It’s been called a rags to riches story, and an inspiration to millions. But how much of 2003’s Seabiscuit actually happened? Let’s find out!
- Seabiscuit (2003) – IMDb – Synposis
- The Story of Seabiscuit – Wikipedia
- Seabiscuit – Wikipedia
- SEABISCUIT – Documentary – YouTube
- Biography: Seabiscuit | American Experience | PBS
- Seabiscuit: An American Legend
- Seabiscuit True Story Behind the Movie – Real Red Pollard
- ESPN.com – Page2 – How real is the reel Seabiscuit?
- Seabiscuit: A True Rags-to-Riches Story
- Seabiscuit Race History
- Santa Anita suspends races after 21st horse dies
- Seabiscuit (2003) – IMDb – Cast
- GARY STEVENS : HALL OF FAME JOCKEY
- In the 1930s, San Francisco tycoon Charles Howard…
- Henry Ford: Model T – The Henry Ford
- Ford Model T
- Charles S. Howard – Wikipedia
- Tom Smith (horse trainer) – Wikipedia
- Charles S. Howard – Buick Salesman of the Century – PreWarBuick.com
- Charles Howard | American Experience | PBS
- Red Pollard | American Experience | PBS
- Seabiscuit vs. War Admiral – 1938 Match Race (Pimlico Special) – YouTube
- Seabiscuit vs War Admiral: the horse race that stopped the nation
Disclaimer: Dan LeFebvre and/or Based on a True Story may earn commissions from qualifying purchases through our links on this page.
Did you enjoy this episode? Help support the next one!
Note: This transcript is automatically generated. There will be mistakes, so please don’t use them for quotes. It is provided for reference use to find things better in the audio.
Our story today opens with some black and white photography of old cars. A narrator says they called it the car for every man. It was functional and simple. It was easy to use. You could learn how to drive it in less than a day. You could get it in any color you wanted—as long as you want black.
The narrator continues explaining that when Henry Ford first conceived of the Model T, it took 13 hours to assemble. But then, in just five years, they were turning out a new vehicle every 90 seconds.
According to the voiceover, the real invention here wasn’t really the car itself. It was the assembly line that built the car. The ability to take a process that used to take a long time and refine it to a point to where you could crank out results.
Only after this slideshow introduction do we get some text on screen to give us context: This is New York City in the year 1910.
The basic idea the movie is trying to get across here is true, but there’s more to the story.
For example, I know the movie never tries to imply the Ford assembly line started in 1910, but I could also see how that’d be the message communicated from this opening sequence.
The truth is that it was on October 1st, 1908 when the very first Ford Model T was produced. It definitely wasn’t the first car to ever be made, but most historians agree it was the very first car to be widely available.
In fact, the name Model T itself implies there were other cars before it. Ford’s first car was the Model A, then there was the Model B, and so on…most of them were prototypes and didn’t ever make it to production, but by the time they hit Model T they were onto something.
As a little side note, this can quickly get really confusing because Ford’s next big hit after the Model T was, in fact, the Model A—a car they produced starting in 1927. But that wasn’t the same Model A that was a prototype before the Model T.
Different models, same names.
A big reason for the success of the Model T was because of the price point. In 1908, a Model T cost only $850. Today, that’s about the same as $24,000. Sure, that’s a lot of money, but it’s still cheaper than a lot of cars are even today!
Days after the first Model T was released, some 15,000 or so orders were placed, making the Model T an instant hit. And it only grew from there.
Initially, the Model T was made the same way every other car was—manually.
Then, just like the movie says, in 1910, another major factor that went into the success of the Model T came to be. That was the assembly line. Although, again, this wasn’t something invented by Ford. In fact, it was Oldsmobile’s founder, Ransom Olds, who is generally credited with inventing the assembly line for his Oldsmoble Curved Dash car in 1901.
However, it was Henry Ford who built on that idea and transformed it into something revolutionary with the Model T. The year the movie gave was correct, too, in 1910. That’s when Ford moved the assembly plant for the Model T to a new facility in Highland Park, Michigan. That’s when something resembling what we think of as an assembly line really began to take off.
The movie mentions it used to take 13 hours to make a car, but then the assembly line changed that to see a new car being completed every 90 seconds.
While that’s true, it’s not really a good comparison.
I mean, it’s not like it took literally 90 seconds to assemble a car from scratch. It’s just that they had a lot being produced at once, so the end result was that there were a lot of them being cranked out.
Instead, a better comparison they should’ve made was to compare how long it took to make a car from scratch before and after the assembly line. And that would be anywhere from 12.5 to 13 hours to make a Model T in 1908. By the time the assembly line was put in place, new Model Ts were being created from start to finish in 93 minutes.
But that’s only part of the story. Because of the incredible time savings, the cost to produce the car dropped like crazy. While this obviously helped Ford earn more profits as a company, it also helped drop the price of the car.
Remember how we just learned the first Model T cars were affordably priced at $850 in 1908? By the time 1925 rolled around, you could buy a Model T for $300.
Today, that’d be the same as taking a $24,000 car and dropping the price to $8,500.
Same car. Much cheaper price. No wonder by the time the Model T was replaced with a newer model in 1927, the aforementioned Model A, almost half of the cars in the United States were Ford Model Ts.
Oh, and that little joke the narrator said about how you could get the car in any color you want as long as it’s black…that’s not something from the movie. That’s actually something Henry Ford told his team in 1909, “Any customer can have a car painted any color that he wants so long as it is black.”
Going back to the movie, it’s in New York City in the year 1910 when we’re introduced to Charles Howard. He’s played by Jeff Bridges, and we see him at first as he’s assembling spokes on wheels. Someone who we assume is his boss comes up and gives him a new pile of wheels that need spokes.
Charles jokes that they should make better spokes. His boss comes back quickly with, “Oh yeah? Then what would you do?” Without expecting an answer, his boss leaves Charles to wonder…what would I do?
