John “Red” Pollard

Inducted: 2015
Born: 1909 - Died:

In 2003, a dramatic movie about a Depression-era racehorse and his oversized jockey became a top box office film hit. This story of hope and perseverance was woven into a screenplay about a down-and-out jockey, a horse that lost his first 17 races, a drifter horse trainer, and the eventual rise of a championship horse. It is no coincidence that near the former Narragansett Racetrack in Pawtucket, there are streets named “War Admiral” and “Seabiscuit.” Few Pawtucket residents know that the real-life jockey. John “Red” Pollard, whose story is told in the film, lived out his middle years in their city. The movie is based on the book “Seabiscuit: An American Legend” by Laura Hildenbrand. Pollard became a household name to millions of aging baby boomers who read the book, ranked number one on The New York Times bestsellers list for 42 weeks, or watched the film, which was nominated for an Academy Award. Pollard rode Seabiscuit 30 times, accumulating 18 wins.

Pawtucket was an ideal place for Pollard to live because it was centrally located in New England’s racing circuit. He could quickly get to Narragansett Racetrack and Lincoln Downs in Rhode Island, Suffolk Downs in Massachusetts, and Scarborough Downs in Maine. Injuries kept Pollard from serving in the military during WWII. He worked at the Walsh-Kaiser shipyard in Providence, building Liberty Ships. After the war, he continued to ride horses until 1955, when he was physically unable to do so. He continued to mentor young jockeys until Narragansett Racetrack closed in 1978.

In the middle of the worst depression in U.S. history, one young racehorse lifted a nation’s spirits. Seabiscuit was born in 1933 on a farm in Kentucky. Though bred for racing, he was weak and undersized. He slept too long and ate too much. Against the odds, he began to win local races. He was given a new coach who trained him to race in larger circuits. Soon enough, this scrappy horse began beating the best racehorses in the country. He became a media darling and won national competitions. In 1938 he was voted U.S. Horse of the Year. Seabiscuit’s undying spirit and come-from-behind story made him a celebrity and hero for millions.

Though it is the most famous race in the United States, not all great horses run in the Kentucky Derby, and Seabiscuit only displayed his greatness at an older age. In fact, Seabiscuit lost his first 17 races, was considered lazy, and was bought for $8,000 in 1936. Everything turned around after he got a new owner, Charles Howard, trainer Tom Smith, and jockey Red Pollard. With Pollard as his jockey, Seabiscuit won 18 races, including the “Race of the Century” in 1937, when he defeated War Admiral. When he retired in 1940, he was the highest-earning racehorse in U.S. history, with $437,730. 

When researching her award-winning book, Hillenbrand learned that Seabiscuit was bigger news in newspapers than President Franklin Roosevelt or Adolf Hitler. An estimated 40 million people listened to his match race with War Admiral, including Roosevelt, who reportedly interrupted a cabinet meeting to hear the race. 

Pollard was born second to a family in Edmonton, Canada, which would ultimately number seven. As a youngster, he was athletic and especially loved boxing. However, his main passion was directed to his horse, Forest Dawn. He trained his horse to pull his toboggan, which came in handy when he delivered groceries in snowbound Edmonton. Though considered too tall at a towering 5 feet, 6 inches, Pollard left his home in Canada to pursue his dream of becoming a jockey. Unfortunately, he soon became nearly destitute, competing at racetracks in rural America. He initially compiled a relatively unremarkable record as a jockey, sometimes supplementing his modest income by boxing. He boxed under the name “Cougar,” but the moniker “Red” prevailed because of his flaming red hair. A hit in the head by a flying stone while exercising a horse further impacted his jockey quest. It left him blind in his right eye, a secret he kept for the rest of his life. For the next two decades, Pollard traveled the West Coast, pursuing his racing career in an environment that provided scant opportunity. He developed a reputation for successfully handling troubled horses using gentle methods.

In 1936, Pollard met Tom Smith, the trainer of a temperamental racehorse named Seabiscuit. Smith watched in amazement as Pollard immediately calmed the unruly horse with a sugar cube. From 1937 through 1939, Pollard rode Seabiscuit to a dazzling series of premier victories until the jockey suffered a severe injury. At the time, he and Seabiscuit were the best racing team in America. 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 race. Pollard rode other mounts until racing injuries forced him into retirement. Over his 30-year career, Pollard suffered severe injuries from serious spills, resulting in broken arms, legs, and hips. One spill kept him bedridden for months before he could ride again, a fractured hip. While on the mend in a Boston hospital, Pollard fell in love with one of his nurses, Agnes Conlon. She became his wife of forty years. In 1950, the couple moved to Pawtucket, Rhode Island, with their two children. They chose a home within walking distance of Narragansett Racetrack, Rhode Island’s nationally known racing venue and the scene of several Seabiscuit victories. Pollard became a fixture at the track, where he trained horses, instructed aspiring jockeys, and performed other duties. Pollard holds a special place in Jockey Guild history because he was one of its founding fathers and worked closely with America’s leading jockeys to create it in 1940. 

Pollard, whose education ended at 4th grade, loved poetry and the classics. Always on the move between racetracks, he would carry his favorite pocket volumes of Shakespeare, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Omar Khayyam. Red’s daughter, Norah Pollard Christianson, is a well-known New England poet and folk singer. Many of her poems are about her father. Red Pollard rode into American history, overcoming physical blindness and accepting intense physical pain caused by severe riding injuries. He humbly accepted his role in racing history as the jockey who rode Seabiscuit. 

Pollard was inducted into the Canadian Jockey Hall of Fame in 1982, the Pawtucket Hall of Fame in 2012, and The Rhode Island Heritage Hall of Fame in 2015. He died in Pawtucket at age 72 on March 7, 1981.

For additional reading:

  • Seabiscuit: An American Legend, Laura Hildenbrand, Fourth Estate Ltd., Jan 1, 2002.
  • Who Was Seabiscuit, James Buckley Jr., Penguin, Oct. 20. 2015.
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