A Horse for Our Kingdom 

Seabiscuit captured the American imagination in a way that’s no longer possible

Seabiscuit captured the American imagination in a way that’s no longer possible

You’d snort, maybe even whinny, at Seabiscuit if you sat through the movie not knowing it’s a true story. We’ve seen this plot dramatized a thousand times before—probably 950 times by Disney alone. It sucked wind almost every time.

You could recite the formula in your sleep: Take an athlete with unrealized talent or one who has fallen upon hard times. Insert a character, the more eccentric the better, who believes in him. Or take an odd-lot team of misfits and watch as they bond into a winner. Either way, pit our heroes against a haughty, formidable champion. Make the inevitable outcome seem less inevitable for a while, to milk the hero’s ultimate triumph for even more than it’s worth. Use slow motion for the scenes that capture the crucial moments of victory. Intersperse with shots of the Character Who Believes looking worried, then elated. Cut to shots of the onlookers going wild. Cue the swelling music. Exit barfing.

Seabiscuit has all of those elements except the last one. The movie doesn’t suck. In fact, I liked it a lot.

The film, set in the 1930s, follows the real-life story of a thoroughbred horse that had been diagnosed by the Horse Racing Geniuses as too lazy, stubborn, unmanageable and lightweight ever to amount to anything (sort of like George W. Bush before he quit drinking). To go with the horse, the tale rounds up an owner who wouldn’t know a good horse if it kicked him in the head; a temperamental, too-big, washed-up, half-blind jockey; and a holistic-medicine-practicing old coot of a trainer whose last regular gig had been a turn-of-the-century Wild West show.

Except for the pure-hearted owner’s wife, all of the major characters are lugging enough emotional baggage to fill a wagon train. The horse was abused as a youngster and, in the trainer’s judgment, has forgotten “how to be a horse.” The trainer is quirky enough to make fellow Californians Jerry Brown and Arianna Huffington look like Ozzie and Harriet by comparison. The jockey has abandonment issues (among enough others to make Dr. Freud break out in hives). The owner is still grieving over a family tragedy.

I’m not making this up, though you’d never know it based on the improbability of the characters. The filmmakers weren’t making it up either. (By Hollywood’s standards, they remain remarkably faithful to the truth.) That’s part, but only part, of what gives the movie its resonance.

Seabiscuit bloomed too late to run as a 3-year-old in the Triple Crown races. Even after he emerged as the fastest horse on the California circuit, the Eastern thoroughbred establishment, which viewed all racehorses west of the Mississippi as only a couple of lengths ahead of the glue factory, scorned Seabiscuit as an also-ran. (To embody this arrogance, the movie gives us a rival-owner character who resembles Jabba the Hut after a couple of weeks on Slim-Fast.)

Fortunately, in spite of his dearth of horse knowledge, Seabiscuit’s owner had ample horse sense, plus a car dealer’s gift for hype and salesmanship. He orchestrates a campaign in the media to stage a match race between Seabiscuit and the great War Admiral, and Jabba-Lite finally relents.

Seabiscuit doesn’t stand a chance. War Admiral won the Triple Crown the year before. Against the huge and powerful champion, the Biscuit looks like Muggsy Bogues challenging Shaq to one-on-one. War Admiral gets to race on his home track, Pimlico. Events force Seabiscuit’s team to make a couple of dramatic changes in their strategy.

Of course, you know from this set-up alone how the big race is going to turn out. If not, you can look it up. (That’s one of the pitfalls of attempting to build suspense in a movie about matters of historical record.)

The audience applauded at the end of the showing I saw. Like them, I enjoyed the movie’s emphasis, unabashedly sentimental and obvious as it was, on the themes of faith, redemption and determination. What fascinated me, however, was the way the film—like the book from which it was adapted—sought to explain the story of Seabiscuit within the historical context of the Great Depression.

Weaving documentary interludes into the drama, the film relates how 25 percent of America’s workers were unemployed during the depression’s nadir. You could understand what would motivate a family, reduced to working as migrant farm laborers, to abandon a child to the care of someone who could provide better opportunities. And you can begin to appreciate why a once down-and-out racehorse could become a symbol of hope for a down-and-out nation.

It would be hard even for Hollywood to exaggerate how Seabiscuit captured the national imagination. By the late 1930s, the horse was second in popularity only to Franklin Roosevelt. When Seabiscuit raced War Admiral on Nov. 1, 1938, as the film accurately portrays, millions of Americans were sitting beside their radios to hear the call. Businesses gave employees the afternoon off. It was no stretch to call Seabiscuit a national hero.

The movie led me to search my memory for more recent counterparts to Seabiscuit, athletes who seize our collective consciousness in such a powerful way. But we live under much different circumstances than Americans of 1938. The physical space may be much the same, but the psychological landscape is utterly changed.

I’m not sure it’s even still possible for a sports figure to have a Seabiscuit effect on us. No one has done it, not really, since the U.S. Olympic hockey team’s miracle on ice in 1980. That was four presidents and a generation ago.

Lance Armstrong may come the closest today: victory in five straight Tours de France, victory over cancer, down-to-earth bearing. But Armstrong is hardly an underdog; the surprising news from this year’s Tour was not that he won again but that he actually lost one time trial. Besides, as a nation we don’t get too worked up over a bike race. There’s a reason we have no Tour d’Amerique.

Sure, we have no shortage of heartwarming sports stories of underdogs who overcome adversity. But it’s hard for us to identify with professional athletes, when even unproven rookies frequently become instant millionaires.

There are also athletes, such as David Robinson, who are amply worthy of being regarded as role models. Everyone was glad to see Robinson win a title as he retired. But our hopes and dreams weren’t riding with him.

We don’t trust our hopes to athletes, much less to our leaders, anymore. Too many erstwhile role models, like the affable Kirby Puckett, have proven to be scoundrels and made us cynical. Even Michael Jordan’s personal life couldn’t match the hype.

When we see the good ones, we reflexively believe they’re too good to be true. Maybe, with our insatiable appetite for media, and the media’s insatiable thirst for every scandalous detail, we simply know too much to believe in sports heroes.

We still want to believe. I’m convinced there is a great and deep yearning in our fractious America for some unifying figure we can believe in (or, hell, whom we can just believe).

That’s why the producers of Seabiscuit may have released their movie at an opportune time. But it’s also why, as I left the theater feeling uplifted, I couldn’t help but to feel a little sad as well.

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