After this, we’re introduced very briefly to Chris Cooper’s character, Tom Smith, out on the open range. He’s riding a horse and chasing more horses across beautiful green fields with a mountainous backdrop.
Both Charles Howard and Tom Smith were real people. This overall gist to this introduction is true, although there’s more to the story.
Since the movie introduces us to Charles first, let’s do the same here.
After he was discharged from the U.S. Army in 1903, Charles Howard worked for a short time as a bicycle mechanic in New York City just like we see in the movie. But he didn’t stay there long. At the age of 26, and according to his own recollections many years later, he arrived in San Francisco with a total of 21 cents to his name.
As for the other character we’re introduced to in the movie here, Tom Smith, it’s correct to show he was quite the opposite of Charles Howard. And, quite honestly, it’s because of that reason we don’t know nearly as much about Tom’s early days as we do about Charles. We know Tom grew up in the countryside of Georgia. He was quiet.
And, of course, he loved horses. For a while he worked training horses for the Croatian Calvary.
Going back in the movie now, we’re not in New York anymore…we’re in San Francisco as we see Charles standing in front of a shop. The sign says, “C. S. Howard’s Bicycles,” so we can assume this is his shop. There’s another sign out front that says, “Now open for business!”
Apparently, he’s moved from New York City to San Francisco to open his own shop.
But things don’t seem to be going well. There are a few cuts that show time passing throughout the day, and passersby—although friendly—don’t seem interested in Charles’s bicycles. After falling asleep out of boredom, Charles awakes to a steaming engine. It’s a car with the word, “Stanley” written in script on the front and steam bellowing out of its engine.
The driver gets out and tells Charles that it’s a Stanley Steamer and the boiler blew. Can you fix it? After looking at it in a way that’s clear he’s never seen a car before, Charles turns to the driver with confidence, “Sure, I can fix it!”
Later, after some time looking at a pile of pieces he’s torn out of the car, he apparently has fixed it. Not only that, but he’s improved on it! He tells the driver the next day that he should be able to expect speeds of up to 40 MPH now. The driver looks amazed, “Really!?”
Then the camera cuts to Charles in another situation saying the same thing, “You should be able to get speeds of up to 40 or 50 MPH now!” Except he’s not wearing the apron he had on before. Now he’s in a clean suit talking to another man who also appears to be well-off.
As Charles convinces the potential car buyer that cars are better than horses, in the background of the shop, we can see a sign that says, “Howard Buick.”
The basic gist of this is true. Even though Charles worked in a bicycle shop in San Francisco, he didn’t stay there for long, though. Just like the movie shows, he managed to save up enough to open his own bike shop. But then, Charles soon realized automobiles were the next big thing.
In 1905, he traveled to Detroit where he met with William Durant, who had taken over control of Buick the previous year. At that time, Buick was in hot water and not doing well as a company. Durant was trying to rectify that. One of the ways he did that was by looking for people to distribute the cars.
And you guessed it, Charles Howard was one of those people. When Charles returned to San Francisco after his visit to Detroit, he had the rights to distribute Buicks in California. So, in a nutshell, that’s how Charles earned his fortune.
Although the movie never mentions it, Charles Howard really started to earn big bucks the year after he returned to San Francisco. And realistically it had nothing to do with his repairing cars like the movie makes it seem. That was in 1906 and if you remember what happened in San Francisco in 1906, you already know where this is going.
At about 5:12 AM on Wednesday, April 18th, San Francisco woke up with a jolt. The 7.9 earthquake took the lives of somewhere between 700 to 3,000 people.
In the midst of the chaos, the horses that would normally help with rescue operations were either hurt themselves or too frightened to be helpful. As it turned out, Charles Howard’s Buicks were some of the only working vehicles around. Charles Howard’s automobiles became the first cars to be ambulances in the city. It proved to be the kick-start Charles needed, and the success continued to roll from there.
Going back to the movie, we’re introduced to another character next. It’s a young Johnny “Red” Pollard, who is played by Michael Angarano.
We see Red as a teenager in a fairly wealthy family—after all his father, who is played by Michael O’Neill, is thinking about buying the 16-year-old Red a horse. His mother, played by Annie Corley, thinks young Red should earn the horse.
At least, I think it looks like they were a wealthy family. I saw some reviews of the movie that mentioned how Red grew up in a middle-class family.
But in either case, we know from history that John “Red” Pollard really did grow up in a wealthy family. Born in 1909 in Edmonton, Canada, the very early years for Red were lacking for nothing.
This was in large part to his father and uncle’s brickyard that they founded at the turn of the century.
Then comes the crash. In the movie, we see it hit at as newspaper headline from the San Francisco Chronicle with big, bold text taking up half of the top fold reading, “Crash!”
If you pause the movie here, you can see the subtitle saying, “Market collapses in 6,410,030 Share Day Tel. & Tel. and Steel Among Heaviest Losers.”
Or was that number 16,410,030? We can’t really tell in the movie because the newspapers are bundled together with string that blocks the number.
In the voiceover that happens next, we hear the date of October 29th. However, we don’t hear what year it was. And interestingly, the movie got that date wrong by five days.
It was on October 24th, 1929 that the stock market started to crash. Although maybe we can give the movie a little leeway because after “Black Thursday” as it was called, the stock continued to collapse until the date the movie says, October 29th.
That’s when the collapse on Wall Street carried over to the New York Stock Exchange and ushered in what we now know as the Great Depression.
According to the movie, Red Pollard’s family was one of the millions of families across America that was affected by the stock market crash. But Red puts his knowledge of horses to work, earning a little money by helping someone named Mr. Blodget at a local race track.
The movie never shows the rest of his family, the children around the table we saw just a little earlier, but Mr. and Mrs. Pollard are at the track with Red.
As Red is watching the horses run around the track, he turns around to see his mother crying.
Red’s father hands him a bag.
