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Trainer Threewit remembers Seabiscuit and "Silent Tom"

A scene from the new Seabiscuit movie which opens Friday July 25th.

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The Seabiscuit phenomenon is at full gallop in the worlds of racing and film and Noble Threewitt, the 92-year-old dean of Southern California trainers, is one who is savoring memories of the exploits of that iron horse.

Threewitt, who has been connected to California racing since its beginnings in the 1930s, continues to marvel at the exploits of the animal that is the subject of a best-selling novel and an eagerly anticipated movie opening in theaters across the country.

Though he was training in New York for a couple of years while Seabiscuit was developing into racing's "people's choice," the trainer is clear on his recollections of how the horse developed into one of racing's all-time greats.

Among those recollections are three he remembers distinctly: the famed 1938 Del Mar match race between the Charles S. Howard-owned Seabiscuit and Ligaroti, co-owned by Del Mar co-founder Bing Crosby and Howard's son, Lin; the highly publicized Seabiscuit-War Admiral match race, also in 1938; and the horse's classic victory in the 1940 Santa Anita Handicap.

But in spite of the lofty perch occupied by Seabiscuit in racing lore, Threewitt is just as inclined to talk about the horse's trainer - "Silent Tom" Smith. That's because Threewitt and Smith first met at Caliente Race Course in Tijuana in 1930 when neither was yet training horses. "We shared a tack room at Caliente," the trainer said. In addition, Threewitt was a party to the meeting between Smith and Howard that eventually led to the historic Smith-Howard-(jockey) Red Pollard-Seabiscuit team.

At the time of that Smith-Howard meeting, Threewitt was training for San Francisco banker George Giannini and Smith was training one horse for sugar magnate John D. Spreckels III and they were stabled in the same barn at old Tanforan racetrack. Giannini was friends with Howard and introduced Howard to Smith.

"That's how they met," Threewitt recalled, "and he wound up going to work for Mr. Howard. And, of course, it went on from there."

What kind of person was Smith? To Threewitt, "He was the nicest guy in the world. They called him 'Silent Tom,' and even then he didn't do too much talking. He kind of hated to tell anybody anything. He was kind of a gadget man; he could do most anything. He could work on an automobile or most anything else."

Part of Smith's "silent" persona, Threewitt said, was his way of putting on what Threewitt calls "the 'rubie-doo' act. He could act like he didn't know what you were talking about." That "Rube" ruse let him get away with a "no response" stance.

As for how Smith was able to get Seabiscuit to become such a great racehorse, Threewitt stopped short of calling the trainer a miracle worker. "The old man in New York [the legendary 'Sunny Jim' Fitzsimmons] had him but kind of gave up on the horse," Threewitt said. But Threewitt did indicate a certain amount of awe for what Smith accomplished. "I guess there's no such things as miracles in training," he said, "but something got the horse running good. The farther he went, the better he got. When he did get to running, he could beat just about anybody. Of course, we didn't have a lot of good horses out here then. In those days, in New York, they thought we were still fighting the Indians here."

Seabiscuit defeats War Admiral in the Pimlico Special match race.
Of the great match race between Seabiscuit and War Admiral at Pimlico Race Course, Threewitt believes the wily Smith outsmarted the War Admiral camp and turned what they considered an advantage for them into one for Seabiscuit. "Tom was a bit of a sharpie," Threewitt said, "and when the match race came up, the owner [Samuel Riddle] thought he'd take advantage of a walk-up start because War Admiral was known to be fractious in the gate.

"Well, boy, that was right down Tom Smith's alley. He really loved that. He had his horse so sharp that when they walked up and the starter said go, he was a couple of lengths in front of that other horse right away, and War Admiral never could catch him. That tickled old Tom to death."

As impressive as the match race victory was, Threewitt believes a non-winning effort by Seabiscuit was just as impressive. "I think one of the best races he ever ran was when the 3-year-old Stagehand beat him [by a nose in the 1938 Santa Anita Handicap]. Stage Hand had 100 pounds and he had 130. Seabiscuit ran his insides out that day.

"And another thing that I think was just almost unbelievable was when he was out for so long and then came back and won the Santa Anita Handicap. I think that was quite a feat. I don't know what was wrong with the horse - if you asked Tom, he wouldn't tell you because he didn't think it was anybody's business. Some people said he was bowed, but I don't believe that."

Of the controversy that brewed over whether Kayak II was held back against Seabiscuit in the Big 'Cap, Threewitt said: "I really don't believe that. I didn't believe it at the time and I don't believe it now.

"That horse [Seabiscuit] just turned out to be sort of a freak horse. I guess you might even say he had a freak trainer."

From a Del Mar press release.

With the movie coming up soon, the amount of Seabiscuit information and, of course, merchandise is booming. Here are some links to just about anything Seabiscuit you could want to know or own.


Fun Stuff Videos and DVDs Books Merchandise

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