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Why is Seabiscuit #50 on the List of the Best Books on Horse Racing?

August 16, 2011

In my last post, I wrote about a list of the best books on horse racing, as determined by racing historian John Randall and fellow Racing Post staff writers. Part 1 of the article mentions that Racing Post‘s list was “inspired by the US magazine Sports Illustrated, which in 2002 published a survey of the top 100 sports books of all time.” Part 1 of the Racing Post article also began the list of the top 50 best books on horse racing, from number 50 up, with number 50 being Seabiscuit, by Laura Hillenbrand (2001). This book is described in less than glowing terms:

This biography of the 68th-best American racehorse of the 20th century has achieved spectacular success but is vastly overrated. In relating the obstacles overcome by Seabiscuit and his connections, Hillenbrand is much more interested in myth-making than factual accuracy, notably in the absurd claim that her hero was the No. 1 newsmaker of 1938. She is a skilled story-teller but not a historian.

Since all the other books on Randall’s list are described with such amazing positive traits, tying them into the history and importance of horse racing literature, I wondered why Hillenbrand’s book was not given the same treatment. Then I looked at the Sports Illustrated article. I was excited to see which of the books on horse racing had made their list. Then I saw it. Amongst the books on football, baseball, boxing, and hockey, there was only one – #12 – Seabiscuit.

Sports Illustrated described the book more positively:

People who’ve never been to the racetrack love this book, and it’s easy to see why. Hillenbrand has an irresistible story to tell, about a homely hay burner who came to dominate the Depression-era sports pages, taking a colorful crew of humans along for the ride.[New York Times best-seller]

Perhaps the intent of the Sports Illustrated list is a little different, as they began, “Many of the country’s best writers have long been fascinated with sports, and that passion shows up in their prose. After all, when done right, sportswriting transcends bats and balls to display all the traits of great literature: incision, wit, force and vision, suffused with style and substance. Herewith the editors of SI’s favorite sports books, compiled with love and reason, out of intense and sometimes unruly discussions.”

Perhaps they went for more emotion, taking writing style and popularity into account, listing if a book was a New York Times best-seller and/or became a movie, not looking back into the broadness of a sport as Randall and his fellow writers did. And perhaps Hillenbrand’s ability to make a story about horse racing enticing to those who never go to the track is admirable and noteworthy. Randall’s list took on a new perspective for me though, as more of a response to the Sports Illustrated article, outlining the greatness of the writing on just one sport, by someone who had the opportunity to go into the depth of writing and history of that one sport beyond the popular literature of the time. Randall’s list, in three parts, then becomes an important document in itself about the history of horse racing, worth re-reading, savoring, and not forgetting.

(By the way, in the Sports Illustrated list, Seabiscuit comes right after one of my favorite books, about fly fishing and family, A River Runs Through It, by Norman Maclean, which I also highly recommend.)

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