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Busted Halo
feature: entertainment & lifestyle
July 14th, 2003

The Impost

The Troubles and Triumphs of the Man Who Rode Seabiscuit

 
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You have heard this story: it’s about a good man, a complex man who had the world at his feet, then watched it drop away; who gave generously, lived loudly, and died forgotten and in pain.

Extra weight
Before he jockeyed the great Seabiscuit, the gorgeously literate Johnny “Red” Pollard brooded much and saved little. In the Depression era, Pollard and his little horse?who, in a sleek Thoroughbred world, was cute where he should have been magnificent?held all 48 states in thrall. They won a great deal together. They would have won a great deal more if racing officials hadn’t continuously heaved up to 133 extra pounds onto Seabiscuit’s back to even the odds for lesser horses.

The stacks of weights Seabiscuit carried into the starting gate were together called an impost. Pollard hauled into the saddle heavy imposts of his own?alcoholism, spates of depression, constant financial worries, broken bones.

Spiderman vs. Seabiscuit reality
Pollard, as portrayed by Tobey Maguire in Seabiscuit, is achingly irresistible. Handsome, na?ve, anguished, and just enough of a loser to elicit poor-baby pangs, he woos a prostitute with Shakespeare, more interested in the act of romancing than in claiming the favors she sells. Any woman worth her estrogen will leave the theater with hormones in an uproar, suddenly very, very attracted to redheads.

The historical Pollard, however, was at the mercy of a temperament as raging as his haircolor? he was at one moment a self-possessed wit, then gasping and overwrought, then unbearably sad. He was kind to his mounts, a magician with the unrideable; he smartassed racing officials and whaled on jockeys who picked on the rookies.

Outside of his Rosary and his dog-eared Emerson, the only thing Pollard loved, the only thing he knew, was racing.

Man of sorrows
And oh, how he suffered for it. Thoroughbreds careen around the track upwards of forty miles an hour, piloted by a jockey balanced on two inches of boot. Pollard endured a series of injuries that would have ended the careers of other men, if not their lives. After each shattering accident, he poured himself out of his hospital bed and right back into the barn.

He fell and got back up again and again until, at the age of 46, he found himself shining boots for other jockeys, his splendid deeds on the gnarled little horse long forgotten. Seabiscuit was immortalized in the Racing Hall of Fame ; his jockey was not.

How Pollard must have felt on the day depicted in Seabiscuit ‘s final scene, capturing the biggest win in racing after he and his horse were both thought beyond redemption. The palm branches of America were spread before him. And how Pollard must have felt fifteen years later, battered and muddied, as he straggled through the bush leagues on any mount he could find, still giving away most of what he won.

Through the pain, the splintered legs, and the broken hips, Pollard pushed on to the next pole, still toting his impost?his bottle and his black moods?for miles and miles around the track, seemingly glad just to be alive and on the back of a horse. It was a tough race… but one he ran the best he could.

 
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The Author : Mary Beth Ellis
Mary Beth Ellis writes from Orlando, Florida.
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