Fulfilling a long-held dream, best-selling author Laura Hillenbrand (Seabiscuit; An American Legend and Unbroken) arranged a private visit to Ridgewood Ranch, the home of the legendary racehorse Seabiscuit, the subject of five years of research.
After a serious illness prevented Laura from leaving her hometown of Washington, DC for twenty-five years, an improvement in her health allowed her to move to the west coast with her boyfriend, David, in 2015. Ridgewood was finally within reach. On a cool, rainy day last fall, she and David arrived at the ranch by RV without fanfare, en route to watch California Chrome compete in the 2016 Breeder's Cup at Santa Anita Park.
The best-selling author was welcomed by her hosts: Seabiscuit Heritage Foundation chairman and ranch resident, Tracy Livingston, President Jacqueline Cooper, Tim Cooper, as well as Seabiscuit Therapeutic Riding Center Director, Erin Holzhauer, Matt Holzhauer and their newborn daughter, Kathryne. The Howard family historian, Col. Michael C. Howard, U.S.M.C. (Ret.), his wife Lynn Howard and son Nate traveled from Oregon to join Hillenbrand for the special occasion.
A luncheon, held in Hillenbrand's honor at historic Howard House, was particularly meaningful. The craftsman-style home of C.S. Howard built by William Van Arsdale in 1905, outfitted with original furnishings donated by the Howard family, along with a 1940's style radio belting Bing Crosby show tunes, conjured up thoughts of C.S. and Marcela Howard, Seabiscuit's jockey Red Pollard, and trainer, Tom Smith, seated at the dining room table.
The party posed for a photo opportunity of the replica of Tex Wheeler's life-size bronze statue of Seabiscuit and 5,000 lbs granite base located on the lawn. “I stood back and gazed upon the monument, so breathtakingly accurate and realistic that I felt as if I was in the great horse's presence. I wanted to reach up and stroke his neck,” Hillenbrand observed of Seabiscuit's likeness.
Seabiscuit's restored stud barn, now listed on the National Register of Historic Places, stands as the focal point among many of the buildings remaining from the Howard era. There, seated on a small stool, leaning on Seabiscuit's stall, Hillenbrand expressed her appreciation to Col. Howard for his kindness in sharing his family history with her, especially for making available to her family scrapbooks once lovingly assembled by Marcela Howard and passed down to his dear, late mother, Barbara Howard. The retired U.S. Marine Colonel expressed his heartfelt appreciation to Hillenbrand for preserving his family's history, for her thorough, accurate research and for recording it. “I owe him more, I told him, than I can ever repay,” Hillenbrand said demurely.
Walking the grounds where Seabiscuit spent his final years after his blaze-of-glory, history-making win at 1940 Santa Anita Handicap, the writer who conveyed the rags-to-riches life of the horse and dreams of one of the original investors of Santa Anita Park was deeply touched. Seabiscuit, the depression era hero who had inspired the entire nation had given her hope, too, she said, during a time when prolonged illness had confined her to her small east coast home and her bed.
Sporting riding breeches, helmet and boots, the best-selling author confessed she would be willing to brave any kind of weather for the opportunity to ride one of Seabiscuit's descendants, the Lil'Biscuits. The horses aptly named in the tradition of Charles Howard, who called his first seven foals by Seabiscuit in this manner, are part of seasonal docent-led walking tours offered by Seabiscuit Heritage Foundation. Hillenbrand is an honorary board member.
Owner/Breeder Jacqueline Cooper offered a ride on Bronze Sea, a 10 year old Thoroughbred mare with a strong resemblance to the champ. Seabiscuit was renowned for his eggbeater gait. “It felt a little like getting Seabiscuit ready for the hundred grander,” said Cooper. “I knew this would be the most important ride of Bronze Sea's life.”
Col. Howard offered a leg up and Hillenbrand took the reins. Her slender body sat in perfect posture, heels low in the stirrups and with a continuous smile on her face, Hillenbrand rode Bronze Sea in front of the old stud barn with Ridgewood's oak studded hills in view. “I can't believe I am here at Seabiscuit's home, riding a horse with Seabiscuit blood!” she exclaimed with pure delight.
A peppermint was offered to Bronze Sea in gratitude and accepted. The rest were to be shared with the world record setting racehorse, California Chrome. It was a perfect ending to the perfect homecoming. As on-lookers waived goodbye from the steps of Howard House, the promise was made to visit again soon. Charles Howard would have approved with a smile and a nod.
Laura Hillenbrand blogs about her personal experience here: http://www.seabiscuitheritage.org/laura-hillenbrand-comes-home-to-seabiscuits-ridgewood-ranch/
Historic walking tours are available seasonally by reservation. (www.seabiscuitheritage.org)
A Kentucky Derby Party, a benefit hosted by Redwood Community Services, will be held at Ridgewood Ranch on Saturday, May 6th. Tickets at rcskd.eventbrite.com
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