generations of Americans whose only knowledge of Seabiscuit was a 
Shirley Temple movie or a popular children's book, Hillenbrand's account of 
Seabiscuit's career and his ultimate victory in the 1940 race is without 
doubt the most absorbing volume ever written on "the sport of kings."  To 
those who never heard of Seabiscuit this is like a feel good novel that the 
reader can't put down.  Even her overuse of superlatives and the 
application of modern terms that were not in vogue in that era - such as 
Team Seabiscuit - do not greatly diminish the reading.

Hillenbrand spent years tracking down dozens of stable hands, retired 
jockeys, former owners, racing writers of the 1930s and seemingly everyone 
who ever came in contact with Howard, Pollard and trainer "Silent Tom" 
Smith.  The Howard family opened its private papers to Hillenbrand, who, in 
order to write the book, overcame career-threatening health problems like 
the great horse she honors.

But the staggering amount of research and the brilliance with which she put 
it into print all wither in light of her failure to include a penetrating 
examination of the question: Could Seabiscuit have won had owner Howard let 
the outcome be decided on the track?  Seabiscuit's win was tainted, though 
Hillenbrand's readers will never know it.

Howard was driven by a desire not only to win Santa Anita's "Big Cap," but 
to make his horse the leading money-winner of all time.  For two years Sun 
Beau's money-winning record, set in 1931, was within Seabiscuit's reach.  
But a defeat in the 1938 Big Cap, and an injury that kept his horse 
sidelined for all of 1939, seemed to end Howard's dream.  Trainer Smith, 
however, brought Seabiscuit back to the races in 1940 and the 7 year old 
was favored to win that season's race.

To be safe, Howard entered a second horse, Kayak II, who won the 1939 
running while Seabiscuit recuperated.  Had Seabiscuit been unable to race 
in 1940, Kayak would have been the Big Cap favorite.  As it was, the two 
horses went to the post a heavily favored betting entry at seventy cents to 
a dollar. 

But Howard wanted to triumph with Seabiscuit.  At 3:23 p.m. on race day, 
shortly before the start, Howard met with Santa Anita racing officials and 
"declared to win" with Seabiscuit.  That term, rarely heard today, meant 
that if his entry approached the finish line running one-two, having beaten 
the field, Kayak would be held back, if necessary, to allow Seabiscuit to 
hit the wire first.  Since bettors at the track holding tickets on the pair 
would be rewarded no matter which of the two won, "declaring to win" with 
Seabiscuit was legitimate, although it went against the tradition that the 
race should go to the best horse. 

"Declaring to win" did make a difference at the old Caliente track in 
Mexico, however, where a future book on the race required bettors to put 
money down on a specific horse.  There was a rumor that Howard had made a 
large bet there sometime earlier on Seabiscuit, who opened at 10-1 in the 
future book.  A Kayak win would be a Howard loss.  Hillenbrand never 
referred to Howard's rumored future book bet, despite the fact that earlier 
in the volume she told of other wagers that Howard and his friends 
reportedly made with Caliente bookmakers. 

Even more significantly, Hillenbrand deliberately ignored any mention of 
the "declared to win" announcement.  A handful of her readers have called 
attention to this omission on her very popular Seabiscuit web page.  Her 
belated answer was that Kayak's jockey publicly stated that his mount could 
not have won, and that to mention the trivial incident would have been a 
distraction to the readers.

That doesn't jibe with the way sports writers reported it in the Los 
Angeles Times and other local papers following the race.  After running 
dead last early on and trailing badly until the field headed for home, 
Kayak caught the front-running Seabiscuit in the stretch, then finished 
second, the rest of the pack well behind them.  Next day one Times 
journalist, writing without a byline, reported that Buddy Haas, Kayak's 
jockey, "seemed to take things easy" after making sure that Seabiscuit had 
the race under control.  "Many left the track with the impression Kayak II 
might have won the big race for the second time if Buddy Haas ... had more 
vigorously ridden the black Argentine the final sixteenth," he wrote, a 
view echoed in the Daily Racing Form's official chart of the race.  Johnny 
Adams, who had ridden Kayak to victory in the 1939 race, was convinced that 
Kayak could have beaten Seabiscuit had the horse been given a chance.  Even 
Paul Zimmerman, whose account of the race was column one, front page, in 
The Times,  conceded that Kayak conceivably could have outrun his 
stablemate.

Two days after the race a banner headline atop The Times sports section 
confirmed it: "Haas Declares Kayak II Was Best Horse in Handicap."  Paul 
Lowry, long a leading Southern California sports writer, claimed that Haas 
privately told close friends following his defeat: "I had the best horse in 
the race."  That, said Lowry, was an opinion held by a majority of those in 
the racing profession at Santa Anita.  A poll of trainers revealed that 9 
out of 10 believed Kayak could have won.  Seabiscuit's trainer, Smith, 
"raised almost the lone dissenting voice."  Adding to the belief that Kayak 
could have won was the fact that Haas and Red Pollard, who rode Seabiscuit, 
split the fee paid to the winning jockey.  Why share the winner's purse if 
Kayak couldn't have won?  (Tobey Maguire signed on to ride Seabiscuit in 
the film for $12 million.  Will he split that with the actor aboard Kayak?)  

Strangely, while Hillenbrand's footnotes cite numerous newspaper stories 
about the race, both her original hardback and the recently issued 
paperback disregard articles in The Times that suggested Kayak was held 
back to assure a Seabiscuit victory.  The result is a book that omits a key 
element of the story in order to make an already amazing tale even more 
tantalizing that it really was.  

To suppress all mention of Howard's declaration, as she did, is comparable 
to penning a rousing boxing story about an old pro in the twilight of his 
career winning the heavyweight title - without informing readers that his 
opponent may have taken a dive. And that would hardly have been trivial.

- - -

[Ralph E. Shaffer, professor emeritus in history at Cal Poly Pomona, 
watched Seabiscuit and Kayak II race at Santa Anita in 1940.  He can be 
reached at reshaffer@csupomona.edu]