The writer pays tribute to her father, John “Red” Pollard, the jockey who rode Seabiscuit to fame and fortune.
Red Rider, Red Rider
By Norah Pollard, M.A. ’68Photo(s) By Provided By Keeneland-cook, Keeneland Library, Lexington, Ky
Children accept as ordinary the circumstances in which they are brought up. So if your father were an alligator wrestler and you were a child, you would expect your father to be covered with mud and talking of alligators when he came home. So it was with me. My father was Red Pollard, the jockey of the great Seabiscuit.
Horses, jockeys, hay, barns, silks, saddles—all were everyday things to me. In our Pawtucket, R.I., neighborhood, the men wore work clothes and toiled at the Royal Electric Company or the Paulis Silk Mill or the Seekonk Lace Mill. They went to church on Sunday. They cooked hamburgers on the grill and took photographs of their children. They stayed home. Throughout the year, my father traveled to distant tracks—California, Florida, Maine, New York. When he came home, he didn’t go to church. We didn’t have a grill or a camera. And my father’s work clothes were kangaroo boots, colorful “silks,” and the cocky jockey’s cap.
I knew what my father did for a living, yet I accepted as ordinary the un-ordinary. Dad never spoke of the golden days, never told me stories of his derring-do. Fame meant little to him. One of the many bits of verse he’d often quote was, “Fame is a food that dead men eat, — I have no stomach for such meat.” For many years, I did not know that he had ever been famous. In the mornings, when he was racing at Narragansett, Dad would bring home a group of jockeys for breakfast. They were hungry after exercising the horses, and my mother would make coffee and cook up eggs and bacon for them. There was much laughter, but there was never talk about the past. These racetrackers lived in the very physical present. The first time I really knew he had been well known was when my high school math teacher approached me at the downtown Pawtucket bus stop and asked if Red Pollard were my father. Mr. Winters, my math teacher, knew my father! He must be famous!
I never actually sat down and questioned my father (or my mother) about their lives before I knew them. I regret this immensely. The poem “Questions I Never Asked My Father” contains some of the questions I wish I had asked my dad.
Seabiscuit was retired after winning that great last glorious race, the 1940 Santa Anita Handicap, but my father rode the horses for many years after that. When he could no longer ride, he tried his hand at training horses, then training young jockeys, and then he worked as a valet in the jock’s room shining other jockeys’ boots.
Dad was lean and graceful. He played the harmonica, sang “Danny Boy,” danced and laughed. Though he’d only gone to the fourth grade, he was a great reader. I still have his books: a battered 1941 The Pocket Book of Verse—Great English and American Poems, The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám, Robert Browning, Emerson, Shakespeare, and A.E. Housman. He carried these books with him from track to track. The love of poetry was one of the great gifts my father gave me. It was his love of poetry and the great Irish gift of song that made of me a poet. He rode Seabiscuit. I ride Pegasus.
Red Pollard was a complex man. He could be very melancholy, but he was also a witty, funny man. And he could be very rowdy. He may have had a wiry, slight build, but his person was larger than life. When he came home from long times away, our little lives were infused with his exuberance. The poem “Red Rider, Red Rider” suggests my father’s spirit, the spirit I loved—indomitable, feisty, melancholy, human.