02/10/2004 12:00AM

A legendary story is taken to task


TUCSON, Ariz. - Given the huge contributions to racing in the last year by the reincarnated and reinvented Seabiscuit, it is sacrilege to suggest above a whisper that a considerable part of his story, in both popular book and movie, is bunkum.

Last week an infidel stood up and shouted it for all to hear.

Stan Isaacs, the respected former sports columnist of Newsday in New York, was critical of the revisionist love story told by Laura Hillenbrand in her book, "Seabiscuit: An American Legend."

An Issacs column published by Newsday - he still is a contributing columnist - was headlined "Truth an Also-Ran in Seabiscuit Film."

He did not discount what the book and movie have done for racing. He acknowledged its long run as No. 1 on the New York Times best-seller list and that the motion picture was good enough to be nominated for Academy Award consideration.

He simply said both the book and movie were fanciful, and they were.

Isaacs wrote of Hillenbrand that "cynical racing pundits, impressed by her courage [because of her poor health] and the rare acclaim for a book about racing, held back on pointing out inaccuracies in the book." And he added, accurately, "The less you know about horse racing the more you would like the book and the movie."

This criticism does not change the great benefits that "Seabiscuit: An American Legend," have produced for horse racing, and Isaacs recognized that. He simply was disturbed, as were others who were around when the horse was still running, at the convenient oversights of his defeats, the controversy over some of his victories, notably the 1940 Santa Anita Handicap, and the literary license taken by Hillenbrand in penning her fascinating book.

Issacs wrote that Hillenbrand's "love story" explains her tendency to make excuses for Seabiscuit when he lost and to overdramatize the obstacles he faced to win. The movie, he wrote, "hokes up the story even further."

He pointed out inaccuracies that might not bother non-racegoers but can annoy those who actually remember what happened. He challenged the portrayals of both jockey Red Pollard and trainer Tom Smith, and he tackled head-on an article, written by Bill Christine in The Los Angeles Times, that owner Charles Howard reportedly had bet as much as $10,000 on Seabiscuit in the 1940 Santa Anita Handicap in the Caliente, Mexico, future book and did not want Seabiscuit's formidable stablemate, Kayak II, to win. Christine quoted a relative of famed jockey Johnny Adams as saying that Adams turned down the mount on Kayak II because he didn't want to follow Howard's "Seabiscuit must win" instructions. Isaacs noted that Kayak II was not even mentioned in the movie.

Isaacs wrote that "the movie hypes Seabiscuit's legend to the point that the unsuspecting would not know that Citation, Seattle Slew, Secretariat, Kelso, and Cigar are among those who rate higher in the pantheon of American horseflesh. In a Blood-Horse poll (of greatness) a few years ago, Seabiscuit was ranked No. 25, War Admiral 13th.

Writing of those two, Isaacs questions the book's quote attributed to George Woolf, who rode Seabiscuit in the celebrated 1938 match race against War Admiral. In that central episode, Hillenbrand quoted Woolf as saying, "I saw something in the Admiral's eye that was pitiful. He looked all broken up. I don't think he will be good for another race." Isaacs pointed out, but Hillenbrand did not, that War Admiral won the Rhode Island Handicap 11 days later. The book was about Seabiscuit, of course, and not War Admiral, so the omission may be excusable, even if disconcerting.

Isaacs also was troubled by the movie depicting Pollard coming off a sickbed to win the 1940 Santa Anita Handicap, when in fact he rode Seabiscuit in several races before that major victory.

These may be nitpicking observations given the realization that Hollywood has little respect for history, and bends it at will.

Isaacs is not alone, however, in being discouraged by the romanticized disregard for facts. Others who hail from Seabiscuit's time are happy for what he has done for racing, sad that his exploits were embellished, and surprised that truth, as Isaacs wrote, was an also-ran in telling his story.