Thursday, July 10, 2003

Seabiscuit’s rise to fame with a one-eyed jockey aboard captivated a Depression-weary nation. Sixty-five years later, it still inspires Laura Hillenbrand to rise each morning.

The movie version of Hillenbrand’s bestselling book, “Seabiscuit: An American Legend,” will be released by Universal Films in select theaters on July18, with a nationwide opening on July25.

For Hillenbrand, it is the culmination of an exhausting, elating time of her life.

She wrote “Seabiscuit” one line at a time while looking away from the computer screen, steadying herself against the growing sense of vertigo and trying to force out another sentence.

Some days she finished just a paragraph before becoming exhausted. Other days, the room spun out of control after she typed just a few words. It took Hillenbrand, 35, one year to write the book after three years of research done from her home in Glover Park.

Hillenbrand overcame her 16-year duel with chronic fatigue immune dysfunction syndrome — commonly known as chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS) — to finish her book, and it is a condition that continues to haunt her.

She won’t attend the glamorous Hollywood premiere. She never participated in any book signings, even though “Seabiscuit” has sold more than 2 million copies and still sits atop the New York Times bestseller list for non-fiction paperback. She even skipped book reviews and stories about the film because reading makes her vertigo worse.

The illness leaves her mostly housebound, but the book has opened new worlds for her. Hillenbrand now talks of Hollywood celebrities by their first names. She’ll watch the movie with President Bush and the first lady at the White House on July21. Former president Bill Clinton gave her book as a wedding gift. Comedian David Letterman reads passages to his staff.

“I’ve lost a lot to this illness,” Hillenbrand said. “It’s deprived me of everything but the inside of my bedroom for the last 16 years. But I can’t say that I’m whining about it. There’s 2.5 million copies of the book out there.”

Mystery illness

As a teen riding in Bethesda, Hillenbrand dreamed of becoming a jockey. She swam, cycled and played tennis and studied to become a history professor.

Then came a severe wave of nausea on March 22, 1987, while she was on her way back to Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio, after spring break. Paramedics said it was food poisoning. It wouldn’t be the first misdiagnosis.

Hillenbrand was unable to get out of bed for two weeks, and she soon dropped out of college. She returned home, where she quickly lost 22 pounds. She saw a series of doctors, whose diagnoses ranged from Epstein-Barr virus to eating disorders to mental illness. Finally, a doctor at Johns Hopkins diagnosed her with chronic fatigue syndrome.

Months later, CFS was officially recognized by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“A lot of people hear this name and they’re tired a lot so they [think they] must have it, but it’s not about being tired,” Hillenbrand said. “It is profoundly debilitating. It causes exhaustion so profound you can spend years in bed, unable to bathe, walk around or feed yourself.

“There’s a lot of weird cognitive problems. It triggers spitting and pitching. It’s a sensation of the room spinning or tipping side to side. You feel like you’re bobbing up and down.”

An estimated 800,000 Americans have CFS, though Chronic Fatigue and Immune Dysfunction Syndrome Association president Kim Kenney said less than 18 percent know it. Researchers aren’t sure of its cause and there’s no cure although one-third of CFS victims eventually return to normal lives.

“Doctors are becoming better at recognizing it,” Kenney said, “but they don’t have a tool kit or recipe on which symptoms to attack first.”

Hillenbrand will make a rare appearance at a local gala benefiting CFS on July 28.

“We have longed for somebody with public recognition that would talk about the illness in a way that would make people consider it to be more than fatigue and tired at the end of the week,” Kenney said. “Laura is so eloquent and such a good storyteller that she has conveyed the story to people to learn more about it. It has raised the credibility of the illness. Credibility is a real currency.”

The book’s success forced Hillenbrand to go public with her condition.

“I had been professionally hiding my illness throughout my career because of misunderstanding,” she said. “This illness has been terribly misunderstood. I was treated abysmally when I got this illness. They wanted to make other conclusions on my illness. I didn’t want to be not given any assignments because I couldn’t do it.”

An unexpected quest

Hillenbrand and her longtime boyfriend Borden Flanagan moved to the District in 1996 during a good stretch in which she could sometimes take a brief walk into the yard. Flanagan is a professor at nearby American University, and the two seemed to finally be past some bleak years.

