The story of Seabiscuit, one of thoroughbred racing’s greatest horses, is a tale of three underdogs who formed an unlikely team that scaled to the top of their sport. Set against the backdrop of the Great Depression, the story, told so brilliantly by Laura Hillenbrand in her wonderful book Seabiscuit, and the ensuing film, is truly inspirational. Many may not be aware that it was in Detroit in 1936 where the three principals of the Seabiscuit story came together.
The little horse that would become so famous that he would grace the cover of Time magazine, had only recently been purchased by Charles Howard, a California playboy who had made his millions selling automobiles. The man in charge of Howard’s horses was Tom Smith, an odd character more at home traipsing through the tall grass and sleeping in stables than he was with other people. Smith had an almost guru-like reputation for weirdness. In some ways he was the Rasputin of the barns.
With Seabiscuit, a grandson of the great Man O’War, in tow, Howard and Smith traveled by train from the East Coast back toward their ranch in California, stopping along the way to test their new horse in competition. In August they rolled into Detroit, to the Fair Grounds, situated on 135 acres between 7½ and 8 Mile Roads, east of Woodward Avenue. It was the site of the oldest continuous state fair in the nation, and also a very popular race track. Even though the nation was in the grips of the Depression, with Detroit suffering as much as any city, fans came to the Fair Grounds and emptied their precious last few dollars from their pockets to place bets on their favorite horses.
With a horse that Smith called “the most incredible animal I’d ever seen,” Howard had a beast that both he and his trainer were sure could be a winner. Now they needed someone to ride him. Fate would arrive in the form of a desperate, homeless young man with more than a decade of bad luck under his belt. The only reason Johnny “Red” Pollard was in Detroit was because of a car accident. Pollard’s companion rolled his vehicle, barely escaping with his life. Without a way to get out of town and with just 20 cents in his pocket, Red hitchiked to the Fair Grounds. Upon meeting Smith and Howard and the unruly Seabiscuit (the horse was famous for being fussy), Pollard soothed his new equine friend with a sugar cube. From then on, Seabiscuit and Pollard were pals. Pollard was also Smith’s jockey.
Later that day, on August 22, 1936, history was made when Pollard rode Seabiscuit for the first time in a race at the Detroit Fair Grounds. By all accounts, Seabiscuit was unimpressive. But with their jockey now in place, Howard kept his horse in Detroit for a few more weeks, entering him into the Governor’s Handicap, with a purse of nearly $6,000. Seabiscuit rose to the challenge, winning the race by three-and-a-half lengths with a grinning Pollard in saddle. A legend was born in Detroit.
A few weeks later, Seabiscuit tasted victory again, and in 1937, Smith and Pollard guided the four-year old to a string of wins that led to a “Horse of the Year” honor. It all started in Detroit, on a dusty track at the Fair Grounds out past 8 Mile Road, with a cast of misfits on a horse destined for greatness.