[Written Jan. 20, 2003]

On a cold, overcast Saturday in December I made my film debut at historic 
Santa Anita, along with 3000 others, as an extra in Universal's 
"Seabiscuit."  Having read Laura Hillenbrand's brilliantly written and 
gripping best-seller about the great champion I watched there 63 years ago, 
I wanted to see if director-producer-screen writer Gary Ross would correct 
the glaring error in her book, on which the film is based, and set the 
record straight. What I saw doesn't square with the what happened before 
and during the 1940 race.

With one exception, Hillenbrand's tale accurately relates the rise of 
Seabiscuit from claiming ranks to thoroughbred racing's all-time money 
winner.  Two narrow, heartbreaking defeats in the 1937 and 1938 runnings of 
the Santa Anita Handicap, then racing's richest prize, were followed by an 
injury in 1939 which seemingly ended his career.  But trainer Tom Smith 
brought Seabiscuit back for the 1940 running, which is the climax of 
Hillenbrand's book and the Universal film and stirs debate among old-timers 
who remember the race.

Did Seabiscuit legitimately win the "Big Cap" in 1940?  No one doubts that 
he crossed the finish line first, a length ahead of his stablemate, Kayak 
II, who won the 1939 running while Seabiscuit was sidelined.  But did Buddy 
Haas, riding Kayak, deliberately hold his mount back so that the old 
campaigner would win?

Charles S. Howard, who owned both horses, clearly preferred a Seabiscuit 
victory.  An hour before post time he approached race officials and 
"declared to win" with Seabiscuit.  If his two-horse entry led the field as 
they neared the finish line, Kayak would be held back if necessary to let 
Seabiscuit triumph.  

After the race, which the 'Biscuit won in record time, fans and trainers 
argued over whether Kayak could have won had Howard not ordered otherwise.  
A headline in The Times read: "Haas Declares Kayak II Was Best Horse in 
Handicap."  An informal poll of trainers agreed.  Some fans still claim 
Haas pulled desperately on the reins to slow his mount.

None of this appears in Hillenbrand's book.  No doubt omitting the 
controversy made for a more exciting story and a blockbuster picture.  Who 
would pay to see a film about some future ball player breaking Barry Bonds 
home run record at the end of his career if you thought the opposing 
pitcher deliberately fed him a gopher ball?

So how did Ross handle the controversy?  He ignored it by scratching Kayak 
from the race, or so it seems since the script is secret.

On his saddle cloth in 1940 Seabiscuit wore number 1.  As his stablemate, 
Kayak carried 1A.  Anyone familiar with racing knows entries run as 1 and 

In the Ross version Seabiscuit is 9, indicating Kayak didn't run.  There 
goes Ross's authenticity, so lavishly praised by critics.

Seabiscuit's story is noteworthy if his victory at Santa Anita was genuine.  
Hillenbrand believes it was, dismissing the dispute as trivial.  She chose 
not to tell her readers about the controversy but at least she left Kayak 
in the race.  

An unexpected event took place during the Santa Anita filming.  Ross shot 
scenes of the race several times in order to get it right - by his 
standards.  In one take, an also-ran bolted.  With the jockey unable to 
rein him in, the nag shot past "Seabiscuit" like a missile.  Standing at 
the rail right on the finish line I shouted "Go, Kayak" as the longshot won 
easily.  That's the way it should have ended in 1940.

                                   - - -
[Ralph E. Shaffer, professor emeritus in history at Cal Poly Pomona, can be 
reached at reshaffer@csupomona.edu]