Seabiscuit

The 2003 film Seabiscuit, starring Tobey Maguire, Jeff Bridges and Chris Cooper, tells the tale of three men, all damaged in different ways during the Great Depression who bond together while training an underdog horse that would captivate America, and rebuild all three men in the process.

The story is pretty split early on, focusing on each man and their respective talent and current life standing before the depression hits. Charles S. Howard (Jeff Bridges) works a clerk in a bicycle shop when he is asked to repair someone’s car, realizes he can make his own way by altering aspects of the engine to make the vehicles faster and more efficient. He then becomes the leading Buick salesman in the state, amassing a large fortune for himself in the process. Red Pollard (Tobey Maguire) comes from a well off Canadian family. As a result of the Great Depression, his family is left with nothing and surviving day to day with menial jobs. Red, making some money as a young trainer at a horse track is left to live with an adult trainer and make his own way at the age of 15, eventually becoming a jockey. On top of being a jockey, Red participates in illegal boxing matches which have left him completely blind in his right eye. Tom Smith (Chris Cooper) is a horse trainer who has an affinity for injured or “untrainable” horses. When we encounter him, he is pretty much a drifter, working from stable to stable.

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Contributing author: Troy Arnold

Real Life, Reel Differences

  • Red Pollard’s family was affected by the depression as depicted in the film, but the main cause for their struggles was a flood in 1915 destroyed their factory and essentially their livelihood. The Depression just made it worse.
  • In addition, Red wasn’t left on his own at 15, but instead with a guardian who accompanied him with the adult trainers. That guardian then decided to leave Red to his own devices.
  • Red didn’t lose his vision while boxing, but instead in a horse accident (the first of many), where a horse kicked up a lose rock on the track that hit Red in the head, causing optical brain damage. This was before the time where jockey’s wore helmets, and would have prevented the accident.
  • Charles S. Howard actually had four children, and while one did die in an auto-accident, he was not as young as he was depicted in the film. In actuality, he was 15 years old at the time of the accident.
  • While Seabiscuit was trained to lose early, he became a marginal racer, not the complete loser depicted. Also, many of the losing results in the film either didn’t happen because the horse was not entered in the race or he actually won, and not by a slim margin.
  • Also, Red did not admit he was half-blind after losing a race; it would have been career suicide. Instead he just told Smith and Howard that he was trapped on the rail with soft dirt (The Biscuit didn’t like soft dirt) and couldn’t get free.
  • Red was actually injured months before the race at Pimlico against War Admiral when a horse fell on him, crushing his ribs. He almost died. After he fully recovered from this incident, he raced several other times before the leg injury occurred; it was months before the race at Pimlico
  • In the film it is depicted as George Woolf’s first time riding Seabiscuit, but due to the earlier injuries suffered by Red, Woolf had ridden Seabiscuit 9 times prior to Pimlico.
  • Red is shown as single, but he actually married the nurse who helped rehabilitate him after his leg injury. Her name was Agnes, and they had two children.
  • After Red’s leg injury and recovery, he raced three times before the final race shown.
  • Seabiscuit and War-Admiral were actually related, and both horses were sired by Man O’ War
  • War Admiral is constantly mentioned as being a large horse when in actuality he and Seabiscuit were around the same size, and was in actuality one of the smaller sires of Man O’ War
  • In the race between War Admiral and Seabiscuit, War Admiral’s owner insisted that there would be no starting gate in this race; the real-life reason for this was because War Admiral HATED starting gates, and they threw off his time. Watch the actual footage of that race in Pimlico between Seabiscuit and War Admiral; Seabiscuit is the lighter-haired horse that starts on the outside track.

  • In the final race, Red is shown as being surprised that Woolf is on another horse but in actuality, Red knew well before that Woolf would be in the race. Woolf did indeed finish last in that race. The movie also showed Seabiscuit at the back of the pack in that race when in reality, he was never any worse than 4th at any point in that race.
  • Although unsubstantiated, there are rumors that the second place horse, Kayak II, tanked the race in order for Red and Seabiscuit to build some confidence. Kayak II was also owned by Charles S. Howard.

Where Are They Now?

Seabiscuit retired soon after the 1940 season. Often described as lazy, mean, and broken, these traits would go on to be fondly remembered by all of those affected by The Biscuit. After a long stretch as a struggling horse, with some wins but many more losses on his record, Seabiscuit was finally purchased by the right owner, handled by the right trainer, and ridden by the perfect jockey.