“Everything,” his father replies. “It’s Dickenson, Wadsworth, even your Milne. Mr. Blodget here has a real house. His wife cooks. Don’t worry, we’ll call you every couple of weeks!”
With tears flowing, Mr. Pollard tells Red that he has a gift…don’t worry about us. Go with him.
After this, text on screen tells us it’s six years later and Red Pollard is now played by Tobey Maguire.
That’s not really how it happened at all.
Let’s start with the Pollard’s family financial collapse. It wasn’t the Great Depression that brought Red’s family to poverty. Sadly, that happened years before.
It was in June of 1915 when Edmonton had one of their worst floods in history. The Pollard’s brickyard was destroyed in the flood, and with it the family’s livelihood. That’s what cast the Pollard family into poverty.
Although…it’s not like the Great Depression helped. Like millions of others, the depression touched every corner of the globe.
As for the way the movie shows Red’s father and mother suddenly giving him away to someone named Mr. Blodget to live, that’s not how that happened either.
As far as I can tell, Mr. Blodget is a fictional character to depict something that did happen…but not in the way the movie shows. You see, they didn’t just hand him over. Instead, the Pollards sent a guardian to watch over Red while he went on a tour of race tracks and tried to make a start as a jockey.
But, in the end, it was the guardian who left Red out of the blue and suddenly left him alone to fend for himself. He was only 15 years old when that happened.
Honestly, we don’t know for sure if Red could’ve found his way home at this point. What we do know is that he didn’t.
The next major plot point to happen in the movie takes place when we see Charles Howard’s son, Frankie. He’s played by Dyllan Christopher in the movie, and he looks to be no more than 14 or 15 years old. The movie never says how old he is, but he’s very young.
Still, there’s a moment where Charles tells Frankie he’ll teach him how to drive the truck.
Frankie tells his dad he already did that. As Charles goes off for some work meeting in town, the camera follows Frankie as he puts a toolbox in the truck and starts to drive away. He can barely see over the steering wheel and has to look down every time he shifts gears, but for the most part he’s driving pretty well. Not great—the tires veer off the side of the road a bit—but it’s a dirt road with grass shoulders, so it’s not too bad.
But then, we can see trouble coming as the camera gives a bit of an overhead view and shows another truck coming Frankie’s way.
We don’t see what happens, but the camera cuts to Charles at his dealership. The phone rings. He picks it up. Then the camera cuts to the wreck. Frankie’s truck is on its side, smoke still pouring out from underneath. The glass is broken, and Cracker Jacks are floating in the water by the truck.
Charles races to the scene of the accident and in the next shot we see him holding his son’s body, crying. Soon after their son’s death, we see a shot of Charles’s wife, Annie, getting in a car and driving away. The implication here is that she’s leaving Charles—something that’s sadly common as two grieving parents struggle with trying to deal with the loss of a child.
Annie is played by Valerie Mahaffey in the film.
Sadly, much of this is true. But it didn’t happen like we see in the movie.
Oh, and Annie wasn’t Charles’s wife’s real name. It was Fannie May.
Probably the biggest difference here is that the movie makes it seem like Charles’s son is his only child. In truth, Charles Howard had four children.
That doesn’t make losing a child any easier, though.
It was in early May of 1926 when Charles and his wife, Fannie May, were out for business for the weekend. Back home, their 15-year-old son, Frankie, decided to go fishing with a couple of his friends. To do that, he borrowed one of his dad’s old trucks.
The three must’ve had a fun time. The crash happened when they were on their way back. It wasn’t because of another truck, but instead Frankie swerved to miss a big rock in the road.
He lost control of the truck and it fell into the canyon below. Frankie’s friends were thrown from the truck. Frankie, however, was stuck underneath the truck. The two boys ran as fast as they could to get help.
The nearest physician wasn’t very near at all, and by the time he got there Frankie was already gone.
Just like the movie shows, Charles was understandably devastated. Who wouldn’t be? After months of seclusion, it was in Frankie’s honor that the next year, 1927, Charles decided to spend $30,000 to build a new hospital in nearby Willits, California.
That’s about the same as $440,000 today. And speaking of today, while Charles built the hospital with the name Frank R. Howard Memorial Hospital, today you can find it with the name Adventist Health Howard Memorial Hospital.
Even though Frankie may not have been saved in time, hopefully with a new state-of-the-art hospital nearby, any other tragedies may be avoided. And leading the new hospital was none other than the town physician who tried to revive Frankie at the scene of the accident.
Back in the movie, we see life as a jockey isn’t paying well enough, so Red is trying to earn a living in underground boxing matches. That doesn’t go so well, either, as the only match we see happening finds Red getting his right eye badly injured.
After this, there’s some text on screen to let us know we’re in Tijuana, Mexico in the year 1933. Because of prohibition in the United States, Red has gone to Mexico to drown his sorrows in booze and women.
But liquor isn’t the only thing made illegal. According to the movie, gambling has been outlawed, too, and, “the border town”, as the movie calls Tijuana, was born to provide everything to the south that their neighbor in the north wouldn’t.
We see lots of people, presumably Americans from the way the voiceover makes it sound, drinking and finding companionship—as the movie calls it. We also see Jeff Bridge’s version of Charles Howard in the stands of a horse race. The movie calls this the chance to turn bad luck into good, and it’d seem that’s exactly what Charles is trying to do.
The whole premise here sets up that despite having completely different backgrounds, most of the main characters in our story today wind up in Mexico in 1933. Red Pollard is there as a jockey to race and, well, probably a fair amount of the booze and women we mentioned earlier.
Charles Howard was there to bet on those races to see if he could change his luck.
Tom Smith was there because where there’s horse racing, there’s a need for someone who knows how to take care of those horses.
And even though we hadn’t seen him up until this point, two new characters enters the scene here. One is another jockey by the name of George Woolf, who seems to be a good friend to Red. The other is Marcela Zabala. She’s played by Elizabeth Banks.
