Rediscovering Pawtucket’s Red Pollard

            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 inPawtucket– now a Building 19 retail store – you will discover city streets named “War Admiral” and “Seabiscuit Place, for surprisingly manyPawtucketresidents 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 inPawtucket’sDarlingtonneighborhood, 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 ridingAmerica’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 Conlon. 

             According to Norah Christianson, the jockey’s daughter who now lives inStratford,Connecticut, marriage would putPawtucketon Pollard’s radar screen.  Recovering from his compound facture in his leg atBoston’sWinthropHospital, 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 fromPawtucketto visit her parents and ten siblings who lived inBrookline,Massachusetts.   

            Pawtucketwas also an ideal place for Pollard to live because the City was centrally located toNew England’s racing circuit, adds Christianson.  Her father could easily get to the Narragansett Race Track and Lincoln Downs inRhode Island, and Suffolk Downs inMassachusetts, and Scarborough Downs Race Track inMaine. Moreover, in the winter season he could easily travel toFloridaand hit that state’s race track circuit.  Just five minutes from their home, Agnes took a job atPawtucket’sMemorialHospital, 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 inProvidence.  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 onNewport Avenue, enjoy a movie at the Darlton 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 atArmistice Blvd.andYork 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 windows.”

           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.

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