It could be said with-out argument that John(Red) Pollard’s riding career was on a one-way street to oblivion until the August afternoon in 1936 when he arrived penniless at a race track in Detroit and was introduced to trainer “Silent” Tom Smith, an enigmatic ex-frontier mustang breaker, and a crooked-legged horse that would become “an American legend” – Seabiscuit.
Pollard had been riding at Thistle Down Park in Ohio, winning two or three races a month, and had gone two years without a stakes victory. But his career was about to bloom with Seabiscuit. Pollard rode this undersized horse 30 times (winning 18 of them) between August, 1936, and his final start in March,1940, when Seabiscuit ended his fairy tale career as the world’s leading money-winning Thoroughbred by capturing the rich $100,000 Santa Anita Handicap.
Born in Edmonton, Alta., in 1909, Pollard’s riding career started out west riding quarter horses. He grew up in a home where books where prized possessions. Later he traveled with pocket volumes of Shakespeare, Omar Khayyam’s, Rubaiyat and Robert Service’s, Songs Of The Sourdough. At age 15 he convinced his parents to let him pursue a career as a jockey and was allowed to leave home with a guardian. He ended up at a track in Butte, Montana. Pollard’s apprenticeship would take him from tracks and fairs across Western Canada, Montana, Nebraska and California. His first win came in 1926.
Not a lucrative occupation at the time, he supplemented his income with earnings by fighting in preliminary boxing matches under the nom de ring “Cougar.” He had some early success riding at Tijuana in Mexico in the early 1930s. In one of his infrequent visits to Toronto and Woodbine Park he won the King Edward Gold Cup in 1933. In 1937 Pollard won the San Juan Capistrano, March bank and Bay Meadows Handicaps in California and the Brooklyn, Butler, Yonkers and Massachusetts Handicaps in the east.
In 1938 Pollard was in hospital after suffering a badly smashed leg during a training session on another horse and was unable to ride Seabiscuit in the colt’s most memorable race of his career – the match race against War Admiral in the Pimlico Special. Plagued by injuries throughout his career (he was blind in his right eye), he injured the leg just before the race and was forced to give up the ride to his friend, George Woolf. Pollard returned to Howard’s farm in California to recover from his injuries, which horsemen believed would end his career. Soon afterwards he was joined by Seabiscuit at the farm in 1939, who was convalescing from a ruptured suspensory ligament that many thought would also end his career. But Pollard and Seabiscuit returned to the track a year later and climaxed their careers in the $100,000 Santa Anita Handicap in March, 1940.
A report in the Thoroughbred Record after the race said: “Jockey John Pollard deserves more than a word of praise. This boy was himself broken down as badly or worse than Seabiscuit. A broken leg suffered in New England before the War Admiral race had refused to knit; when at last he was able to ride last fall, he rode with a steel brace strapped along that bone to keep it from buckling. When Seabiscuit was beaten in his first two starts it was freely stated that whatever chance Seabiscuit had coming back was off-set by having an old, broken-down Pollard in the saddle.
Following Seabiscuit’s retirement in 1940, World War II caused a short interruption in Pollard’s racing career. Rejected by all the branches of the armed services, he volunteered to work in a defense plant. In 1945 he suffered another injury in a serious spill and was bed-ridden for some time. During his recuperation he tried to train for a while but gave that up and went back to riding until 1955 when he retired for good at age 46. Pollard died March 7, 1981, in Pawtucket, RI., at the age of 71.
The following article on Red Pollard was published in June 2012,
Rediscovering Pawtucket’s Red Pollard
by Herb Weiss
Published June 22, 2012, Pawtucket Times
In 2003 a dramatic movie about a Depression-era race horse and his oversized
jockey became a top box office film hit. This story of hope and
perseverance was woven into a story about a down and out jockey, a heartbroken
horse owner, a drifter horse trainer, and the eventual rise of a champion
horse. It is no coincidence that near the former Narragansett Race Track
in Pawtucket– now a Building 19 retail store – you will discover city streets
named “War Admiral” and “Seabiscuit Place, for surprisingly many Pawtucket
residents do not know that the real-life jockey whose story was told in this
film lived out his middle years in their community. “Seabiscuit: An
American Legend” was based loosely on the critically-acclaimed, non-fiction
book penned by Washington, DC writer Laura Hillenbrand in 2001, whose key
figure resided in Pawtucket.
America’s iconic jockey, John Pollard, whose moniker “Red” Pollard was known
for his flaming red hair and was taller than most jockeys. At 5’ 7”, Red
and his wife Agnes called 249Vine Street located in Pawtucket’s Darlington
neighborhood, their ‘home’. Their two children, Norah and John would grow
up and receive their formal education in the City’s schools. At the end
of their lives, Red and Agnes would be buried a stone’s throw from their modest
Vine St. home in Norte Dame Cemetery on Daggett Avenue. Pollard
died in 1981, and two weeks later Agnes would follow.
Pollard became a household name to tens of millions of aging baby boomer who
either read Hillenbrand’s book, ranked No. 1 on the New York Times bestsellers
list for a total of 42 weeks or watched the 140 minute “Seabiscut” film, which
was nominated for an Academy Award.
According to Jockey’s Guild, Inc., the book-loving, jockey, blind in his right
eye, whose luck would lead to riding America’s most beloved thoroughbred
racehorse 30 times, accumulated 18 wins. Two films and a book
would capture his great ride, winning $100,000 in 1940 at the Santa Anita
Handicap. Over his 30 year career, fame and fortune would evade Pollard,
who would suffer a lifetime of severe injuries from serious spills to being
hospitalized numerous times for a broken hip, ribs, arm, and a leg. One
spill kept him bedridden for months before he could ride again.
