Arts and Leisure

Seabiscuit Takes His First Step to Fame at Suffolk Downs

Seabiscuit, the knock-kneed little horse with the big heart, met the man who made him a champion at Suffolk Downs Race Course on a sweltering June day in 1938.

Suffolk Downs, 1936. Photo courtesy Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection.

Suffolk Downs, 1936. Photo courtesy Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection.

It was the middle of the Great Depression. The American people needed hope, and state governments needed cash. Suffolk Downs helped with both.

Suffolk Downs Opens

In 1934, the Massachusetts General Court legalized pari-mutuel racing as a way to put money into the commonwealth’s treasury. Boston Bruins founder Charles Adams spearheaded construction of Suffolk Downs, the first thoroughbred racetrack in Massachusetts.

Built on 200 acres of mudflats in East Boston, the track went up in only 62 days. It had the largest grandstand in the nation, with 16,000 seats.

Horse racing, along with boxing and baseball, were the biggest sports during the Depression. Still, Suffolk Down officials were elated when 35,000 people came to the track on the day it opened, July 10, 1935.

Seabiscuit

The horse named Seabiscuit (after his father, Hard Tack) got an inauspicious start in life.

He was born in Paris, Ky. In the beginning he liked to eat and sleep more than he liked to race, and he lost his first 17 races. Then he won two races at Narragansett Park, setting a new track record. As a two-year-old, he ran a grueling 35 races, winning five and coming in second in seven.

He was a three-year-old when he arrived at Suffolk Downs during that blistering June day. He had already run 43 races, more than most horses run in their entire careers.

Trainer Tom Smith was at Suffolk Downs that day, on assignment from his boss, automobile dealer Charles Howard. He was looking for cheap horses that just might be champions.

Smith said he didn’t find Seabiscuit. Seabiscuit found him.

'I'll see you again'

It was June 29, 1936 when Smith stood by the track rail, watching horses head toward the post. A squat little bay horse with a stubby tail stopped in front of him, lifted his head and looked at Smith. Smith remembered:

He looked right down his nose at me like he was saying, 'Who the devil are you?'

The horse was tugged along into the starting gate, where he threw a fit and stood flat-footed at the starting bell. And then, with a gait compared with an eggbeater, he won the race.

Seabiscuit with jockey George Woolf.

Seabiscuit with jockey George Woolf.

As he was unsaddled afterward, he took another look at Tom Smith. “Darned if the little rascal didn't nod back at me," Smith said, "kinda like he was paying me an honor to notice me."

As the horse was led away, Tom Smith spoke to him. “I’ll see you again,” he said.

At Last, A Champion

Howard bought Seabiscuit and put him under Smith's care. Smith fed him better, let him sleep as long as he wanted and gave him company in his stall: an old horse named Pumpkin, a dog named Pocatell and a spider monkey named Jo-Jo.

Smith paired Seabiscuit with jockey Red Pollard and Seabiscuit began to win bigger races in the East later that year.

In 1937, Seabiscuit entered 15 prestigious races and won 11 of them, earning more money than any other horse in the United States. He had a rival, though: War Admiral, who had won the Triple Crown that year.

In 1938, Seabiscuit continued his winning ways, climaxed by his victory in a one-on-one matchup against War Admiral at Pimlico. Sportswriters considered it the greatest horse race ever run. Forty thousand people streamed into the track while millions listened to it on the radio. It was the most electrifying news story of the day. Seabiscuit, the short, stubby, underdog who had been mocked early in his career came back to beat the mighty War Admiral. (You can watch a video of the race here.)

The Valiant Seabiscuit

The legendary sportswriter Grantland Rice described the race:

A little horse with the heart of a lion and the flying feet of a gazelle yesterday proved his place as the gamest thoroughbred that ever faced over an American track...

In one of the greatest match races ever run in the ancient history of the turf, the valiant Seabiscuit not only conquered the great War Admiral but, beyond this, he ran the beaten son of Man O’War into the dirt and dust of Pimlico…..the drama and the melodrama of this match race, held before a record crowd keyed to the highest tension I have seen in sport, set an all-time mark.

Seabiscuit was named Horse of the Year, but he was more than that. He garnered more news coverage than Mussolini, Hitler or Franklin D. Roosevelt. To a nation weary of the Depression, he symbolized hope.

He has since been celebrated in literature, in film and statuary, on a postage stamp and in the Racing Hall of Fame.

Tom Smith was later hired to work at the Maine Chance Farm in Lexington, Ky., a major thoroughbred racing stable. Owner Elizabeth Arden had named it after her health spa in Mt. Vernon, Maine.

Suffolk Downs still offers live racing.

With thanks to Seabiscuit, An American Legend by Lauren Hillenbrand. If you enjoyed this story, you may also want to read about the Readville Race Track.  This story was updated in 2019. 

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  1. Pingback: Cracking the History of the Uncommon Common Cracker - New England Historical Society

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