June 29, 1936

Trainer Discovers Seabiscuit at Suffolk Downs

PRIMARY SOURCE: Newspaper, 1936
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On this day in 1936, Tom Smith, an experienced horse trainer, spied an unlikely looking three-year-old Thoroughbred on the track at East Boston's Suffolk Downs. The two exchanged knowing nods. One year later, Smith returned to Suffolk Downs as the horse's trainer; this time, the awkward looking Seabiscuit electrified the crowd and won the Massachusetts Handicap. At the time, Suffolk Downs was not even as old as Seabiscuit. Massachusetts had only legalized betting on horse races in 1935, as the state looked for ways to raise revenue in the midst of the Great Depression. The track opened a mere two months after the gambling law was passed. In 2014, Suffolk Downs was sold, ending regular Thoroughbred racing at the site in favor hosting races during a specified number of weekends. Live racing will likely end in 2018.

. . . horse-racing as an organized spectator sport did not reach New England until the eighteenth century.

When the Puritans left England for the Americas, organized sport was one of the vices they hoped to leave behind. The Puritans abhorred the blood sports, such as bear baiting and cockfighting, that were popular in Elizabethan England; they were equally opposed to tennis and handball and other activities they believed promoted idleness and frivolity.

Spectator sports of any kind were associated with the evils of theater, gambling, and profaning of the Sabbath. It is not surprising, then, that in its first century, the Massachusetts Bay Colony allowed only useful sporting pastimes: fishing, hunting, and military training. Horse racing fell into this last category, since it improved the performance of both steed and rider who might be called upon to defend the colony. Training days often included horse races between militiamen.

North America's first race track was built on a grassy pasture on Long Island in 1665, but horse-racing as an organized spectator sport did not reach New England until the eighteenth century. Officials worried about the dangers to pedestrians of horse racing on city streets or in village centers, and in 1674, Plymouth Colony prohibited racing in villages. Massachusetts Bay followed a few years later with a law forbidding horse racing within four miles of a town center, but the colony never outlawed horse racing itself.

Neither the racing nor the betting were officially sanctioned, but as long as the crowds were well-behaved, no one was prosecuted.

By the 1730s, Massachusetts spectators were traveling to, and placing bets at, races in Rhode Island. Soon Boston newspapers began to advertise meets to be held a few miles outside the city. Within a few decades, races were being held on several sites near Boston. There was no regular schedule, but the races were advertised well in advance; large crowds gathered to watch and place bets. Neither the racing nor the betting were officially sanctioned, but as long as the crowds were well-behaved, no one was prosecuted.

In the nineteenth century, horse racing increased in popularity and regional rivalries developed. When Virginia and then Kentucky emerged as centers of horse breeding and racing, north-south matches became popular. Even as the craze spread across the nation, no large racecourses were built in Massachusetts. Horse racing here was still limited to county fairs and informal meets.

The sport went into a steep decline with the rise of temperance and other moral reform movements in the early 1900s. The same forces that led to Prohibition lined up against horse racing, where corruption was rampant. One after another, states passed laws against betting on horse races; the number of tracks fell from 300 in 1900 to only 25 by 1908.

Like movies and baseball, horse racing offered diversion to people worn down by the Depression; unlike other forms of entertainment, it also offered the chance to put money in your pocket.

It was the hard times of the 1930s that caused a revival in American horse racing and led to the first permanent large-course racetrack in Massachusetts. Like movies and baseball, horse racing offered diversion to people worn down by the Depression; unlike other forms of entertainment, it also offered the chance to put money in your pocket.

Money motivated state governments, too. Desperate for ways to increase revenues, one state after another lifted its bans on sports betting in exchange for high taxes on racing profits. Pari-mutuel betting, a French practice of using machines to set the odds based on the number of bets placed, eased fears of corruption.

Massachusetts legalized pari-mutuel wagering in the spring of 1935; immediately the Eastern Racing Association was formed and ground was broken for the state's first major racetrack. Only 62 days later, Suffolk Downs opened in East Boston. With its fast racing strip, beautiful landscaping, and concrete grandstand, the $2,000,000 facility was hailed as one of the most modern and attractive in the nation. On July 10th, a crowd of 35,000 turned out for the first race.

Seabiscuit had amassed a losing record in his three seasons of racing and had a reputation for being lazy. But Tom Smith sensed greatness; he leaned over the rail and whispered, "I'll see you again."

One year later, trainer Tom Smith leaned over a fence at Suffolk Downs to watch a small, ungainly horse with an awkward gait. Despite the horse's lack of obvious advantages, Smith liked what he saw. Seabiscuit had amassed a losing record in his three seasons of racing and had a reputation for being lazy. But Tom Smith sensed greatness; he leaned over the rail and whispered, "I'll see you again."

And indeed he did. He persuaded wealthy California horseman Charles Howard to buy Seabiscuit. Under the care of Smith and a talented jockey named Red Pollard, the hard luck horse became a national sensation. Hundreds of thousands gathered by their radios to hear Seabiscuit run against and beat far more promising horses. On July 7, 1937, Seabiscuit bested a field of 12 in the third running of the Massachusetts Handicap at Suffolk Downs. Seabiscuit went on to a heart-stopping career that lifted the hearts and spirits of Depression-era America.

Location

This Mass Moment occurred in the Greater Boston region of Massachusetts.

Sources

In June 1936 [Tom] Smith arrived in Massachusetts. He traveled from track to track, looking at hundreds of cheap horses, but he couldn't find the one he sought. On the sweltering afternoon of June 29, at Boston's Suffolk Downs, the horse found him.

The colt was practically sneering at him. Smith was standing by the track rail, weighing the angles and gestures of low-level horses as they steamed to the post, when a weedy three-year old bay stopped short in front of him, swung his head high, and eyed him with an arch expression completely unsuited to such a rough-hewn animal. "He looked right down his nose at me," Smith remembered later, "like he was saying, "Who the devil are you?" Man and horse stood on opposite sides of the rail for a long moment, sizing each other up. An image materialized in Smith's mind: the Colorado ranges, a tough little cow horse. The pony boy leading the colt to the post tugged him on his way. Smith watched the animal's rump swing around and go. Thin, yes, but he had an engine on him.

Quoted in Seabiscuit: An American Legend, by Lauren Hillenbrand (Random House, 2001).

Racing Through the Century: The Story of Thoroughbred Racing in America, by Mary Simon (Bowtie Press, 2002).

Puritans at Play: Leisure and Recreation in Colonial New England, by Bruce C. Daniels (St. Martin's Press, 1995).

International Museum of the Horse

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