Grass Valley Daily Union, Aug 1, 2003

Despite opening weekend box office figures that were less than impressive, 
Seabiscuit may be this summer's best film.  "Oscar" has even crept 
hesitantly into some reviews.  If the film turns up a winner at Academy 
Award time, director-screenwriter Gary Ross surely deserves much of the 

Reviewers and other journalists writing in advance of the film's release 
invariably praised Ross' authenticity, citing his attention to detail and 
concern for historical accuracy.  Now that the film is out, old timers who 
remember Seabiscuit's final race don't see it that way.

Yes, Ross blew up 3000 dummies, dressed them in Depression-era clothes with 
make believe Stetsons, and seemingly filled the grandstand.  The live 
extras looked as though they had just stepped out of the 1930s.  They even 
held Daily Racing Forms printed just for the film, complete with articles 
about Seabiscuit and War Admiral lifted from old Forms.

But when Ross got to the climax of the story - the 1940 Santa Anita 
Handicap that puts everyone in a feel good mood as they leave the theater -  
he belied all that hype put forward in numerous interviews by cast and crew 
about his devotion to authenticity.

For reasons known only to Ross and Laura Hillenbrand, author of the book on 
which the film is based, the movie offers a bowdlerized version of the 
climactic contest, one in which the only connection to reality is 
Seabiscuit's victory in the race that made him racing's all-time money 

Ross must have taken much too literally a line from the Jimmy Stewart film 
of the early 1960s, "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance."  Stewart played a 
senator who had risen to fame and political office because his town's 
residents thought he had single-handedly killed the local bad man.  The 
legend grew over the years despite the lingering doubts of the town's 
newspaper editor.  In the end, Stewart admitted to the journalist that he 
wasn't the hero, that the honor belonged to someone else.  The editor then 
spoke the film's most famous line, to the effect that the legend, not the 
fact, was what the public needed to hear.

Ross did just that in shooting the 1940 race.  At the filming last December 
he put saddle cloth #9 on Seabiscuit instead of cloth #1.  An insignificant 
deviation from the fact?  Not at all.  

Seabiscuit was entered that day with a stablemate, Kayak II, who had won 
the 1939 running while Seabiscuit was temporarily retired due to an injury.  
As racing enthusiasts know, and Ross claims to be one of them, an entry 
carries cloths #1 and #1A.  Seabiscuit in 1940 was #1; Kayak #1A.  

That's important because minutes before the race Seabiscuit's owner, 
Charles S. Howard, went to track officials and "declared to win" with 
Seabiscuit and so instructed his jockeys.  If his two-horse entry had 
beaten the field as they neared the wire, Kayak would be held back if 
necessary so that Seabiscuit could win and establish that money-winning 
record.  While Howard's declaration put a stigma on Seabiscuit's victory, 
it was all perfectly legal.  70,000-plus fans at the track and millions of 
others glued to their radios knew it before the race began.  Kayak finished 
second,  with many on-lookers, including a writer for the Racing Form, 
under the impression that Kayak's jockey did little to encourage his mount 
to win.

Neither the book nor the film hints at Howard's action.  Along with that 
other now disproven legend that Seabiscuit was 1938's leading newsmaker, 
Hillenbrand's best-seller established the myth of Seabiscuit's untainted 
victory.  But she at least had Kayak in the race.  Ross, true to the 
authenticity of that #9 saddle cloth, didn't even mention Kayak.

Both Hillenbrand and Ross wanted a Hollywood ending for their story.  
Including Howard's declaration would have spoiled the fairy tale finale.  
Better, apparently, to perpetuate the legend than the fact.

- - -
[Ralph E. Shaffer, professor emeritus in history at Cal Poly Pomona, 
watched Seabiscuit and Kayak run at Santa Anita in 1940.  He can be reached