He was retired to the Rigdgewood Ranch in California. At the time he was horse racing’s all-time leading money winner. When he was put to stud, he sired 108 foals which included Sea Sovereign and Sea Swallow, who were successful racehorses in their own right. Seabiscuit was also used to herd cattle as a form of exercise. Seabiscuit died peacefully in 1947, and per a tradition by Howard of all his horses, he is buried in an unmarked grave on the outskirts of his property. It’s said that over 50,000 people went to visit Seabiscuit during his seven retirement years, and hundreds were allowed to view the casket upon his death, before it was secretly buried. Seabiscuit has several statues and memorials throughout the country, including:

  • A statue outside the main entrance of The Shops at Tanforan, formally the Tanforan Racetrack
  • A statue at the Santa Anita Racetrack
  • A Statue at his home, The Ridgewood Ranch
  • A life-sized statue of both George Woolf and Seabiscuit at the Remington Carriage Museum in George Woolf’s hometown of Carldston, Alberta, Canada.

ESPN Classic’s SportsCentury series produced a profiled Seabiscuit:


John “Red” Pollard, partially blind and plagued by injuries didn’t have an ounce of quit in him. Described by his sister as “happy as heck” even when he was going through the worst of it, Red was either reading or riding. He and Seabiscuit couldn’t have been more made for each other. Tom Smith may have selected Red to be Seabiscuits jockey, but it was really the horse who made the decision in a rare moment of affection to the complete stranger one day while Red and a friend were stranded in Detroit. Red Pollard was a founding member of the Jockeys’ Guild in 1940. Following that season, Red relocated to Rhode Island and continued to ride into the 1950’s, primarily in the New England area. He passed away in March of 1981 and was inducted into the Canadian Horse Racing Hall of Fame in 1982. He is buried just north of the Naragansset Park Racetrack.

Charles S. Howard was ever the innovator, and ahead of the curve. It was gut instinct and a marketing savvy that kept him relevant while others floundered. From racing his own cars to build the Buick reputation when could have easily retired with his insurance money, to buying The Biscuit because of a strong feeling about the spitfire Colt, Howard was a motivated man of vision. Although mostly known for Seabiscuit, Howard was a renowned Thoroughbred owner and bought/raised several other successful racehorses throughout his career, notably Kayak II, whom Seabiscuit would beat in his final race. He died of a heart attack in 1950.

George Woolf died tragically after falling off of his horse, Please Me, in a race at Santa Anita Park on January 3, 1946. He suffered a concussion and died in the hospital the next day as a result. George Woolf was a diabetic, and it is said that neither the jockeys nor track stewards saw any collisions or accidents that would have caused Woolf to fall from his horse, and it is assumed that he may have fainted as a result of his condition. Although Woolf was known to regulate his diet rigorously so he would not have to participate in the starvation tactics of most other jockeys, it is very possible that his diabetes played a part in his death. As he was only 35 years old at the time of his death, and being one of the most respected jockey’s in the country, the George Woolf Memorial Jockey Award was created soon after his death. Also of note; the actor who portrayed Woolf in Seabiscuit(Gary Stevens) was in fact a renowned jockey and won the George Woolf award in 1996, he has also been inducted into the National Museum of Racing Hall of Fame.
George Woolf has several statues and memorial dedicated to him throughout the U.S. and Canada

  • A bronze, life size statue near the walking ring of Santa Anita Park
  • In 1955, he was the inaugural inductee into the National Museum of Racing Hall of Fame
  • In 1956, he was inducted into Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame
  • In 1976, he was one of the first inducted into the Canadian Horse Racing Hall of Fame
  • A life-sized statue of both George Woolf and Seabiscuit at the Remington Carriage Museum in George Woolf’s hometown of Carldston, Alberta, Canada.

“Silent” Tom Smith was a real life horse whisperer. He spoke very little, and was known to be cantankerous around humans. He was truly in his element with animals, specifically horses. Not much is known of his pre-training life as he never spoke of it except to a trusted few. All that is really known is that he’d been breaking and training horses since he was a young boy, and traveled extensively doing so by the time he was 15 or so.

In the 1940’s, Tom Smith was hired to train for the Maine Chance Farm owned by cosmetics mogul Elizabeth Arden. He was the U.S. Champion Trainer twice; 1940 and 1945. He was suspended from horseracing for a year in 1945 by The Jockey Club after being found responsible for administering ephedrine to one of his horses. The drug was actually given by the stable foreman but under New York State racing rules, Smith was held responsible as the trainer. Once he was no longer under suspension, he returned to the farm and trained 1947 Kentucky Derby winner Jet Pilot.

Smith retired in 1955 having trained 29 winning horses over the course of his career. He died in 1957 at the age of 78 after complications from a stroke. Before then, he’d spent the remainder of his life away from the horses he’d loved so much. He was inducted into the National Museum of Racing Hall of Fame in 2001.

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