"SEABISCUIT:"  CAN'T HOLLYWOOD GET IT RIGHT?

As a nine-year-old racing fan in 1940 I regretted missing that year's running 
of the  Santa Anita Handicap, but I'll be there for this December's re-run.  
I'm to be an unpaid extra, with 3000 others, in crowd scenes when Universal 
Pictures shoots Laura Hillenbrand's best-selling "Seabiscuit: An American 
legend."

It's not that I have any desire to break into films as an actor.   My interest 
in the "Seabiscuit" film is that of the historian - trying to see that 
Hollywood gets it right.

The problem with the film's script, written by writer-producer-director Gary 
Ross, is that the ending is all wrong.  That's because Hillenbrand, in an 
effort to guarantee that her book would be the great success that it is, opted 
to leave out a crucial part of the climactic scene where Seabiscuit finally 
wins Santa Anita's "Big Cap" after two heart-breaking second place finishes in 
1937 and '38, followed by a year on the sidelines because of injuries in 1939.

There is no doubt that Hillenbrand's book is the best horse racing tale in 
years, perhaps ever.  She has a gift for writing, and has crafted a feel-good 
story that leaves her readers with a definite rush as Seabiscuit crosses the 
wire.  

Click on her very popular Seabiscuit web page, where thousands of readers have 
e-mailed their praise of the book.  Even those who know nothing about horse 
racing, or don't even care for it, are enthralled by the way she has told the 
story of Seabiscuit. But they are unaware of a glaring omission in the text.

Shortly before post time on that race day in early March, 1940, owner Charles 
S. Howard met with racing officials at Santa Anita and "declared to win" with 
Seabiscuit.  He had another horse in the race - Kayak II - who had won the 
1939 running while Seabiscuit was recuperating.  Had Seabiscuit been unable to 
start in 1940, Kayak would have been the favorite.

"Declared to win" meant that if Howard's two horses had the field beaten as 
they neared the wire, Kayak would be held back so that Seabiscuit could win. 
Since bettors holding tickets on the Howard entry would collect no matter 
which horse won, "declaring" was legitimate.  

Howard had a sentimental attachment to Seabiscuit and wanted to win with that 
horse.  He also wanted Seabiscuit to become the leading money-winner of all 
time, which would happen with a victory.  There was also a rumor that Howard, 
who was known to lay sizable wagers with bookmakers at Caliente, had put a 
large sum down on Seabiscuit weeks before the race.  Seabiscuit opened in the 
future book at the Mexican track at 10-1, but by post time the Howard entry 
was less than even money.  If Kayak won, bets placed on Seabiscuit at Caliente 
would be lost.

Seabiscuit crossed the finish line a length ahead of Kayak.  Reports in the 
Los Angeles Times after the race indicate that Kayak could have won had his 
jockey gone to the whip.  The Racing Form chart of the race suggests that 
Kayak was not all out at the end. Many at the track that day went home 
believing that the best horse finished second.

But readers of Hillenbrand's book will never know that, for the "declared to 
win" episode is never mentioned.  She excuses her omission on grounds that the 
whole matter is trivial, that Kayak couldn't have beaten Seabiscuit anyway. 
That's hard to accept since her book includes so many other details of 
Seabiscuit's career as well as that of his trainer, jockey and owner.  I think 
she left it out because it would have weakened the appeal that comes from what 
the readers think is an honest Seabiscuit victory.  Would there have been a 
film had Seabiscuit been a runner-up for the third time?  It would still have 
been a good story about the old contender, always second, who never quite 
became the champion.  But the story would lack the spark that comes from an 
honest victory in the richest stakes race in America.

I don't know if Seabiscuit really won the race on his own.  But this time I'm 
going to be at Santa Anita rooting for Kayak.  Unless the producer bans me 
from the grandstand.

- - -

[Ralph E. Shaffer can be reached at reshaffer@csupomona.edu]