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.