For Pollard, “you just made your own luck and certain things that happen to
you”. Life to him was a crap shoot.
Coming to Pawtucket
The accident-prone Pollard was severely injured by the weight of a fallen horse
in February 1938 at the San Carlos Handicap. Nine months later, back in
the saddle, this unlucky jockey would shatter the bone in his leg during a
workout from riding a runaway horse. This would ultimately keep him from
riding in that legendary race between Seabiscuit and War Admiral.
However, this severe leg injury would lead him to the love of his life, Agnes
According to Norah Christianson, the jockey’s daughter who now lives in Stratford,Connecticut, marriage would put Pawtucketon Pollard’s radar screen. Recovering from his compound fracture in his leg at Boston’s WinthropHospital, by reciting poetry, the jockey would capture the attention of a certain nurse, fall
in love and ultimately marry Agnes Conlon, his registered nurse, in 1936.
The couple would have two children during their 40 year marriage.
Christianson, now age 72, noted that it was easy for her mother to drive an
hour from Pawtucket to visit her parents and ten siblings who lived in
Pawtucket was also an ideal place for Pollard to live because the City was
centrally located to New England’s racing circuit, adds Christianson. Her
father could easily get to the Narragansett Race Track and Lincoln Downs in
Rhode Island, and Suffolk Downs in Massachusetts, and Scarborough Downs Race
Track in Maine. Moreover, in the winter season he could easily travel to
Florida and hit that state’s race track circuit. Just five minutes from
their home, Agnes took a job at Pawtucket’s Memorial
Hospital, working as a registered nursing in the emergency room.
Those riding injuries would keep Pollard from serving in the military during
World War II, says Christianson, noting that he worked as a foreman and
would oversee the building of Liberty Ships at the Walsh-Kaiser shipyard in
Providence. With the War’s end, he continued to ride horses until the age
of 46, when in 1955 he was just physically unable to do so.
For a time, her father “worked at Narragansett , mentored young jockeys, and
then worked as a mail sorter at the track. After that, he
worked as a valet for other jockeys until he finally retired for good. The
track was always my dad’s “community” until it closed in 1978.”
Sipping Whisky, Reading Great Poetry
Pollard, whose education ended at 4th grade, had a love for poetry
and the classics, recalls Christianson. Always on the move between
race tracks, he could easily carry his favorite pocket volumes of Shakespeare,
Ralph Waldo Emerson, Robert Service’s “Songs of the Sourdough” and
Omar Khayyam’s “Rubaiyat”. Being a poetry lover, frequent stays at the
hospital would “allow my father to read a lot and memorize,” she noted.
She also remembers her father sipping a little bit of whiskey as he would
recite poetry for the family after dinner. “We just absorbed the experience,
not realizing we were learning.”
Pollard traveled the race track circuit for months at a time, states
Christianson. When in town, her father would take her and her brother,
John to Pinault’s Drug Store on Newport Avenue, enjoy a movie at the Darlington
Theater, or visit Kip’s Restaurant. “I remember Pinault’s had a soda
fountain that ”made the best home-made honey dew melon ice cream.” Many a
day Pollard would stop at the Texaco Gas Station, located at Armistice Blvd.and
York Avenue, to sit and talk for hours with his friends.
“Dad was a loner, a desperado, an extreme free spirit, a man obsessed
with racing,” recalls Christianson. Before he retired, Pollards’
typical day started at 4:30 a.m. by heading to the track to exercise horses,
later returning home with a few of his jockey friends in their work clothes,
ready to eat a hearty breakfast cooked by Agnes and to “tell jokes and talk
shop.” His physically active and obsessive lifestyle in racing allowed him to enjoy
“puttering around his basement workshop, mow the lawn or even put up the storm
When Christianson was 17 years old she had an inkling of her father’s fame. Mr.
Winters, her Tolman High math teacher, once asked her “is your father the
jockey, Red Pollard ?” Looking back she would realize that “her father
did not make a fuss about his fame. “He realized that when you stop being
on the top, you are going to be forgotten – so winning that race
was far more important than fame and recognition.”
Being involved in local organized groups such as church, the Boy
Scouts and business clubs were alien to him, Christianson adds. “As
my brother once said to me when we were talking about our parents,” ‘Ozzie and
Harriet’ they were not.”
Protecting the Jockey Community
But Pawtucket’s jockey was tapped to be on the first Board of Directors of the
newly established national organization, Jockey’s Guild in 1940 -an enormously
important guild for riders – this group being a nationwide organized
union. Jockeys who were hurt had no financial recourse, nor did the
families of jockeys who were killed, for they did not get any benefits before
the Jockeys’ Guild was created.
“In the early days of the Guild, [the Nicholasville, Kentucky-based] Guild was
able to introduce safety measures such as better racing environments, monitor
legislation concerning racing, and providing insurance for jockeys as well as
decent wages. “The great achievements of the Jockeys’ Guild would be what
you might call ‘my father’s community service’, adds Christianson. .
Red Pollard rode into American history, overcoming a physical disability of
partial blindness, accepting intense physical pain caused by severe riding injuries
that fractured his bones, while humbly accepting his role in racing history, as
the man who rode Seabiscuit.
Herb Weiss is a Pawtucket-based freelance writer who covers aging, health care
and medical issues. This article was published in two Rhode Island
daily’s The Pawtucket Times and Woonsocket Call.