Racing: Seabiscuit's stirring success story

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It was not difficult to imagine Seabiscuit – The True Story Of Three Men And A Racehorse (Fourth Estate, £16.99) becoming a success in America.

It was not difficult to imagine Seabiscuit – The True Story Of Three Men And A Racehorse (Fourth Estate, £16.99) becoming a success in America. This, after all, was the tale of a nobody horse with similarly qualified connections who rose to become the premier thoroughbred in all of the United States as the nation emerged timidly from the Great Depression. It is a great story, not least to the Americans, who are particularly keen to hold on to cherished values at this time.

There was little surprise then when the book spent seven weeks at the top of the New York Times non-fiction bestseller list. A film is to follow next year.

Yet this is more than just a patriotic comfort blanket. Seabiscuit has won the Turf Publicists of America's Big Sport of Turfdom award. And they do not come any bigger than that. Well, any longer at least. In Britain, Laura Hillenbrand became the first female author to win the William Hill Sports Book of the Year (the "Bookie" Prize), while hers was the first racing book to do so.

Seabiscuit was a stunted animal with a bad action who took 18 runs to break his duck before recording five wins from 37 starts as a juvenile. However, Charles Howard, a Californian car salesman, saw something in the horse and bought him for $8,000. His mentors became the near mute trainer "Silent" Tom Smith and Johnny "Red" Pollard, a one-eyed, alcoholic, former boxer who turned himself into a jockey.

Gradually, and amazingly, Seabiscuit began to learn to run quickly. In 1937 he was the leading money-earner in the States and, the following year, he contested his most famous race, the Pimlico Special at Pimlico. This was a match race against the previous year's Triple Crown winner and Horse Of The Year, War Admiral. The latter represented the other pole of the sport, a fashionably bred son of Man O' War with influential connections.

Over 40,000 racegoers crushed together to watch the head-to-head, ensuring that "Silent" Smith's gravest concern was that he could not find a spectator-free piece of pasture on which to spit. Seabiscuit was ridden on this occasion by George "Ice Man" Woolf, who made all on the underdog to break the course record in winning by four lengths. Seabiscuit celebrated in the winners' enclosure by feasting on the chrysanthemums in his victory garland.

It was the high point for an animal which started as a duffer, but matured into a running machine, winning 33 races and breaking 13 track records.

There is a William Hill connection also to The Magnificent Seven (Aurum Press, £9.99). In between hoovering up suckers with his "speciality" bets (Elvis, Martians, the Loch Ness Monster – trebles only), Graham Sharpe occasionally pops out a magpie assortment of other people's thoughts and ideas.

This year's compilation from Hills' media relations manager (lunches all round) is a book which chronicles Frankie Dettori's big day at Ascot just over five years ago. As in Frederick Forsyth's Day of the Jackal (sorry about the comparison Freddy), it is hard to maintain a screaming level of suspense when the climax of a book is laid bare from the outset. Even so, Sharpey garners as much opinion and information as you probably need on the matter, including the revelation that some naughty reporters actually left the course before the bitter end. You would have thought there was as much chance of finding Lord Lucan and Shergar running a beach bar on Atlantis (100-30).

Ripping Gambling Yarns (Raceform, £12.95) is the most magnetically titled racing book this year. It provides a whimsical meander through the punting exploits of Michael Church and is almost a historical document on times before the Big Three stamped their way into the gambling game.

John Francome is the Swiss army knife of National Hunt racing and his multifunctional roles have included outstanding jockey, not-so-outstanding trainer, broadcaster and author, in which guise he has produced his latest work, Dead Weight (Headline, £10). There are fewer sexual romps than normal. In the book at least.

As the member of a generation whose first brush with Sir Clement Freud was when he was having his cheese eaten on screen by a bloodhound called Henry it is a source of unremitting delight to be now bumping into him (Sir Clement that is) at Britain's racecourses. Our author is knocking on a bit now, but also still knocking out the words, some of them rather droll. Freud Ego (BBC, £16.99) is the work of someone not unfamiliar with his craft.

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