Seabiscuit was the most unlikely of champions: a stubby-legged horse with knock knees, a gnarled tail and a fiery temperament.
And author Laura Hillenbrand, who wrote Seabiscuit: An American Legend, is also an unlikely champion. She suffers from chronic fatigue syndrome, a disease that made writing the book a grueling day-by-day marathon. But together, she and the once-scrappy thoroughbred created an unexpected bookselling phenomenon.
The story begins in the Great Depression. Seabiscuit, by age 2, had been raced into the ground and was almost discarded, when three unlikely men looked at the broken-spirited horse and saw something the others had missed.
"Here comes this horse from the bottom of the sport, surrounded by a jockey who had been abandoned at the racetrack as a boy, who only had one good eye," Hillenbrand said.
A Motley Crew
Seabiscuit's jockey lived in a horse stall and was, at one time, one of the worst jockeys in his sport. The horse's trainer was a cowboy type who rolled in off the mustang ranges and was virtually mute. And the owner of the budding champion was once a bicycle repairman, Hillenbrand said.
This motley crew and homely horse became champions of their era. Now more than 60 years later, they are heroes again. Seabiscuit: An American Legend spent 23 weeks on the best-seller list.
The author was so weakened by chronic fatigue syndrome that writing the book was an exhausting ordeal every day.
"The world appears to be pitching up and down and spinning to me, and I feel as if I'm pitching up and down and spinning," Hillenbrand said. "And reading and writing makes that a lot worse. A lot of times it was a matter of lying on my back in bed with my eyes closed and a pad in front of me just writing. And I would be writing over the top of what I had written on the last line. But at least it was on paper."
Childhood Passion for Horses
Hillenbrand's childhood passion for horses and the legend of Seabiscuit drove her on, even though she knew the toll that writing a novel would take a toll on her body.
Despite her illness, the author does not look ill. But that is one of the big misunderstandings of the disease, Hillenbrand said.
"One of the things you do try to do for your dignity's sake is look as well as you can," Hillenbrand said. "The word 'fatigue' doesn't come close to describing the kind of exhaustion you experience with this illness. I can't sit up, I can't stand up, I can't walk, I can't talk, I can't lift my hands, and breathing is actually difficult. That's how exhausted you get with this illness, and it's relentless."
Before her illness, Hillenbrand was a swimmer and an accomplished rider.
Then one day she became violently ill.
"At first I thought it was food poisoning, but it just didn't go away. It took a couple of months for me to start thinking, 'This is really bad. This is not going away. And my doctors aren't getting this,'" Hillenbrand said.
A Typical Patient
She is a typical sufferer of chronic fatigue syndrome. Patients often deal with doctors who do not understand their condition. But Hillenbrand eventually found a doctor who did.
"The person for me who finally got it was fortunately the head of infectious disease at Johns Hopkins," Hillenbrand said. "It was good to finally get that diagnosis. It was a relief even though he told me there was no treatment. No cure."
But there is some solace. The best-seller that gave Hillenbrand a reason to get up every day is being turned into a movie, and has brought the story of the Depression-era champion to a whole new audience.
Seabiscuit was a celebrity of the day who garnered more attention from newspaper columnists in 1938 than did then-President Franklin D. Roosevelt or Adolf Hitler.
The Winner’s Circle
Seabiscuit emerged from near obscurity to win a race against the great champion of the day, his archrival War Admiral, the Triple Crown winner of 1937. War Admiral was the polar opposite of Seabiscuit, an exquisitely beautiful animal, black and high-strung and extremely fast.
The two met at a match race Nov. 1, 1938 at Pimlico in Baltimore. There were 40,000 people in the stands, and one in every three Americans was listening on the radio. No one thought Seabiscuit could win.
"You can hear the crowd all around him, and you can hear the astonishment in [the announcer's] voice when Seabiscuit takes the early lead," Hillenbrand said. "And War Admiral passes him, and the two went at just a dog-eat-dog battle, breakneck pace, all the way around the track."
And Seabiscuit won.
Just as he became a symbol of hope for a nation struggling through the Great Depression, Seabiscuit also became a gift to Hillenbrand as she struggled with a debilitating disease.
"The only time I'm not aware of my physical suffering is when I'm writing," she said. "And I get lost in this book and lost in these people for four years while I was working on it."
And when her editor called and said the book hit No. 1, it was as though Seabiscuit, and the men who saw him to fame, were right there with her.
"There was this unmistakable feeling of their presence around me, and it was the sweetest thing," Hillenbrand said.