Wednesday, February 3, 2021

The Best Movies of My Life: Seabiscuit (2003)

It's definitely a prejudice of mine, one that has gotten much stronger since 2003, when Seabiscuit was released: the notion that the vast accumulation of wealth is, at minimum, a spiritual disease if not a mental one.

The haves are literally destroying the world in their ever-increasing greed. They couldn't care less about the planet, as evidenced by statements Trump and other robber barons have made just in the last calendar year alone. The world is theirs, and they will do with it as they please.

Horse racing is a sport of great wealth. You don't just get to own a race horse; they are very visible investments for the extremely wealthy only, a means of showing off one's wealth and getting the rubes on board, ready to shell out their hard-earned dough, making the too-wealthy even wealthier. Whenever I watch Seabiscuit, which I have dozens of times, this is one of the first things that crosses my mind.

Following closely on its heels is the fact that horse racing is a sport of enormous cruelty. I won't go into specifics from the linked article; I fully expect that you will click on that link and read it yourself and form your own conclusions. Seabiscuit's life was one that was filled with cruelty. I didn't read the non-fiction account by Lauren Hillenbrand, and so don't know if Charles Howard, Seabiscuit's owner, was the gentle man he is portrayed in the film by Jeff Bridges. Given my prejudice voiced at the beginning of this post, I strongly doubt he was. But I must admit that I could be wrong.

Seabiscuit was sold to Howard for cheap--something like two thousand dollars. Or maybe ten thousand. I don't remember; and in any case, it isn't worth trifling over. Compared to what prize horses were worth at the time, it was a pittance.

Seabiscuit was by that point injured and broken, having been trained (read: punished) to lose to better horses. Howard, struggling with depression over the death of his son, decided to train him with the help of a salty old horseman, Tom Smith, played brilliantly by Chris Cooper. Red Pollard, played by Tobey Maguire, was an oversized jockey also broken by the world and the sport in particular; he was also invited into the Howard camp as the lead jockey, where he and Seabiscuit quickly became close friends. It's here we come upon one of my favorite scenes in the film, which is saying something, because there are so many up for consideration:

Seabiscuit found a real home, and a real friend. Both are, in my long experience, very rare.

As with all sports movies, the metaphors and analogies abound. Seabiscuit is a very American tale, the story of a has-been or not-good-enough defying the odds and rising to the occasion. The actual horse had his heyday during the Depression, when people were struggling just to keep a roof over their heads, with many failing along the way. As Seabiscuit gained in success, his story resonated strongly with folks, who began showing up to watch him run.

As with all sports movies, there is a champion standing in the way, and here we become acquainted with War Admiral, a Triple Crown winner and much larger horse, one that had enjoyed the equine lap of luxury his entire life. Howard challenged War Admiral's owner repeatedly to a race, but was turned down time and again. Finally, the challenge was accepted and the race date set, to be run at War Admiral's own track, the equivalent of home-team advantage.

Red Pollard, in the interim, was nearly killed by a freak accident involving another horse, forcing Howard to call George Woolff, the horse-racing equivalent of "calling Babe Ruth off the bench," according to the excited radio announcer broadcasting the news. Surreptitiously, Woolff, Howard, and Smith began to train Seabiscuit at night. Seabiscuit was known for breaking late; here, against War Admiral, such a tactic would be disastrous, as once War Admiral took the lead, getting it back would be next to impossible. Seabiscuit would have to grab the lead early on, then rest halfway into the race by going into a dangerous head-to-head tie before being spurred to finish as he usually did.

And so we come to one of the best scenes of any of my life's favorite films:

The race was broadcast nationwide and was listened to by Super Bowl-type numbers, with virtually every American either listening to the broadcast or knowing of it, or, if lucky enough, actually at the track.

Very inspiring.

As I understand it, Seabiscuit's final race, one that occurred after he recovered from an injury that would have had most owners put him down, was a record-setter that either hasn't been eclipsed to this day, or remains one of the top three of all time. He was a little, broken, forgotten horse who ended up kicking major ass. It's really no wonder that, personally, it's one of my very favorite movies.