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The Lowdown On Seabiscuit, Fact and Fiction

Aug 26, 2003 6:31 AM

Leonard Dorfman is a cherished piece of racing history.

Talking to him is like walking up to the Lincoln Memorial and getting a first-hand recital of the Gettysburg Address.

Only Dorfman’s forte is horse racing.

The diminutive trainer, who was 81 on June 23, has been in the game for more than six decades, but he’s maintained such a low profile, that even after all these years, he doesn’t make the biographical sketches in the media guides at Southern California tracks. It’s their loss, because Dorfman’s recollections are pure gold. And once he goes, those tales, sad to say, go with him.

Dorfman was at Santa Anita with Seabiscuit nearly 70 years ago, in the late 1930s, well before the obstreperous horse became a legend, thanks to Laura Hillenbrand’s best-selling book and Universal’s movie, "Seabiscuit," which is based on the book.

What was Seabiscuit really like? Was the movie accurate?

"Not really," Dorfman said. "They made a nice story and a nice movie out of it, but Seabiscuit won nine races for Fitzsimmons (trainer Sunny Jim Fitzsimmons) and company, and he won two overnight handicaps at Saratoga for them (before he was sold to owner Charles Howard, who turned Seabiscuit over to taciturn trainer Tom Smith and jockey Red Pollard).

"That’s when Howard bought him, after he won those two races at Saratoga," Dorfman said. "So he wasn’t really the incorrigible horse he was made out to be at the time of his sale; just the opposite. At least I had never heard that, but it made a good story."

Dorfman, who presently trains a handful of horses at Santa Anita, including the hard-hitting mare Sweetcakesandshakes and the undefeated colt, McCann’s Mojave, says portrayal of the main characters did not deviate much from reality.

"I’d say it was pretty close, from what I remember," Dorfman said, "although I didn’t know either one of them. I was just a kid. I used to go over to Whitey, the boy who rubbed Seabiscuit. At Tanforan, we were stabled right across from him and Howard had some horses in our barn. I was with a guy by the name of Ross Cooper who had one of the big public stables in California at that time.

"Seabiscuit was kind of my hero back then. I thought he was the greatest thing alive, but I remember an awful lot about him, even though I was only 15 at the time. I never heard that he was hard to handle. My recollection of Seabiscuit is you could ride him down Huntingdon Drive."

While the film might have veered off course, Dorfman says Hillenbrand’s book was pretty much on target, although she has been chastised by some journalists for having a vivid imagination.

"I talked to her (Hillenbrand) about three times," Dorfman said. "The best race I ever saw a horse run was the day Stagehand beat Seabiscuit a nose (officially a head) in the (1938) Santa Anita Handicap (in which Seabiscuit carried 130 pounds to Stage Hand’s 100). That was a magnificent race."

As to whether Seabiscuit’s star-crossed jockey, Pollard, lost the 1937 Santa Anita Handicap because he didn’t ride the horse out to the wire, Dorfman gives the rider benefit of the doubt.

"He was getting after him," Dorfman said of Pollard’s performance on Seabiscuit, who finished second to Rosemont. "I saw the race, but I was a green kid then. After seeing films of the race, it looked to me like he was riding him. Spec Richardson rode Seabiscuit at Caliente, and Spec used to ride a lot of horses for Ross Cooper. Charlie Whittingham had Spec’s book at that time. Spec told me when he rode him at Caliente, he had to get after him to keep him running. There wasn’t anything in the race. Gray Jack was a hard-running little horse but he wasn’t any match for Seabiscuit."

Seabiscuit’s lore portrays him as an intimidator of other horses, a bully if you will. True or false?

"I’ll tell you one thing that Seabiscuit did do," Dorfman said. "He ruined some horses in Howard’s barn that worked with him. He just broke their heart, I guess. One of them was a horse called Sabrueso. We were at Hollywood Park the first year there (1938) and one day Pollard came over to our barn. Cooper had claimed Sabrueso ”” I don’t remember for how much ”” but it wasn’t a lot of money. Pollard asked Cooper if he could ride the horse. He told him he knew the horse and how Sabrueso was just ruined because Seabiscuit had worked with him."

THE HOMESTRETCH: Citing the exorbitant cost of workers’ compensation premiums in California, Bob Baffert plans to follow the lead of Bobby Frankel and D. Wayne Lukas and diminish the number of horses in his barn by as much as half at his Santa Anita headquarters this winter. "Workers’ comp is just too much," Baffert said. "I’m cutting back, especially on the cheaper horses. We’ll go with quality over quantity." While Frankel still has an operation based at Hollywood Park, he and Lukas have moved many of their important horses to the East Coast. In the Thoroughbred Owners of California August meeting at Del Mar, legislative consultant Rod Blonien told the Board that a conference committee is due to meet regarding workers’ comp, the goal being to reduce premiums statewide by $2 billion (possibly a 25 percent reduction).