Oh, and as a fun bit of trivia, the actor playing George Woolf in the movie is Gary Stevens, who is not your traditional Hollywood actor. Gary Stevens is a Hall of Fame jockey who earned 5,187 career victories, including nine Triple Crown race wins. When the movie was being made, Gary was still riding, although at the end of 2018, Gary announced his retirement.
The movie showing Red Pollard getting into boxing is correct, although the specific fight we see in the movie was made up just to get the point across.
The movie’s mention of Marcela Zabala is correct. What the movie doesn’t mention, though, is that technically Charles was still married when he met Marcela.
But it was, like the movie shows, because of prohibition that Charles started going to Tijuana to the horse races there. Although, maybe that’s not the right way to phrase that. Maybe it wasn’t just prohibition. Surely there was plenty of other things on Charles’s mind that sent him looking for distractions.
The loss of his son weighed heavily on him. Many historians suggest that Charles never truly recovered from that. The dissolution of the marriage with Fannie May probably didn’t help. They weren’t officially divorced yet, but the marriage was strained to say the least.
Something the movie doesn’t mention, though, is that Marcela was a family friend. In fact, she was the older sister of one of Charles’s son’s wives.
As we learned earlier, Frankie wasn’t Charles’s only child. And because the movie implied he was, that’s probably why they had to change how Charles and Marcela meet.
The truth is that one of Charles’s sons, Lindsay, was married to Marcela’s younger sister, Anita. If love at first sight is real, that’s what Charles and Marcela had. Of course, Charles was still married at the time. And there was the age difference that some people might not like—Charles was 52 while she was 25.
Soon after meeting for the first time, Anita had a child and Marcela moved in with Lindsay and Anita to help with the baby. As a byproduct of this, Charles and Marcela got to see each other more often and before long Charles’s marriage with Fannie May ended and, in the fall of 1932, Charles and Marcela were married.
Going back to the movie now, thanks to some urging from Marcela, Charles has gotten some enjoyment from riding horses again. So, he’s in the market to buy a horse…maybe a few…to race them. As they’re looking at horses, and on the lookout for a trainer to train whatever horse they pick, Charles sees Tom out in the distance.
In response to Charles asking who that is, Charles Strub—he’s played by Ed Lauter in the movie—tells Charles that’s just a crackpot. He used to be a trainer, but now he just takes care of that one horse. It’s a beautiful white horse we saw Tom rescue from being put down because of having a broken foot earlier in the movie.
Later, Charles meets up with Tom out in the bush where Tom is camping out. Tom explains to Charles that the horse won’t be able to race again, but you don’t throw a whole life away just because he’s banged up a little.
In the next scene the movie tells us we’re in Saratoga, New York and it’s three months later. Charles and Marcela are there with Tom. It’d appear Charles hired Tom to be his trainer.
Even though the details of movies are always going to be fictionalized, the way the movie introduces Tom Smith to Charles Howard is…well, not how it happened.
In truth, it was a little more a bit of luck. Who you know, that sort of thing.
The movie doesn’t give us a year for this, but we know this happened in 1934.
You see, around that time, Tom Smith was a horse trainer struggling to keep a job. He was broke. The horse stalls he worked out of also served as his home. And to top it off, he shared the stall with another down-on-his-luck trainer.
Despite this, though, Tom knew horses. And one of the horses he was taking care of at the time just happened to be owned by a good friend of Charles Howard.
So, it was that man, named George Giannini, who mentioned Tom Smith to Charles Howard. He knew Charles was looking for a trainer, and he thought he might have just the guy for the job.
As soon as they met, Charles knew George was right. Tom was the guy for the job. The movie doesn’t mention this, and we haven’t yet either, but during his time in the U.S. Army, Charles trained at Alabama’s Camp Wheeler to join the cavalry. His health never allowed him to reach that goal, but he knew a good horseman when he saw one—and that’s what Tom Smith was.
After this, when we hop back to the movie, we meet the hero of our story today: Seabiscuit.
The narrator tells us that the first time he saw Seabiscuit, the colt was walking through the fog at 5:00 in the morning. The “he” in this instance being Tom, who we see watching a jockey leading Seabiscuit along the track through the fog.
According to the movie, Seabiscuit was a small horse at barely 15 hands. Not only that, but he was limping. There was a wheeze in his breath. Seabiscuit was hurting, but that didn’t matter to Tom. He could help with that.
The narrator goes on to tell us that Seabiscuit was the son of two horses named Hard Tack and Man o’ War.
While that’s true, probably the biggest difference here is something the movie doesn’t show. By that, what I mean is that the movie seems to imply that Seabiscuit was the first horse Charles bought. It implies Tom was only training Seabiscuit.
That’s not true.
In fact, Charles Howard had a lot of horses. Some of them were winners. Some weren’t.
But Charles wanted Tom to find him a new winner. Sure, he had the money to go out and buy any horse he wanted. But he didn’t want to do that.
He wanted Tom to find a horse that was overlooked. Find a cheap horse that Tom could turn into a winner.
The movie mentions that Tom first saw Seabiscuit at about 5:00 AM. It’s a foggy morning in the movie. However, according to Lauren Hillenbrand’s great book that the movie is based on, Tom first saw Seabiscuit in Boston on a sizzling hot afternoon in June of 1936.
But the movie got Seabiscuit’s parents correct. Hard Tack was his sire, making one of the greatest racehorses of all time, Man o’ War, his grandsire.
Oh, and if you’re not familiar with that terminology, basically that means Man o’ War’s son was Hard Tack and Hard Tack was Seabiscuit’s father.
Heading back to the movie’s timeline now, the next major plot point happens when Charles buys Seabiscuit for, as the movie describes it, “the rock bottom price of $2,000.”
Today, that’s about the same as $37,000.
