x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Seabiscuit's victory: a tonic for Depression

Seabiscuit; the most beloved and most unlikely American horse-racing hero of them all.

Seabiscuit on his way to setting a new track record at Pimlico in 1938.
Seabiscuit on his way to setting a new track record at Pimlico in 1938.

When the four-legged princes and princesses strut their stuff around the parade ring at Santa Anita during this weekend's Breeders' Cup, it is easy to imagine them tugging their equine forelocks as they pass the statue of the legendary Seabiscuit, the most beloved and most unlikely American horse-racing hero of them all.

Why unlikely? There is an unforgettable scene in The Producers - Mel Brooks's hilarious movie - which revolves around our two rascally heroes staging the biggest flop in Broadway history in order to defraud their backers. Alas, their musical romp Springtime For Hitler turns out to be a monumental triumph at which point Max Bialystock (played by Zero Mostel) whines to his partner in crime Leo Bloom (Gene Wilder): "We chose the wrong play, we chose the wrong director, we chose the wrong Hitler. WHERE DID WE GO RIGHT!"

It is eminently probable that Charles Howard asked himself that very question. He bought the wrong horse in Seabiscuit, small, crooked-legged, stubborn and reckless. He chose the wrong trainer in Tom Smith, an eccentric, down-at-the-heel, ageing cowboy. And he employed the wrong jockey in Johnny "Red" Pollard, better known as a boxer and for his love of quoting Shakespeare than his riding skills. "Where did I go right?" you can imagine Howard asking in bewilderment when Seabiscuit rode off with the 1937 Santa Anita Handicap and the biggest purse in American turf.

With the United States in the grip of the Great Depression, Seabiscuit became the idol of a nation, traipsing across the country in his private train, generating more newspaper coverage than President Roosevelt, and attracting never- before-seen crowds at his every track appearance. It was fitting that the ungainly bay subsequently found screen fame in Seabiscuit, the Oscar-nominated 2003 movie inspired by Laura Hillenbrand's best-selling novel of the same name, because all Hollywood was wont to sweep down the Pacific coastal highway from their Bel Air mansions in a convoy of Cadillac convertibles to Santa Anita where the Great One could be found munching his oats in stable No 38.

They are all long gone now, Frank Sinatra, Ava Gardner, Charlie Chaplin, Clark Gable, Cary Grant, Jimmy Durante, Gary Cooper, Hoagy Carmichael, Henry Fonda and Betty Grable, the "Girl with the One Million Dollar Legs". Groucho Marx was another who always enjoyed an afternoon in the company of Bing Crosby. Bing invariably had several horses in residence at Santa Anita, although he was owner - in partnership with Jimmy Durante, Oliver Hardy, Pat O'Brien and the aforementioned Charles Howard - of the rival Del Mar racetrack 20 miles north of San Diego.

To this day the crooner's mellifluous rendition of Where the turf meets the surf at old Del Mar is played over the Tannoy before each race meeting. Santa Anita, however, was where the Hollywood elite tended to meet to eat and you can take it as read that stories of Bing's long-standing love of the turf will be told and retold by the Breeders' Cup crowds over the coming days. Like his famous run-in with the 1940s comedian Joey Friscoe, whose stutter became his stage trademark. A heavy gambler and an equally heavy loser, Bing's pal Joey touched him for US$200 (Dh734) one afternoon to put on a "sh-sh-sure th-thing". Sure enough, the noble steed romped home three lengths clear of the rest of the field. When Bing heard the result of the race, he traced Joey to a bar where he was sitting behind a magnum of champagne in an ice bucket and with a beautiful blonde on each arm.

"Hi, Joey," says Bing by way of a gentle reminder of the debt due to him. "S-s-say, Bi-Bi-Bing," replies a frisky Friscoe, peeling off a few hundred dollar bills, "Gi-gi-give us Whi-Whi-White Ch ristmas, willya?" A passionate punter, Bing lost at the races more often than he won and once observed: "To borrow a line first coined by Joe E Lewis: 'I met with an awful accident getting to Santa Anita today - I arrived safely'."

But the final word belongs to WC Fields, who could never pick a winner despite years of trying: "I came by Santa Anita today but it was closed, so I just shoved all my money through the gate." @Email:rphilip@thenational.ae