Seabiscuit vs. War Admiral

It was the greatest match race of the century

Horse racing Seabiscuit
Reinactment of the Seabiscuit vs. War Admiral match race from the Seabiscuit movie. Universal Studios

Since Thoroughbreds were first brought to the American colonies more than 300 years ago, match racing—featuring one man's horse against another man's horse—has been an important part of the sport of racing. In the 1800s, match races took place with regularity.

By the 20th Century, however, important match races grew fewer and fewer. A series of important international match races were held in 1923. During the 1930s and 1940s, there was another spike in interest in match racing, with a dozen or so contests being held involving national champions. Alsab met Whirlaway; Armed met Assault; Busher met Duranza; Capot met Coaltown; etc.

Arguably, the most famous match races of the current century could probably be counted on one hand. These include:

October 12, 1920
Horse of the Century Man o' War met Sir Barton, the first horse to win what would later become the Triple Crown, at Kenilworth Park in Windsor, Ontario, Canada. While the cast was strong, the importance of the race suffered because it was widely recognized that Sir Barton was not at his best. Man o' War won in a gallop by 7 lengths.

November 1, 1938
Triple Crown winner and reigning Horse of the Year War Admiral, the great son of Man o' War, met the rags-to-riches people's horse, Seabiscuit, who would go on to be the Horse of the Year and the world's leading money-winning Thoroughbred. The location was Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore, MD.

August 31, 1955
Kentucky Derby winner Swaps met Preakness and Belmont Stakes winner Nashua at Washington Park in Chicago, IL, in a race that was televised to the nation by CBS. Nashua won handily in another race that was somewhat diminished by the fact that Swaps was nursing a sore foot in the days prior to the race. Eddie Arcaro, rider of Nashua, would say many years later that he doubted Nashua could ever have beaten a healthy Swaps.

July 6, 1975
Secretariat had renewed the public's interest in Thoroughbred racing and the sport was enjoying an increase in popularity at the time Kentucky Derby winner Foolish Pleasure and the undefeated super filly Ruffian met at Belmont Park on Long Island, NY. A national television audience watched as tragedy unfolded. The filly broke down shortly after the start and had to be humanely put down the following day. She was buried in the infield at Belmont Park.

Not surprisingly, there have been no match races involving champions since the Foolish Pleasure-Ruffian event. Match races since that time have featured mostly local stars or gimmicks such as quarter-horses racing against Thoroughbreds.

The great racing journalist and historian John Hervey ("Salvator") wrote in the 1938 edition of "American Race Horses" (Sagamore Press, 1939), that the meeting between Seabiscuit and War Admiral was the most important of the century. He said:

"...we had a spectacle of two horses meeting that had never before turned around together, one a four-year-old and a colt undefeated in the classics and the cups of his years, the other a five-year-old for two seasons the the avowed handicap champion. We would have to go far back in turf history, nearly a hundred years, to the historic matches between Wagner and Grey Eagle, Fashion and Boston, American Eclipse and Henry, to parallel it—and even that parallel would not be complete."

The Cast (Seabiscuit)

Seabiscuit was born in 1933, the son of the hot-tempered Hard Tack, who was out of Man o' War. The 'biscuit was bred by the famed Wheatley Stable of Mrs. Henry Carnegie Phipps and her brother, Odgen Mills. The horse's name was derived from the fact that hardtack was the name given by the military to the hard, long-lasting bread that was served aboard naval ships.

Seabiscuit made his debut on January 19, 1935, at Hialeah Park. He finished fourth at 17-to-1. He didn't break his maiden until 17 races later at Narragansett Park in Rhode Island. By yearend, under the care of legendary trainer Sunny Jim Fitzsimmons, Seabiscuit had started an amazing *35* times—sometimes in claiming races—as a juvenile at 11 different tracks. He won five of those races.

Sunny Jim didn't think much of Seabiscuit, and after the horse raced ten times as a three-year-old, he was again entered to be claimed for $6,000. There were no takers. However, a few days later, San Franciscan Charles S. Howard, who had made a fortune building the largest Buick agency in the country, was looking for a nice allowance runner. His trainer, "Silent" Tom Smith, convinced him to buy Seabiscuit from the Wheatley Stable for $7,500. Seabiscuit finished his sophomore season with nine wins in 23 starts, including some small stakes. In his first two seasons on the track, he went to post 58 times—and his championship years were yet to come.

In his first start at four in 1937, Seabiscuit won the Huntington Beach Handicap at Santa Anita. Later that month, in his third start, he was beaten a head by Rosemont in the Santa Anita Handicap, the world's richest horse race. The son of Hard Tack then went on a terror, winning 10 stakes in his next 11 starts, including the San Juan Capistrano Handicap, Brooklyn Handicap, Butler Handicap, Massachusetts Handicap, and Riggs Handicap. He was voted champion older horse and he was the leading money-earning Thoroughbred in 1937. His record for the year: 11 wins in 15 starts ($168,580).

