When Laura Hillenbrand was a child, she dreamed that she died and went to heaven, where she was presented with a barn and a racetrack.
Watch Bob Brown's full report on 20/20 this Friday at 10 p.m.
"The barn was full of horses," she remembered, "and there was a saddle sitting over a fence. And a man walked up and handed me the saddle and said, 'Go to it.' And I looked in the first stall and Seabiscuit was in it."
Seabiscuit — a racehorse who earned his place among the immortals long before Hillenbrand was born — has exercised extraordinary power in her life. He captivated her and inspired her and ran for her, not just in her dreams, but in her effort to capture a moment in America that created a nation of dreamers through an incredible sports story.
Hillenbrand's book, Seabiscuit: An American Legend, was published to great acclaim in 2001, and has sold more than 2.5 million copies, according to Random House. The racehorse is in the news again because Seabiscuit, an $87 million movie inspired by the book, will open July 25. The movie rights to the book were sold before the bidders knew it would become a publishing phenomenon. It is an epic story that needed no embellishment, even by Hollywood standards.
The Story of Two Underdogs
Seabiscuit was one of the most famous figures of Depression-era America — an underdog racehorse who few people believed in at first but who wound up electrifying the entire nation.
"He was actually the No. 1 newsmaker of 1938," Hillenbrand said. "Roosevelt was second and Hitler was third. This is by newspaper column inches. He was everywhere. And by virtue of that, Seabiscuit went from being merely a sports hero to being a national icon."
One of the central figures in the story was a down-and-out jockey and part-time prizefighter named Red Pollard, who is played in the movie by actor Tobey Maguire.
"His career was basically nowhere," Maguire said of Pollard. "He was really on the skids in terms of horseracing, and wandering the country in a lot of pain and despair."
But in his late 20s, Pollard got a chance to jockey a horse that didn't seem to amount to much, either.
"Seabiscuit and Red Pollard shared something in common," Hillenbrand said. "Both of them had been kicking around the bottom of the sport for quite a while.
"He was a very ugly little horse. The thing that Seabiscuit needed was to rediscover his own natural love of running. In the hands of his first trainer he had been whipped a great deal in his races and he was a very obstreperous animal.
"And in Red's hands, he learned he wasn't going to be forced to do anything he didn't want to do. As a result he just blossomed and he started having a really good time out there. And if a racehorse is having a really good time, he's going to be a winner."
A Trash Talker
Seabuiscuit's owner, Charles Howard, was a businessman who had helped introduce the auto to the American West — but when his son was killed in a car accident, he returned to his love of horses and invested in Thoroughbreds. Tom Smith, Seabiscuit's trainer, was a loner whose one-time trade as a cowboy was becoming obsolete.
And Red Pollard completed the picture of three men and a horse, all slightly out of synch with their time.