Story of Seabiscuit tells of racing at finest

May 17, 2001|By John Eisenberg

FORGET this year's Horse of the Year competition. It's over, no matter what happens in Saturday's Preakness or at racetracks across the country over the next seven months. The Horse of the Year for 2001 has been decided.

It's a horse who won't run this year - a horse who died in 1947, as a matter of fact, and hasn't run in more than 60 years.

Seabiscuit, the rags-to-riches winner of the most famous Pimlico Special of all, is the horse of 2001, ahead of the Kentucky Derby winner and any other equine star that might rise in the coming months.

How? Why? Because a fine, new book on Seabiscuit has accomplished what the leaders of the horse racing industry have sought to do for several decades with, at best, spotty success - push their sport beyond its narrow population boundaries and return it to the American mainstream.

Laura Hillenbrand's book, "Seabiscuit: An American Legend," topped the New York Times nonfiction bestseller list for seven straight weeks recently and was No. 2 this week, generating the kind of buzz and publicity that racing so desperately wants, needs and just doesn't get anymore.

Hillenbrand, a Washington-based author, was profiled on Tom Brokaw's "NBC Nightly News" last month as her book was rising on the charts. Now, according to Sports Illustrated, the movie rights have sold for more than $1 million, PBS has started working on a documentary, a toy company is contemplating a Seabiscuit action figure, and Hillenbrand has been asked to help with three documentaries and a stage version of the story.

It's a stunning windfall of the kind of crossover publicity and warm-hearted promotion racing is eternally searching for, but the sound you hear is the industry not quite knowing what to make of it.

Oh, it's obviously wonderful news in one sense, proving beyond any doubt that the public still has a generous appetite for racing - a claim many have doubted in light of several decades of falling television ratings and attendance, increased competition for the betting dollar and a general decline in the sport's importance.

True, Seabiscuit's saga isn't about racing so much as courage, heart, fate and triumph over adversity, over-the-top elements that would sell a book about vacuum cleaners, football, anything. So racing shouldn't get too carried away with projecting new fans. The sport provides Hillenbrand's framework and context, but the lure is the human drama and emotional narrative.

Still, if there's a lesson in the Seabiscuit phenomenon, it's that the public is always hungry for a good story well-told, and racing has plenty. The sport can take solace in that as it continually (and vainly) searches for a luminous, new star that could return it to the forefront of the nation's sporting consciousness, where it used to reside.

But, at the same time, there's a frightening possibility inherent in Seabiscuit's return to the headlines, a possibility that racing surely doesn't even want to consider - that the public really is hungry for racing as it used to be, not what it has become.

The sport was smaller, simpler and more romantic a half-century ago - also grittier and unvarnished. It bore little resemblance to a game that is still imbued with plenty of romance today, yet, like all sports, ever more corporate and driven by outlandish piles of money.

Incredibly, Seabiscuit made 58 starts in his first two years on the track, showing such little promise that he went unclaimed for a $6,000 tag early in his 3-year-old season. The ultimate late bloomer, he became a champion only after he was privately sold for the princely sum of $7,500 and began winning stakes at ages 4 and 5.

The pinnacle of his career occurred late in his 5-year-old campaign, when he defeated War Admiral in a match race at Pimlico in the second running of the Pimlico Special - an event that riveted a nation on the verge of war.

Of course, you can't compare much that happened then to what goes on in racing today. The idea of a horse making 58 starts by the end of his 3-year-old year is absurd. Twenty or 30 starts is the most any horse makes, and many top winners are retired long before that because of what they can command in the breeding shed.

In other words, a career such as Seabiscuit's could never unfold now. And we all know why. As much as racing has always run on a current of money, you can almost hear the cash registers singing when a horse wins today. It just makes the romance that much harder to find.

For years, the publishing industry steadfastly believed that the only horse books that would sell were books about how to win at the betting window. It has learned a lesson this year.

In the same vein, the leaders of the racing industry should heed the lesson of the Seabiscuit book as they continue on their search for incremental growth. Betting is the lifeblood of racing. Bettors keep the game going. No one argues that. But it's stories that lure fans, the stories of horses and people and triumphs and tragedies that make racing the spectacle it remains today.

You want more fans? More bang? More interest? Find those stories and get them told. If anything, we have learned that an appetite for them still exists.

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