December 12, 2012

Against All Odds, Red Pollard Made Seabiscuit Into a Winner

I usually ask my kids about heroes weekly.  Some weeks it's really hard to identify a good hero to write about.  With Christmas so close, heroes haven't been on my radar lately.  As I asked this question on Monday, my 10 year old son immediately responded 'Red Pollard.'  I asked him to allow me to type up his hero story, if I typed while he dictated.  This is a bit brief because he was anxious to get on to his next activity.  

"This is Geoffrey.  I just read a book called “Seabiscuit.”  There is one person in this story who was really inspirational.  His name was Red Pollard.

"Red was the jockey of Seabiscuit.  That means he rode the horse in the races.  What was inspirational to me was that he was severely injured in one of his races.  It was not a surprise; many jockeys became wounded in their races.  One jockey was trampled under by horses and his heart had stopped—he barely survived when the doctor pumped adrenaline into his heart to make it beat again.  The injury that affected Red was that he was rammed against the rail and his lower leg was stripped to the bone.  He had to exercise his muscles because part of his muscle was just ripped away.  He was in the hospital for weeks and no one expected him to recover to even be able to walk.  They really didn’t expect him to get on a horse for the rest of his life. 

"He recovered slowly and then he made a comeback and rode Seabiscuit to a glorious victory in the Santa Anita Handicap race, or the Hundred-Grander.  He helped Seabiscuit become famous and proved that Seabiscuit was the best racing horse in the world."

Illustration by Geoffrey

That's a really good summary of why Red could be considered a hero.  But I wanted to add a few important details that Geoffrey didn’t share. I also read the book and I see a few more insights into this interesting man.

Red came from a really poor family in Alberta Canada.  He helped out by delivering goods to his neighbors by pulling a toboggan behind his horse ‘Forest Dawn.’   He dreamed of being a Jockey and racing fast horses.  He left home to find his way in life when he was only 15 years old.  His protective parents let him leave home in the care of an adult guardian, but they were separated almost immediately after they left his family.  He scrounged for food and slept in horse stalls because he had always felt comfortable around horses.  Horses were comfortable around Red, a gift that made Red a natural horse trainer.  

At 5 foot 7 inches tall, Red was too tall to be a Jockey, but he still managed to race poor performing horses in obscure races.  He moved all over the United States to be a part of the sport of Horse racing:  Summers in Canada, Fall and Spring in California and Winter in Mexico.  He enjoyed caring for Jockey’s horses and racing when he could talk his way onto a horse.  Red rarely won a race; he was usually on a losing horse.  But he could manage the troubled horses, a gift that helped him make his way onto Seabiscuit’s saddle.  Red was so kind with the troubled horses that they would repay him by running fast.  No other Jockeys could coax speed out of some of the worst of them.

As Geoffrey said, Jockeys suffered terrible injuries as they hurtled down the track on the back of a horse.  In one early accident, Red lost the sight in one of his eyes, which ruined his depth perception.  That made it even harder for him to be a Jockey, as he couldn’t see on that side or how close the rails or the other racing horses were to him.  That didn’t deter him; he kept this to himself and did his best with one eye.  

For years, Red raced horses, losing most races.  During the depression, he and his manager finally hit bottom.  They were both broke and homeless.  Arriving at the Detroit Fairgrounds in Michigan, they bumped into Seabiscuit and his Trainer.  Seabiscuit was a troubled horse, but he was fast.  Within minutes of their meeting, the horse warmed up to Red’s kindness and Red was hired ride Seabiscuit as his Jockey.  

Suddenly Red was winning races on this fast horse, shaking up the racing scene.  But Red also continued to experience accidents and injuries that sidelined him for months at a time.  Geoffrey described the one that ruined his leg in 1938 and kept him off Seabiscuit for years.  But Red worked hard to regain his ability to race, coming back in 1940 and rode Seabiscuit to victory in the Santa Anita Handicap.

His long term hospitalization brought him a blessed side effect:  he found his sweetheart.  Red and his longtime nurse fell in love and married and raised 2 children together.  They spent 40 happy years together.  What was a setback was really a blessing.

Red wasn’t the right size to be a Jockey, and he had no depth perception due to his blindness in one eye, and his serious injuries should have kept him from ever racing horses.  But he was determined to ride a horse to victory in a major horse race.  His experiences riding the troubled, losing horses developed the kindness in him to win over Seabiscuit, the fastest temperamental horse of his day.  Red and Seabiscuit, a winning combination, made history.

Red Pollard's story teaches us that we can do really amazing things with the right combination of determination, hard work and opportunities. 

“Biography:  Red Pollard.”  American Experience.  n. pag. web. 11 Dec 2011.  Found at

Hillenbrand, Laura.  Seabiscuit:  An American Legend. 2002: Ballantine Books New York.  Print.

Photo courtesy Seabiscuit Heritage Foundation, Copyright Expired.  

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