Jim Pollard: San Bernardino's Seabiscuit Connection
By Jules E. Beuck and Rose Botkin-Beuck
Photo by Rose Botkin-Beuck
One of the biggest movies of late is "Seabiscuit." "Seabiscuit," based on the best selling novel of the same name by Laura Hillenbrand, tells the story of a racehorse that was too small, too ugly and too bad tempered to be a success, but turned out to be the little horse that could. It also chronicles the life of Seabiscuit's principle jockey, Johnny "Red" Pollard. As it turns out, Pollard's nephew Jim Pollard, is a longtime resident of California's Inland Empire. We recently caught up with Pollard for a chat about the movie, the book and his famous uncle.
Before meeting with Pollard, we thought we would want to see the movie, so we went on down to the Cinema Star Theater in downtown San Bernardino. The movie itself is one of those few feature films that actually lives up to the hype. It seemed to be paced the same way Seabiscuit was raced-- it starts out slow but picks up speed as it goes along and finishes strong. Tobey Maguire as Red Pollard and Jeff Bridges as Seabiscuit's owner Charles Howard put in fine performances. Maguire's may earn him an Oscar. There were points during the movie that the theater audience actually started applauding.
The story tries to parallel Seabiscuit's career with the Great Depression and how Seabiscuit provided those down-and-out with hope. There were times when the cutaways to Depression-era news were more distracting than educational, but for the most part the movie definitely works.
When we caught up with Jim Pollard we asked him what he remembered about Red Pollard. "I remember he was a fascinating character. He would come to our house and it was almost like he energized the entire house," Pollard said. "So many things would (spring from) his mind. Quotes from famous authors. He would quote Shakespeare, he would quote Emerson. More so (than in the movie), he could quote entire soliloquies from Shakespeare. He could quote the entire poems, all the stanzas from Emerson. He was fun to be around."
As a matter of fact, it was Uncle Red's influence that helped Jim decide to major in English when he went to college. Jim also informed us that Red was a horse whisperer like Tom Smith.
The movie seems to indicate that Red Pollard was separated from his family because of the Depression. Jim told us that his uncle never lost touch with his family; within one year of coming to California to be a jockey he was back in Canada visiting them.
He also told us that his grandparents never lost their home as was indicated in the movie, "In spite of all the financial setbacks they suffered my grandpa and grandma always took care of their family." Jim told us that his grandparents (Red's parents) never moved to the United States and lived out their lives in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. His grandfather was actually born in Iowa (not in Ireland as Hillenbrand's book reports). He left Iowa because of the poor treatment that the Irish received in the United States during that era (the late 1800s).
We asked Jim if anyone in the family besides Red had anything to do with horses. He told us that after they lost everything in Edmonton's floods during the 1920s, his grandparents eventually owned a farm. They ended up having a lot of horses.
We asked Jim how he found out about the book. He told us he found out about the book on eBay back in 2000. He was looking for memorabilia on Seabiscuit despite thinking that no one remembered Seabiscuit, "In my mind it was always a very wonderful inspirational story. It was too nice a story for our jaded society. In this era, Seabiscuit and Uncle Red had been pretty much forgotten." When Jim went on eBay he found there was an advanced editor's edition of Hillenbrand's book. He bid on it, got it, and still has it. He was both surprised and thrilled that it became a best-seller.
When we asked about his uncle visiting him and his father, Jim told us that Red would just drop in. He would call up Jim's father and say he was in town and suggest that they get together. Jim's youngest memory of his uncle was when he was around thirteen years old, by that time his uncle had moved to Rhode Island, Jim went to Santa Anita Park in Arcadia, California with Red and they would hang around with the other jockeys.
Jim did get to meet Seabiscuit and the Howards, but was too young to remember them. He believes that there is a picture of him at about two years old on Seabiscuit, but does not know who currently has that photo.
Jim told us about Red's family adding that his two children are still alive. Jim feels that the tale of Red's wife Agnes was ". the love story that was left out of the movie. She took care of Red right up until the day he died in a convalescent home in Rhode Island. Then the week after he dies she dies." The family always felt that she stayed alive just so she could take care of Red.
We discussed Red giving George Woolf instructions on how to ride Seabiscuit. Jim told us that his uncle was a unique guy and kind of a "loose cannon." Woolf and Red were simultaneously interviewed on the radio while Red was in a hospital room in California and George was on the East Coast and, according to Jim, Red told George: "Georgie, just get on the horse, face forward, put one leg on each side of the horse, let them lead you to the starting gate and then f*** it up like you always do."
Jim was relatively satisfied with the movie. He feels it basically captured his uncle, but did not fully get his true charm and ability, "In my opinion the man was a genius." He did feel that the book got it right except for making his father older than Red when he was actually younger and that Red, being as independent as he was, probably abandoned his guardian rather than the other way around.
Jim feels that the movie did capture Red's toughness and his ability to overcome adversity. He was a much better boxer than portrayed in the film. Jim also is not sure how his uncle lost the sight in one eye, but is confident that Red never told anyone until after his racing days were over. In fact, Jim did not know Red was blind until he read Hillenbrand's book.
Jim feels that Red and Seabiscuit were kindred souls and he left us with this thought, "When you see the movie, just remember that Uncle Red was a fascinating guy. A guy that could keep you up all night just quoting some of the greatest literary figures in our era."
And, from our experience, this is a gift Jim charmingly inherited from his uncle.
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