The key reason for his cheap price, as the movie explains it, is because Seabiscuit has done nothing but lose in races. And as he’s aged, he’s no longer the horse that used to love sleeping for the entire day—now he’s cranky and mean-spirited. He’s tough to handle and, basically, not a horse anyone wants.
But, according to the movie, Tom Smith likes what he sees in Seabiscuit. He likes that spirit. So, Charles purchases Seabiscuit.
The basic gist here is true, but there’s more to the story. For one, Charles Howard didn’t buy Seabiscuit for $2,000. He paid $8,000 for the horse.
That’s about the same as $146,000 today. That sounds like a lot of money…and it is. But for a bit of comparison, in 1939 there was an offer to sell Seabiscuit’s grandsire, Man o’ War, for a whopping $1 million. I say “offer” because his owner turned the offer down.
$1 million in 1939 is the same as about $18.3 million today.
Although the movie doesn’t mention that Charles put a stipulation on the purchase. It was simply that Seabiscuit do well in his next race. And, he did.
Sure, it wasn’t a pretty win…Seabiscuit fell way behind before coming back to get the victory. But a win’s a win. The deal went through in August of 1936, and Charles Howard was now the owner of Seabiscuit.
Next step was finding a jockey for his new horse.
There’s one moment in the movie where we see Seabiscuit throwing a fit, three men trying to hold him down, while a little ways away there’s Red Pollard fighting off a few other men on his own. Between them, we hear the music change and we can tell—Tom Smith has an idea.
Red is spirited. Seabiscuit is spirited. Maybe there’s something here.
Although it is true that Seabiscuit was a very temperamental horse, and even though Tom Smith was the one to discover Red Pollard, it didn’t happen how the movie shows.
It also didn’t happen where the movie shows it happening.
It was in Detroit in August of 1936. If you recall, that’s soon after Charles Howard bought Seabiscuit and Tom began the search for a jockey. Well, as fate would have it, that’s when Red Pollard was in a car accident.
For Red, it had to feel like just another kick while you’re down. At this time, Red was broke and homeless. Little did he know at the time, but that car accident would change his fortune.
You see, after the accident he and his agent—who was with him in the car at the time—were forced to hitchhike back to civilization. They made their way to the Detroit Fair Grounds. That’s where they ran into Tom Smith.
We don’t really know what those initial conversations were actually like, but since Tom was looking for a jockey, he decided to see how Seabiscuit would react to this one that stumbled into his lap.
In the movie, the first time Red Pollard meets Seabiscuit he offers the horse half of an apple. In truth, it was a sugar cube that Red offered to the temperamental horse. Seabiscuit responded by touching Red’s shoulder.
It was one of the first signs of affection Seabiscuit had shown, and Tom took it as a sign.
Oh, and as a quick side note, when Tobey Maguire’s version of Red Pollard is first introduced to Charles and Marcela in the movie, Chris Cooper’s version of Tom Smith introduces the two as Mr. and Mrs. Howard. That’s the first time the movie mentions the two being married.
But, we already learned about that earlier.
Heading back to the movie’s timeline now, it’s time for Seabiscuit to enter the track. It’s not a race, but Tom tells Red turn him loose—we need to see what he’s got.
At first, Seabiscuit doesn’t seem to be going very fast. He’s galloping but, well, as Tom put it he looks like he’s asleep. But then something changes. There’s another horse on the track and as soon as Seabiscuit sees the other horse, he picks it up.
This little detail is true. One of Seabiscuit’s most popular traits was that if he got a lead in a race, he’d often fall behind a bit to let them catch up. Then, he’d bolt forward to finish the race.
Of course, there’s no way we’ll know for sure exactly what Seabiscuit was thinking or why he preferred to race this way, but it made for quite a bit of personality in the race.
Going back to the movie, the next major plot point is Seabiscuit’s first race with the Howard team. We see text on screen telling us it’s at the Santa Anita Race Track in Arcadia, California.
And based on what we hear radio host Tick Tock McGlaughlin say—who is played by William H. Macy in the movie—Seabiscuit comes in with 70:1 odds to win. He’s a longshot.
And, according to the movie, even though Seabiscuit has the lead for part of the race, it was premature. Red’s anger got the better of him, urging Seabiscuit to the front too soon. In the end, Seabiscuit doesn’t win. We hear the track commentator announce that the winner was a horse named Silver Treasure.
That’s not really how it happened.
The movie never really mentions if this is truly Seabiscuit’s first race with Red Pollard or if it’s just the first one we’re seeing in the movie. Regardless of which it is, though, I’ve got a link to a list of Seabiscuit’s racing history in the show notes for this episode, and I couldn’t find a horse named Silver Treasure anywhere.
Although it is true that Seabiscuit didn’t win his first race after Charles bought him. That race took place on August 22nd, 1936 in Detroit. Seabiscuit tired and didn’t place in the top three.
Oh, and in the movie, we get introduced to William H. Macy’s character of Tick Tock McLaughlin around here. That’s a completely fictional character made up for the film. With that said, though, even though the character of Tick Tock is fictional, personally I think he adds a lot of fun to the story. It’s great to see him doing sound effects live on air.
Back in the movie, after a disappointing first race, Red and Seabiscuit take first place in the next race we see them in. We don’t see any sort of timing for this, of course, so we don’t know for sure if it was the next race or just the next race we see in the movie.
After the race, Charles talks to the press and makes the analogy of how Seabiscuit, or just the Biscuit, may be a little horse but he doesn’t know he’s little—he thinks he’s the biggest horse out there. And sometimes, when you’re the little guy you can do big things.
It’s an analogy that the movie ties very heavily into millions of Americans who, at that moment, were feeling like the little guy themselves. After the market crash, getting back on your feet was easier said than done, but Seabiscuit was helping to provide inspiration.
It is true that Seabiscuit was often shortened to just “the Biscuit.” And we know from history that his first win for Charles Howard, Tom Smith and Red Pollard came on September 7th, 1936 in Detroit.
That was his third race after being bought by Charles Howard.
