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Book Review

Letters to Seabiscuit
by Barbara Howard
Seven Locks Press, July 2003, 144 pages, softcover

With Laura Hillenbrand's book a best seller since its release, and the current critically acclaimed movie based on her book, the great Seabiscuit has once again found his way into the hearts and minds of racing fans and non-racing people. Both the book and the movie stressed what effect Seabiscuit had on the Depression-weary population, an inspiration for the downtrodden to look up to as a glimmer of hope.

During Seabiscuit's heyday, after the Pimlico match race win over War Admiral through his farewell race, the 1940 Santa Anita Handicap, people from all over America sent postcards and letters to him and his owner, Charles Howard. Most were simple letters of congratulation, either just to the owner or also naming trainer Tom Smith and jockey Red Pollard, while others were more creative, including poetry, artwork, and suggestions for names for Seabiscuit's offspring, or were written by children directly to their equine hero.

Some were from concerned fans worried that Seabiscuit should be retired after the Big Cap, fearing a catastrophic injury was imminent, others begged Howard not to retire the Biscuit and instead go for the as-yet unattained $500,000 in career earnings. Some were sent by prominent owners wanting to breed their prize mares to Seabiscuit.

These many letters sat for years in a wooden treasure chest which Marcela Howard, wife of owner Charles, kept on a table behind her desk. She read each and every letter and honored the many requests for photos of Seabiscuit. In 1975, Barbara Howard received the box and its timeless contents from her great-aunt. This year, with Seabiscuit once again in the public eye, Barbara Howard and Seven Locks Press published a selection of letters from that box, as if to open a time capsule. The letters are reproduced exactly as they appear, some with Marcela's hand written notes from when she read them.

On reading these letters, one gets a better understanding of what Seabiscuit meant to people in those days. The vast majority of the letter writers never saw him in person. They had seen photos and newsreels, read accounts of his races in newspapers, and huddled around radios to hear the races live. Yet, despite the absence of modern conveniences of fast, inexpensive air travel and of course television, Seabiscuit brought these people excitement and tears of joy, such that they were driven to express their feelings to the Howard family. Several famous people wrote as well, and their letters were included, most notably Willis Sharpe Kilmer, owner of Exterminator and Sun Beau, A.B. Hancock of Claiborne Farm, H.M. Warner of Warner Brothers Studios, and director Mervyn LeRoy of MGM Studios. With World War II just getting underway at the time, a letter was sent by the crew of the USS Indianapolis, at Pearl Harbor, requesting a Seabiscuit photograph to be displayed onboard. Sadly, the ship was torpedoed and sank five years later. On a more entertaining note were letters from the Superintendent of Bantams for the Santa Anita Poultry Show requesting a Seabiscuit award for top bantam, and a letter from "Man o'War" (actually a Teresa Wohl in Raleigh, NC) to his grandson!

The book is started off with a foreword by Farrell "Wild Horse" Jones, one of the all-time great trainers in California racing, and an introduction by Colonel Mike Howard of the U.S. Marines, great grandson of Charles Howard and son of Barbara, who eloquently tells the story of how the letters got to his mother and explains how Seabiscuit was also an inspiration for U.S. forces during the Second World War. He writes, "To them, the Biscuit symbolized the spirit of a warrior: motivation, speed, endurance, and true grit."

Seabiscuit fans everywhere are fortunate that Marcela Howard kept these letters in such good condition over the years and are even more fortunate that Barbara Howard was so willing to share them. This book gives an interesting angle on the Seabiscuit tale, reading the story indirectly through the eyes and ears of his fans. We strongly recommend this book to all Seabiscuit fans, since this gives us a true window into the past, bringing us back to a time when even without the "magic of television" a little horse from humble beginnings was able to lift the spirits of many people.

Letters to Seabiscuit has a list price of $12.95 and is available from Amazon.com for $10.36.

Rating:     5/5

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