John “Red” Pollard, 1909-1981: Although he was the grandson of Irish immigrants, John “Red” Pollard was born into affluence. Unfortunately a flood in 1915 devastated the family business–a brickyard–and left the six-year old impoverished. As a teenager, he decided to become a professional jockey.
Though considered too tall at a “towering” 5 feet, 6 inches, Pollard left his home in Edmonton, Canada to pursue his dream. For the next two decades, Pollard doggedly maintained his racing career in an environment that provided scant opportunity. However, he took constant solace in poetry and literature, also developing a reputation for successfully handling troubled horses. In doing so, he always utilized markedly gentle methods.
In 1936, after years of racing in relative obscurity, Pollard found himself at the Detroit Fairgrounds. Quite by chance, he met Tom Smith, the trainer of a temperamental and rambunctious horse ” “Seabiscuit”. Smith watched in amazement as Pollard immediately calmed the unruly steed. Seabiscuit responded, Smith was impressed, and the rest was history.
From 1937 through 1939, Pollard rode Seabiscuit to a dazzling series of premier victories until Pollard suffered a severe injury. At the time, he and Seabiscuit were considered to be the best racing team in America. In 1940, he became a founding member of the Jockey’s Guild.
While on the mend in a Boston hospital, Pollard fell in love with one of his private nurses, Agnes Conlon. She became his wife of forty years. Red returned to racing and, in 1940, amid intense national publicity, he rode seven-year old Seabiscuit for the last time, to a stunning victory at the Santa Anita Handicap. It was Seabiscuit’s final, and by far, the tandem’s most-memorable, race.
Further racing injuries eventually forced Pollard into retirement. In 1950, Red and Agnes moved to Pawtucket, Rhode Island, with their two children. Fittingly, they chose a home within walking distance of Narragansett Park, the scene of several Seabiscuit victories. Pollard soon became a fixture at the racetrack, where he trained horses, instructed aspiring jockeys, and performed other more- mundane duties. He died in Pawtucket on March 7, 1981 at the age of seventy-two.
Pollard’s incredible story was memorialized in the best-selling book, Seabiscuit, An American Legend, and in the highly-acclaimed 2003 Universal Studios film, Seabiscuit. His memory lives on in the Canadian Jockey Hall of Fame, The Pawtucket Hall of Fame, and now, in the Rhode Island Heritage Hall of Fame.
–James P. Marusak, Esq.