At five in 1938, Seabiscuit would win only six of 11 starts, but his last race that year would be enough to secure Horse of the Year honors. He again was beaten a head in the Santa Anita Handicap, this time by Stagehand. He won the Bay Meadows Handicap and the Hollywood Gold Cup—both races under the impost of 133 pounds. He won a controversial match race at Del Mar, defeating Ligorotti. He then won the Havre de Grace Handicap and finished second in the Laurel Stakes before his meeting with War Admiral in the Pimlico Special.

The Cast (War Admiral)

It was probably sad for the sport of racing that Samuel D. Riddle, owner of Man o' War, kept the Horse of the Century as virtually a private stallion. The champion's book was restricted almost entirely to mares selected by Riddle and Walter Jeffords Sr. As a result, Man o' War was often not bred to the best mares.

One mare, Brushup, was bred to Man o' War six times. The first five were fillies who did not distinguish themselves on the racetrack. The sixth was War Admiral, who would go on to rank as Big Red's greatest son and one of the 25 greatest horses of the century. (In the 20th Century, only three *great* horses have gone on to sire *great* horses. The others were Tom Fool, who sired Buckpasser, and Bold Ruler, who sired Secretariat.)

War Admiral was foaled at Riddle's Faraway Farm in Lexington, KY, (the home of his sire, Man o' War) in 1934. Under the guidance of trainer George Conway, the Admiral reached the racetrack as a juvenile on April 25, 1936, at Havre de Grace Race Track in rural Maryland. He won. He then won his second start at Belmont Park the following month. His final four starts of the year were all in stakes—1 win, 2 seconds and 1 third.

At three, he was perfect. He started eight times and eight times he entered the winner's circle. He prepped for the Kentucky Derby with two races at Havre de Grace, the first a purse; the second the Chesapeake Stakes. Riddle didn't start Man o' War in the Kentucky Derby and continued that tradition for years, skipping the Louisville classic with his horses. He didn't like racing in the "West" and he thought the Derby distance was too far for a young three-year-old. But Riddle made an exception with War Admiral—the only horse he would ever start in the Run for the Roses.

War Admiral won the Kentucky Derby, defeating a 20-horse field in wire-to-wire fashion. He won the Preakness after a furious stretch battle with Pompoon. On June 5, he won the Belmont Stakes by three lengths in 2:28 3/5, breaking the Belmont Stakes record and track record (2:28 4/5, set by his sire in 1920) and equaling the world record that had been set at Latonia Race Course in 1927 by Handy Mandy.

War Admiral won all three legs of the Triple Crown wire to wire. He became the fourth Triple Crown winner, following Sir Barton, Gallant Fox and Omaha.

War Admiral stumbled at the start of the Belmont Stakes and rapped himself. He came out of the classic with an injured hoof and was rested for five months. He returned with a win in an overnight race at Laurel Race Course (now Laurel Park) in October. He then won the Washington Handicap and the inaugural running of the Pimlico Special ("Special" in that it was winner-take-all). He was voted Horse of the Year, edging out Seabiscuit. (Note: No Triple Crown winner has ever been denied Horse of the Year in his sophomore year.)

In 1938, War Admiral won eight of his first nine starts. His victories included the Widener Handicap, Queens County Handicap, Wilson Stakes, Saratoga Handicap, Whitney Stakes, Saratoga Cup and Jockey Club Gold Cup. That set the stage for the Pimlico Special, a race he had won the year before.

The Match Finally Comes to Past

For more than a year, the racing public had been preparing itself for a race between the two great horses. It looked like it might happen in the Fall of 1937, but weather postponed a meeting. In 1938, everyone was clamoring for a matchup. There were to be several more disappointments.

The Westchester Racing Assn. put up $100,000—a huge amount in those days (there was only one $100,000 race that year, the Santa Anita Handicap) for a Memorial Day match race. Everything seemed to be in place, but Seabiscuit was not training right a week before the race and Howard called it off.

Then it looked as if the matchup would take place in the $50,000 Massachusetts Handicap at Suffolk Downs on June 29. Bad weather changed that.

Arlington Park in Chicago offered $100,000 to get the two super stars, but both owners felt the weather in the mid-West was too hot and humid in July. Other opportunities came and went.

Finally, with the year winding to a close, one final chance loomed at Pimlico Race Course in the second running of the Pimlico Special on November 1. Owner Howard insisted on a fast track for his Seabiscuit. Owner Riddle insisted on *no* starting gate for the race. (War Admiral hated the mechanical monster.) Both owners agreed on the distance of 1 3/16 miles instead of 1 1/4 miles, to avoid having to start the race on the far turn.

The purse for the Pimlico Special was $15,000 (winner take all), far less than the huge figures that had been offered for the match earlier. Unlike owners of today, however, Riddle and Howard were far more interested in proving whose horse was best. To these true sportsmen, the amount of the purse was secondary.

A huge throng showed up—estimated at more than 40,000—the largest in Pimlico history. People came from all over the globe. Hollywood stars were well represented, as were politicians from nearby Washington, D.C. The owner of the 1938 English Derby came from England just to see the match race. President Franklin D. Roosevelt was late to a press conference. When he finally arrived, he told reporters that he had been listening to the call of the match race on radio. So many fans showed up that Pimlico had to open the infield to alleviate the crunch.

