Laura Hillenbrand is the author of the best-selling book "Seabiscuit: An American Legend" published by Random House. She lives in Washington.
GS: Why are we so fascinated with the Triple Crown?
LH: The Triple Crown is the most perfectly conceived championship in sport. In three performances at three distances at three tracks in five weeks, the series asks its competitors to display at its highest level every attribute for which the thoroughbred has been cultivated for three centuries: speed, strength, endurance, durability, adaptability and resolve. If one horse can prevail in all three races, he is as close to perfect as an athlete can be. The fact that only 11 horses in racing's long history have been able to sweep the series demonstrates how extraordinarily demanding the series is. The ultimate prize in sports like the NBA and baseball can be won simply by winning a majority of contests in a series against whoever the second-best team is that year. In the Triple Crown, thoroughbred racing holds up a much higher standard: perfection. Horses don't just have to beat each other; they have to beat the series itself. That is intrinsically alluring and exceptionally dramatic.
GS: What comparisons can you make between Smarty Jones and Seabiscuit?
LH: If you compare Smarty Jones's race record to that of Seabiscuit at this stage in his career, they couldn't look more different. Smarty Jones is the rarest of rarities, the undefeated horse. To put his streak in perspective, only two elite horses in the last century have retired unbeaten after full careers, and only one horse -- Seattle Slew -- has maintained an unbeaten streak through the Derby and Preakness. Seabiscuit, in contrast, was a wretched failure on the racetrack at this stage of his career, plodding along in the cheapest of races. His greatness had yet to be discovered.
But if you compare Seabiscuit and Smarty Jones in terms of their appeal to the racing public, they are remarkably similar. Both horses are classic underdogs. With the help of his utterly obscure trainer and jockey, Seabiscuit emerged from the lowest level of racing and overcame his oddly constructed body, a comical "eggbeater" gait, a severe injury and a remarkable string of bad luck to become one of history's greatest horses. Similarly, Smarty Jones overcame a catastrophic head injury, the murder of his first trainer, a pedigree that was supposed to prevent him from being able to contest America's classic race distances, and a trainer and jockey whom no one at the top of the game had ever heard of. To the public, blue-collar horses like these resonate so much more deeply than the blue bloods who usually dominate the sport. Most people feel like underdogs in their own lives, and when they see an athlete who looks like they do overcoming his circumstances to win, they identify with him and feel more hopeful about their own prospects. It is this factor that enabled Seabiscuit to transcend sport and become a national obsession, and Smarty is doing the same thing.
GS: If you were czar of racing, what would you do to increase interest in the sport?
LH: I wouldn't presume to tell racing's executives how to do their jobs, but as a fan, what I would like to see is a greater focus on older horses, who are generally faster and more consistent than the three-year-olds who contest the Triple Crown. The Triple Crown is only five weeks long, but older horses often compete for several years, giving fans the opportunity to get to know them. Seabiscuit was a disaster at three; what made him popular was his remarkable career as an older horse, which enabled Americans to see him in action almost every week during the racing season for several years. Racing has tried before to set up a season-long championship series for older horses, and that attempt didn't fare well, but perhaps there is a new way to conceive it that would recapture the feeling that fans had in Seabiscuit's day, when older horses at the prime of their lives received the attention and public devotion that they deserved.