Going back to the movie, there’s a montage of races where we see the Biscuit make it to the winner’s circle. San Onofre Handicap. San Miguel Handicap. San Rafael Handicap.
Then, William H. Macy’s character tells us that makes six straight wins for Seabiscuit.
And this streak really did happen. The first winning streak for Seabiscuit after being bought by Charles started on November 28th, 1936. It lasted for three races, and stopped on February 20th, 1937 when Rosemont won. Then, Rosemont won yet again a week later on the 27th.
It was after this that Seabiscuit started his streak. Seven straight wins from March 6th, 1937 until August 7th of the same year. And while the movie doesn’t mention it, even though Seabiscuit’s streak was broken on September 11th by a third place finish, Seabiscuit rebounded in his next race and had another three-race streak lasting from October 12th to November 5th.
Needless to say, Seabiscuit was hot. He won 11 of his 15 races in 1937, making him the leading money winner in the U.S. for race horses that year.
Going back to the movie, winning races is one thing. But who are they against? Seabiscuit needs the chance for him to prove he’s a great horse. This is according to Tom in the movie, and he hands Charles a newspaper with a headline that reads, “War Admiral Stands Alone” and a subtitle that says, “Triple Crown Winner Has No Weakness.”
The movie says War Admiral is 18 hands—massive compared to Seabiscuit’s 15. We see Charles Howard go on Tick Tock McGlaughlin’s show challenging Mr. Samuel Riddle—that’s War Admiral’s owner—to a race.
He says it’s time for Seabiscuit, the best racehorse in the west, to be pitted against War Admiral, the greatest racehorse in the east. But, according to the movie, Mr. Riddle isn’t interested.
As he tells the media, War Admiral has won every major race in the country. If they raced every fledgling challenger who just wants to make a name for themselves, it wouldn’t be fair to us.
The basic idea of this is true. Even though Seabiscuit was the leading money winner in 1937, War Admiral won the Triple Crown that season. His record in 1937 was winning eight of the eight races he was in, and in doing so was voted the American Horse of the Year Award.
So, it’d be natural for these two contenders to be rivals.
However, just like the movie shows, War Admiral’s owner, didn’t consider Seabiscuit to be on the same level as his horse. The movie gets his name right, Samuel Riddle, but what the movie doesn’t mention is that Riddle was also the owner of Man o’ War.
War Admiral was Man o’ War’s sire. If that name sounds familiar, it’s because Man o’ War was also the grandsire to Seabiscuit.
I couldn’t find anything to show if that was a reason for Riddle’s refusing to race against Seabiscuit at first, but it wouldn’t surprise me. After all, Seabiscuit was rejected as a racehorse early on.
It’s worth pointing out that if we’re looking at the official version of the story, the movie might’ve played up Samuel Riddle trying to duck the races with Seabiscuit quite a bit. Officially, War Admiral scratched from races because of muddy tracks or for health reasons.
But, unofficially, there’s a lot of people who believe the movie was a pretty accurate on that front.
Sure, Seabiscuit could cement his place in history by beating War Admiral…but what could a great horse like War Admiral have to prove against Seabiscuit? It’s the sort of logic that makes sense.
Going back to the movie, Charles convinces the track owner Charles Strub to host a race with a $100,000 purse. Charles offers to put up the money himself, knowing it’ll attract some of the greatest racehorses from the east.
Winning a race like that will force War Admiral’s owner to take Seabiscuit seriously. Except even with a purse of $100,000, War Admiral’s owner turns down the offer.
Disappointed but undeterred, Charles decides to continue with the race anyway. There will be some great horses there and at some point War Admiral will have to face him.
According to the movie, the race includes some other great horses. We hear names mentioned like Special Agent, Indian Broom and the one to worry about, Rosemont.
When we see the race, Seabiscuit makes a slow gain through the pack. Slowly but surely, he passes one and then another. As they come around the final turn toward the end, Seabiscuit is in the lead.
Then, with the end just in sight—Rosemont comes on hard at the end. The movie snaps a still photo that shows Seabiscuit falling just short by a nose at the finish line.
The text on the image says February 27th, 193…the last number is cut off.
We know from history this race took place on February 27th, 1937. And it was, just like the movie shows, at the Santa Anita Handicap.
However, in my research, I couldn’t find anything to suggest Charles Howard put up $100,000 for this race. That’s just what the purse was.
Earlier, we also learned that Seabiscuit lost to Rosemont not once but twice. And as we learned earlier, those two races were in-between Seabiscuit’s first streak, a three-race winning streak, and the massive seven-race streak that the movie shows earlier. So, the timeline in the film is a little off here.
After the loss to Rosemont at Santa Anita in the movie, Tom is upset at Red. He tells Red that he warned him about Rosemont coming up at the end. That’s exactly what happened.
“How could you not see that?” Tom yells.
Red replies, “I can’t see out there!”
This is when a new bit of information is unveiled: Red is blind in one eye. Tom is more than upset. But Charles calms him down, repeating the exact line Tom mentioned earlier in the movie about a horse he was mending: “You don’t throw away a whole life just because it’s banged up a little bit.”
This is sort of true. I mean, I don’t know if Tom yelled at Red like we see in the movie, but it is true that Red Pollard was blind in his right eye.
The movie seems to heavily imply this happened when he was boxing earlier in his career, but in truth it was the result of getting hit in the head by something being kicked up by another horse while Red was a youngster. It rendered his right eye permanently blind.
But it was a secret Red kept throughout his whole career. Was this why Seabiscuit lost to Rosemont? Because Red couldn’t see him coming? Maybe.
As far as my research indicated, though, Red Pollard kept the secret of his being blind in his right eye throughout his entire career. I couldn’t find anything to suggest Charles or Tom found out about it here like we see in the movie.
