2016-06-30
Elizabeth Mitchell's introduction to horseracing, which she describes below as "magical," resulted in her book "Three Strides Before the Wire: The Dark and Beautiful World of Horseracing," just out in paperback. She is also the author of "W: Revenge of the Bush Dynasty," and is currently writing a novel on the clash of faiths during the early years of Christianity.

"Seabiscuit" is the film version of the bestselling book by Laura Hillenbrand recounting the reign of a small, once overlooked thoroughbred as a track and media star of the late 1930s. The horse's unlikely success also redeems the lives of his jockey, trainer and owner, while rejuvenating a nation suffering through the Great Depression.


For people who didn't see the movie, and those who didn't read the book, how do they compare?
The movie is a slightly simpler version of the real story, so it didn't move me as much as the book or the story in real life. But it's very beautiful, and it captures visually the sort of grandeur of the horses and how that inspires people who are at the track.

What it is about horses that makes them so inspirational?
Horses have an ancient, mythical value. In Greek mythology, the horse was considered the most beautiful creation imaginable. The horse is useful, or was traditionally, in enabling humans to explore large territories, work on their farms, get from one place to another. On the other hand, they're more mysterious than, say, a dog or a cow, because they have this wild streak to them. And the relative silence of the horse compared to other animals, and their size. The fact that they are somewhat physically intimidating, and yet accept humans as passengers without much complaint is really a pretty extraordinary thing.

But the horse in "Seabiscuit" was revered even more deeply. When everybody was down, they turned to the horse, rather than to God.
Yes, particularly toward the end, Seabiscuit becomes this Christ-like figure, inspiring the masses to feel that they have some worth. Also in that last scene, Red Pollard says, "He fixed us, every one of us, and we fixed each other, too."

That's the kind of function horses often have. In my book, I tell the story of a jockey who had been completely devastated in life, in terms of his own physical problems--drinking, a girlfriend who died, all of these things--and he was given the opportunity to just ride a horse named Hal's Hope. The fact that he could earn the horse's respect gave him a change in his life. Many people think of horseracing as just putting down your money, but for people who work on the track, the horses do have that kind of spiritual power. Pretty much with everyone you talk to has some very emotional story that's not just about the business of racing.

That sort of story is what got you interested in racing, isn't it?
I sort of stumbled upon it. I went down to the Kentucky Derby with someone I loved who was very sick, during a moment when he was healthy for a brief period of time. That year a horse named Charismatic won at extraordinary odds. I had had a dream the night before in which someone asked me if paintings in a gallery had charisma or not. I hadn't seen the names of the horses in the Derby before I went to the track, but of course I bet on Charismatic. When he won, I was struck by how magical a moment like that can seem.

Then later I learned how important the win was for Charismatic's jockey, Chris Antley, who had been very much down on his luck and two years out of racing. He got put on this long shot horse and won. So he was saying, "It's a miracle! It's a miracle!" It was another example of how people frequently see what happens at the racetrack as being somehow divinely inspired.

In fact, religious faith is a big part of the race track community.
I forget the precise number, but there are something like 36 ministers who work 60 different tracks in the United States. In horseracing, the ups and downs come very rapidly. They deal with what everyone deals with in life, just at more regular intervals. You find a lot of superstition at the track, but you also find a lot of religious devotion. Two of the top jockeys, Pat Day and Jerry Bailey, have crosses stitched onto their turtlenecks, and when they win, they kiss their whip and hold it to God. A lot of jockeys turn to faith to help them through problems with drug abuse and all the rest. It's interesting how much a part of the culture it is.

Early on in the movie, Tom Smith, Seabiscuit's trainer, keeps a horse from being put down, saying, "Everyone has something worth saving." Do you hear statements like that commonly in racing world?
That particular scene, when he comes upon the horse about to be shot, seems so much like the stoning of the harlot in the bible. It's this complete outcast faced by an angry mob, and then this man comes in to save the horse. It's not that common. It's about as common as it's portrayed in the movie--there are unusual people who will take a horse that's allegedly not useful for anything.

That scene was just one example of "Seabiscuit" being a very redemptive story. The story you tell in your book, however, doesn't have a happy ending like "Seabiscuit" does.
In a way, "Seabiscuit" is more of a Cinderella story. Seabiscuit's owner, Charles Howard, says at one point, "It's a rags to riches story." I think that's pretty much true. People like to have a little bit more optimism in their lives. Chris Antley's story was not embraced as "Seabiscuit" was, certainly. But many people who work the track and who have had hard times do react to Chris's story--I get letters from people saying that how much the book meant to them. I guess it's a book for people whose stories didn't resolve quite as positively. There's something redemptive, even in defeat.

Can you explain that a little more?
A key moment in Christianity, the faith I was raised in, is Christ on the cross saying, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" It's a really profound moment, because it's saying that even though he believed himself divine, believed that he was here on a mission and that he was destined to die, even then he was struggling against it and really did feel forsaken. That seems to me to be the most intense message of the Christian faith. That you won't avoid suffering and you may never escape it, but there's a way of making peace even with that.

In my book, Chris Antley had a lot to give, but also had a lot of deep-seated problems, maybe even psychological problems that include manic depression. Yet he was able to do a lot for other people. Even when he had lost a race, he managed to show the most generous part of his soul. So even in those moments, you get some kind of grace. You can give grace even when you're a broken person. And certainly "Seabiscuit" has the message that even broken people can give grace, but it's a little bit more triumphant.

So his being a winner made the movie less redemptive than if he'd lost? It wasn't as intense as the stories you see on the track day to day. In the real world of the track, the idea of winning is not really so much part of faith. It's like most religions, which try to answer how people deal with the losing, without really any kind of promise of victory.



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