It’s perhaps not surprising that Hillenbrand, leveled by chronic fatigue syndrome, would relish delving into Thoroughbred racing, a world of explosive energy and thunderous speed. And Seabiscuit is, above all, a story of redemption. The horse toiled in claiming races—the lowest rung on the racing ladder—until a laconic, former mustang breaker named Tom Smith saw something special in the squat animal and trained him to become one of the greatest racehorses of the century. Seabiscuit’s owner, Charles Howard, was a San Francisco bicycle repairman who became a millionaire car salesman. And a half-blind, flat broke and presumably washed-up Canadian named Red Pollard rode the race horse into history. In 1938, Seabiscuit was America’s leading newsmaker, beating out President Roosevelt and Mussolini in total inches of news stories devoted to him.
“Here was a story I could get lost in, with fascinating subjects whose lives were complicated and vigorous—everything my life wasn’t,” says Hillenbrand. “Writing it helped me redefine myself, to become Laura the author instead of Laura the sick person. That was very rewarding.”
Over four years, she did little besides work on the book. Each day, she meted out her limited store of energy, calculating whether a trip to the pantry or the bathroom was worth the expenditure. Her morning shower flattened her, she says. In her small home office, she kept everything within arm’s reach, including a small refrigerator. Still, she did 150 phone interviews, transcribing each one herself.
In a passage of Seabiscuit that seemingly betrays the presence of the author’s own struggles, Hillenbrand writes that “for all its miseries, there was an unmistakable allure to the jockey’s craft,” and goes on to say: “Man is preoccupied with freedom yet laden with handicaps. The breadth of his activity and experience is narrowed by the limitations of his relatively weak, sluggish body. The racehorse, by virtue of his awesome physical gifts, freed the jockey from himself. . . . For the jockey, the saddle was a place of unparalleled exhilaration, of transcendence.”
Writing Seabiscuit was Hillenbrand’s transcendence. And like the once-downtrodden Thoroughbred, she became a star. Critics poured praise on the book, which became an instant best-seller, garnered awards and was celebrated as one of the favorite books of 2001.