Hillenbrand wrote articles for racing magazines. One day, she bought an old girlie magazine in an online auction for its article on jockey Red Pollard. A photo had captivated Hillenbrand and made her want to know more.

Inside, she found Pollard’s story: A teen abandoned at a Montana racetrack, he became a prizefighter and a jockey to survive. Pollard later lost an eye in one of his many spills on the track. That accident largely sidelined him during Seabiscuit’s 1938 run to the Horse of the Year title, but he was aboard for the final 1940 Santa Anita Handicap victory.

Hillenbrand wrote an article on Seabiscuit, Pollard and trainer Tom Smith for American Heritage, a piece that won the 1998 Eclipse Award as the best magazine story about racing. Soon, it was turned into a project for a book that would become a bestseller in 2001. Now actor Tobey McGuire of “Spiderman” fame will play Pollard in the upcoming film.

Writing the 400-page book drained Hillenbrand physically and caused her health to worsen. On bad days, she would only jot an idea on a note and stick it to the bed’s headboard. Food and water were kept bedside so she wouldn’t have to get up.

When vertigo made it too difficult to write, she would conduct telephone interviews. Hillenbrand knew the project was harming her health, but it also gave her a reason to fight past her disease. Pollard’s photo hung near her desk as inspiration.

“I was completely obsessed despite what it was doing to my body,” Hillenbrand said. “To wake up every morning and live in this extraordinary story, what could be better?”

The Seabiscuit factor

Funny Cide’s run for the Triple Crown at the Belmont Stakes last month drew the highest ratings for the race in 22 years. Track attendance has rebounded nationwide, and wagering has increased.

The reasons are varied, but the “Seabiscuit” factor is always mentioned by racing leaders. Many of Hillenbrand’s readers are visiting tracks for the first time to experience firsthand the colorful appeal of a sport they learned about in her book.

“It has created interest in the horse among people who weren’t racegoers,” said Kentucky racing historian Ed Bowen, the author of “War Admiral.” “It was amazing how good a job she did in using enough inside jargon so someone knowledgeable doesn’t feel it’s a primer, but someone who has no knowledge of the game can grasp the nuances.”

More than 200,000 fans registered online for a chance to win tickets to the “Seabiscuit” premiere, seven times more than the average National Thoroughbred Racing Association contest. More than 10,000 shirts and hats were sold on the first day.

“We’ve enjoyed the benefits of the book over the last two years,” NTRA president Tim Smith said. “The book’s amazing longevity coincided with a rise in people who declared themselves as horse racing fans, either casual or avid, and a rise in our TV ratings.”

When Pimlico recreated the famed 1938 match race between Seabiscuit and War Admiral on May 17, many fans abandoned televisions that were showing live races to watch at trackside, despite the rain.

“People came out of the building onto the aprons, standing up in boxes to see this,” said Pimlico vice president Tim Capps, who has written three books on Triple Crown champions. “Everybody knew it was a re-enactment, but the attention was phenomenal and it was just for fun. There’s a little nostalgia in all of us.”

The big screen

Shirley Temple was the headliner in the last Seabiscuit movie, a 1949 production that was more about America’s beloved child actress than the nation’s most beloved horse.

In the new film, several prominent Southern California horsemen and jockeys received roles and came away impressed with the movie’s accuracy. Hillenbrand saw the movie for the first time on Sunday when Universal officials brought a special digital screen to her home.

“It’s a lovely, thrilling, lyrical film,” she said. “I’m delighted with it. The performances are superb, very true to the men and the era.”

The movie will generate renewed interest in the book, which has been given a new cover featuring a scene from the film for the paperback edition. There also is a new edition that is illustrated with 150 photos.

The movie also has Hillenbrand bracing for another surge of requests for interviews, of which she already has done more than 275.

“I want Seabiscuit to be famous again,” she said. “I want people to see how racing is so beautiful.”

Hillenbrand is not certain what is next for her. Her vertigo has gotten worse of late. It may be awhile before she can summon the energy for another book.

“I want to catch up with my life,” she said. “I haven’t had any time for my friends. I hope to be able to write again, but I can’t write now.”

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