Going back to the movie, Charles Howard decides to take the race to War Admiral. Red Pollard will stay the jockey. He’ll also enter any race where War Admiral is on the card. If War Admiral scratches, or leaves from the race, due to Seabiscuit being added to the race, they’ll do the same for the next one and the next one.
Everyone loses a couple. You either pack up and go home or you keep fighting. We’re going to keep fighting.
They’ll keep at it until Seabiscuit can face off against War Admiral. Charles takes the loss against Rosemont as a great PR opportunity to strengthen the nation of fans behind Seabiscuit.
We see a montage of cities: A newspaper boy holding the San Francisco Chronicle. Albuquerque, Kansas City, St. Louis, Chicago…all the while, Charles keeps the PR going strong. He mentions the things everyone talks about their team: Seabiscuit is too small of a racehorse. Red is too big for a jockey. Tom is too old for a trainer.
And for himself, Charles says he’s too dumb to know the difference. So what are they afraid of?
While this sort of PR coming from Charles Howard that we see in the movie wasn’t exactly what happened, the basic idea of his ramping up the pressure on Samuel Riddle to pit War Admiral against Seabiscuit did happen.
Except it happened by bringing in another person that we don’t see in the movie. That’d be a man named Herbert Swope. He was the chairman of the New York Racing Commission. Charles figured if he could get Herbert on his side, Herbert could convince Samuel to pit the two horses against each other.
At first, Herbert Swope pitched the idea of Seabiscuit joining a race with a full field of horses at Belmont Park. That’s not really what Charles wanted, but they started working on the plans for it.
A little while later, Herbert reached out to Charles to let him know that he’d managed to convince the chief at Belmont Park to host a race that saw Seabiscuit racing against War Admiral along with a full field of other horses.
The purse for the race was set at $50,000.
At this point, Charles Howard replied to the race by setting some stipulations to it. The date had to change. Both Seabiscuit and War Admiral had to carry a jockey of the same weight. And he wanted the purse to be set at $100,000.
All these things were strategies Charles had to try and lure War Admiral to the race. For example, Samuel Riddle was trying to break a record for money earned in a season—the $100,000 purse would help with that. Not only that, but even if War Admiral did lose, he knew Samuel could use the excuse of not being the one to set the terms of the race. Charles gave him an out. There was no reason to refuse.
What’s more, because Herbert Swope had already talked to the chief at Belmont Park and started the gears turning on a match between Seabiscuit and War Admiral…to refuse all this now would hurt the prestigious track’s reputation.
According to the movie, the taunting of War Admiral’s owner, Mr. Riddle, seems to have paid off. A match race is set.
And this is true. After all the pressure put on by Charles Howard, what was once going to be a full field race turned into a match race. It wasn’t an official match race, but it was just a good old fashion head-to-head. Two horses racing to see which comes out on top.
One requirement from the governing body at Belmont Park for this unofficial head-to-head was that the $100,000 purse was removed. There would be no money involved at all.
Then, according to the movie, two weeks before Seabiscuit and War Admiral are to race, Tom Smith decides they need to retrain Seabiscuit. They need to train him to break first. That’s not usually what he does, but Tom is afraid if War Admiral breaks first that Seabiscuit will never be able to catch up to him.
So, they set about with the retraining. In the movie we see this happening when they buy a bell and start teaching Seabiscuit to break at the sound of a bell.
This retraining just for the race with War Admiral is true. Seabiscuit’s team was worried that if War Admiral got off to a great start, he wouldn’t be able to catch up. And War Admiral was known for getting off to great starts.
So, just like we see in the movie, Tom Smith secretly trained Seabiscuit to break at the starting bell. It was a new tactic that they hoped would be enough to keep Seabiscuit in the race early on, giving him the edge he’d need to pull his trademark bolt at the end.
Going back to the movie, as they’re retraining for Seabiscuit, a familiar face shows up at the stables. It’s Mr. Blodget. If you recall, he was the man who took Red in and gave him a job as a groomer.
Now it’s Mr. Blodget who wants a favor. He asks Red to breeze his horse. It’s not a full race, but he just wants people to see the horse with Red Pollard riding on top. Now that Red is famous for being Seabiscuit’s jockey, Mr. Blodget hopes that’ll be enough to get people interested in his own horse.
Red is happy to oblige. But then tragedy strikes. As they’re riding by, a couple guys are trying to start a tractor. The tractor backfires and scares the horse. It throws Red, and then proceeds to run for quite a ways. All the while, Red’s foot is caught in the stirrup and he’s being dragged behind the horse up until he’s thrown into a wall.
The end result here, according to the movie, is that Red’s leg is shattered. After the doctors do surgery, one of the docs tells Charles in the waiting room that it’s good news—Red will be able to walk again. Charles asks if he can ride. The doctor says no, he can’t ride. But he will be able to walk.
Of course, this means there’s no way Red can ride Seabiscuit in the upcoming race against War Admiral now.
This is sort of true, but the way the movie depicts it happening isn’t true at all. By that, what I mean is that it is true Red Pollard suffered a horrible injury before the race between Seabiscuit and War Admiral.
But, if you remember from earlier, we learned that Red’s mother and father didn’t leave him like we saw in the beginning of the movie. In fact, Mr. Blodget is a fictional character and so, that’d mean his involvement here couldn’t have happened.
Red’s injury also didn’t happen just days before the big race like the movie shows. It happened months before. The way it happened wasn’t like what the movie shows, either.
What really happened was that Red Pollard got suspended for an incident on the track at the end of 1937. The suspension ended in February, and Red was ready to race again.
But Tom decided to scratch Seabiscuit from the first race back from Red’s suspension because it had been raining really hard. That made the track super muddy, and Seabiscuit wasn’t very good on a muddy track.
There was another horse, though, named Fair Knightess, that was better on a muddy track. Red decided to race her. During the race, there was a collision that caused Fair Knightess to come crashing down on top of Red.
In the movie, Red’s injuries are mostly in his leg. In truth, Red’s chest was crushed in the accident. He had broken ribs, a shattered collarbone and shoulder, and nearly died.
