The Most Renowned of all 20th Century Jockeys made Rhode Island His Home

By Larry Reid

Though it is the most famous race in the United States, not all great horses run in the Kentucky Derby. Seabiscuit only displayed his greatness at an older age and was not considered a worthy participant in the historic race. 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. Seabiscuit won 18 races, including the “Race of the Century” in 1937, when he defeated War Admiral. Unfortunately, Pollard broke his leg prior to the race and Seabiscuit was ridden by another jockey. When he retired in 1940, Seabiscuit was the highest-earning racehorse in U.S. history, with $437,730. Many Rhode Island residents do not realize that Pollard lived in Rhode Island for more than 20 years. 

When researching her award-winning book, Seabiscuit: An American Legend, Laura Hillenbrand found 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. Hillenbrand’s book became an Academy Award-nominated film starring Tobey Maguire as Red Pollard. 

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. 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 considered the best racing team in America. Pollard 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. 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 of 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. 

He died in Pawtucket at age 72 on March 7, 1981.

John 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. 

Larry Reid is the president of The Rhode Island Heritage Hall of Fame.

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