As for Fair Knightess, initially they were afraid she had a broken back. Fortunately, she didn’t, and was able to make a recovery after months of rehab and close care by Tom Smith.
As we learned a moment ago, that was months before the race between War Admiral and Seabiscuit. That was in February of 1938, and the race between those two horses would end up being slated for November 1st, 1938.
It is true, though, that one of Red’s friends, George Woolf, took over as jockey for Seabiscuit. Although, there were a couple races that saw a couple other jockeys on Seabiscuit. But, for the most part it was George who replaced Red while he healed. And the movie’s also correct in showing that Red gave George advice on how to ride the Biscuit.
Going back in the movie, it’s time for the big race. The text on screen says it’s November 1st, 1938. We already learned that date is correct.
According to the narrator, Seabiscuit entered the race as a 2:1 underdog. It was a packed house and over 40 million Americans would hear the call of the race between these two magnificent horses.
And that’s all there is. This is a match race. Seabiscuit vs. War Admiral. No one else is on the track.
The flag goes up. The bell rings.
And the movie cuts to black and white photos of people listening to the radio. We hear audio from the radio call of the race…if you want to see some footage from that race, I’ll include a link to that on the page for this episode over at basedonatruestorypodcast.com.
According to what we see in the movie, Seabiscuit takes the lead at first. Then War Admiral catches up around the back stretch—which, as movie watchers, we already know is exactly what George Woolf wants.
The movie goes to slow motion to show the two great horses side by side. They stay that way for a while.
Then, George turns to War Admiral’s jockey and smiles.
“So long, Charlie!”
Like a bolt, Seabiscuit is off. It worked! He did it! Seabiscuit has won the race! It’s not even close!
And that is true. I don’t know if George really talked to War Admiral’s jockey like that, but the movie does a pretty good job of showcasing this race. Just like the movie shows, Red Pollard had suggested to George Woolf to ease up a bit. That’d give Seabiscuit the chance to see War Admiral…then, give it all you got!
War Admiral’s massive size saw him towering a full foot, or over 30 centimeters, over the smaller Seabiscuit, but that didn’t scare him. A couple hundred yards from the finish line, Seabiscuit pulled away from War Admiral. He won the race by four lengths and set a new record in the process.
Seabiscuit was given the American Horse of the Year Award in 1938…the same award War Admiral had won the year prior.
As the movie comes to an end, we see another race for Seabiscuit. With Red still healing from his broken leg and forced to listen to Seabiscuit’s races on the radio, tragedy strikes.
We see it happen in slow motion when Seabiscuit goes down on the track. Later, the doctor tells Charles that his horse has ruptured a ligament. He’ll never race again.
Tears are in Tom and Marcela’s eyes as they hear the news.
The race between Seabiscuit and War Admiral took place on November 1st, 1938. The Biscuit’s next race was on Valentine’s Day, February 14th, 1939.
George was riding Seabiscuit when, as he’d recall later, he felt the horse stumble a bit. Seabiscuit had ruptured a ligament in his left front leg.
The movie got the diagnosis correct, too. Even though the injury wasn’t life-threatening, Charles and Tom were told that Seabiscuit’s racing days were over.
According to the movie, Seabiscuit is taken to the ranch where Red is recovering. Reunited with his former rider, we see the months pass as the two recover together.
Could it be? Could Seabiscuit and Red Pollard make a comeback after both sustaining injuries like this?
According to the movie, against all odds, they do. They both manage to make a comeback at the Santa Anita Handicap.
But the race doesn’t go so well. Seabiscuit falls way behind. Then George Woolf, riding a different horse this time, purposely falls back a bit. He knows all Seabiscuit needs is to see another horse to pick it up a notch.
And it works. Seabiscuit is off with George encouraging them on. Seabiscuit makes his way back through the other horses just in the nick of time. It’s a massive victory!
The ultimate comeback story.
And as much as this may seem like a perfect Hollywood ending, well, in this case, it happened. After all, there’s a reason why Seabiscuit’s story is one that’s been passed on through the decades as an inspiration for millions.
Although it’s worth pointing out that the movie doesn’t really mention what race it is we see him winning after his comeback. We know from history, though, that it wasn’t his first race back from the injury.
But it was on February 9th, 1940—almost exactly one year after his injury—that Seabiscuit returned to the track. Red Pollard was his jockey, too.
He ended up coming short, placing third in that race. In his next race, just a few days later on February 17th, Seabiscuit didn’t place in the top three at all. But then, in what would end up being Seabiscuit’s final two races, he placed first. That’d be on February 24th and March 2nd of 1940, respectively.
That last race was a sweet victory, as it was the race at Santa Anita that he’d failed to win two times before. It was also the second-fastest time ever recorded on an American track for the distance. Not a bad way to end a career.
Red Pollard was the jockey for all those final races.
Oh, and I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention something the movie completely omits. It has to do with Red’s side of the comeback. The movie implies it was the connection with Seabiscuit that was the driving force behind his comeback…and while I’m sure that helped, there was another driving force that helped Red recover.
That’d be a woman named Agnes Conlon. She’s not in the movie at all, but she was a nurse who was helping Red recover from his injuries. The two fell in love and, in 1939, they were married on Charles Howard’s Ridgewood Ranch.
On April 10th, 1940, Charles Howard officially announced Seabiscuit’s retirement. During his career, Seabiscuit had 33 victories in 89 races. He earned a total of $437,730 in those races, setting a new American racing record.
After retiring, he lived out the rest of his days at Ridgewood where he sired over 100 foals. Seven years after his last race, at the age of 14, Seabiscuit passed away from a sudden heart attack.
Charles Howard buried Seabiscuit somewhere on his 16,000 acre ranch. At the site, Charles planted an oak sapling. The exact location of Seabiscuit’s final resting place is something he only revealed to his children.