When it was time to call the race for NBC radio, the legendary Clem McCarthy could not fight his way through the crowd to get back to the announcer's booth. He was forced to call the race from the finish line.

It was generally conceded that War Admiral was the best horse. He had the most speed and, the majority thought, the most class. At post time for the 6th race that autumn afternoon, the Admiral was 1-to-4 on the board. Seabiscuit was 2-to-1.

With a sea of humanity on both sides of the track. With millions listening worldwide to the live radio broadcast of the race. With newsreel cameras recording the action from every angle conceivable, the race was about to unfold. Regular rider Charlie Kurtsinger was back up on War Admiral after having been out for several months with an injury. Red Pollard, Seabiscuit's regular rider, had been so badly injured in a racetrack spill at Santa Anita earlier in the year that he was still out of action. The "Iceman" George Woolf had taken over for him.

The two champions walked up to the start at about 4 p.m. There were two false starts. George Cassidy, the official New York starter, had been brought to Pimlico to ensure the best of starts for the great match. On the third try, the flag dropped and the two were on their way.

Here are excerpts from John Hervey's eye-witness account of the Match Race of the Century (op cit):

"At the instant of the start, something happened so unlooked-for that the entire assemblage was amazed and astounded. In all the preliminary discussion of the match by the experts, it was the vast preponderance of opinion that the Admiral, considered one of the quickest- breaking race horses in training, would hurtle away from it at such terrific speed that Seabiscuit...would be unable to match his pace."
"And now the exact opposite was beheld! The moment the flag fell, Woolf, with the quickness of lightning, drew the whip and struck Seabiscuit a series of stinging blows...He sprung forward like the traditional Quarter-Horse."
"It had happened so suddenly, was so wholly unanticipated, that as the two horses came racing down the stretch to the stand, it seethed with amazement."
"The first quarter was run in 23 3/5...with Seabiscuit leading by an open length...As they went into the club-house turn, Woolf reined Seabiscuit out from the rail farther until he was almost in what would be third position, and Kurtsinger did likewise with the Admiral. The half in 47 3/5."
"As they straightened out for the flight up the back-stretch, Woolf took his horse out even farther from the rail, and Kurtsinger must have been tempted to try shooting his mount in through next to it. But with the probability that he would be cut off if he made such a move, he took the Admiral out and started to drive with him."
"A roar went up from the grandstand as it was seen that the Admiral was devouring the space between himself and the leader...Making a supreme effort, War Admiral assumed a slight advantage."
"But Seabiscuit, as he has shown it so often, is not made of yielding material. He buckled to his work without flinching and through the next furlong, they ran locked in combat amid excitement that was undescribable." (sic)
"So they struggled, matching stride for stride, to the top of the stretch. With the advantage of the rail, Seabiscuit began to assume the offensive again."
"When they were at the last furlong pole, it was evident that the race was over. Both jockeys put up their whips and Seabiscuit, going strongly, the Admiral a very tired colt, the bay won by three open lengths."

Seabiscuit paid $6.40 to his backers. The time of the Pimlico Special was 1:56 3/5, breaking the Pimlico track record. The time of the first mile was 1:36 4/5, almost a second faster than the track record.

At year end, War Admiral had the better record, but Seabiscuit was voted Horse of the Year.


Seabiscuit retired for the season after the mach race. He went lame after finishing second in his one and only start in 1939. He returned to the racing wars in 1940 and finally won the Santa Anita Handicap, after losing two previous runnings by a whisker. The 1940 Big Cap was considered the greatest race in the history of Santa Anita until Johnny Longden's final ride aboard George Royal in the 1966 San Juan Capistrano Handicap. A statue of Seabiscuit was erected in the east grandstand gardens of Santa Anita not long after the champion retired. The statue was moved in 1997 to the center of the Santa Anita walking ring in front of the grandstand.

Seabiscuit retired after his Santa Anita Handicap win with earnings of $437,730— more than any Thoroughbred in history to that time. His lifetime record showed 33 wins from 89 starts, leading many to compare him to the great gelding Exterminator, who won 50 of his 100 starts from 1917-1924.

By the end of the 1930s, Seabiscuit's name was a household word. People who had never gone to the track had heard of the rags-to-riches star. Twentieth-Century Fox released a full-length motion picture, "The Story of Seabiscuit", featuring two of the studio's biggest box-office stars, Shirley Temple and Barry Fitzgerald. (Unfortunately, the movie was more fiction than fact.)

Seven years after he retired, Seabiscuit died.

War Admiral made one more start after the match race in 1938. He won the Rhode Island Handicap at Narragansett Park. In 1939, he won his first start, an overnight race at Hialeah in February, but wrenched his ankle and was retired. His final record showed 21 wins in 26 starts and earnings of $273,240.

War Admiral was the leading American sire in 1945 and the leading juvenile sire in 1948. Before his death in 1959, the Admiral had sired 40 stakes winners.

Fittingly, both Seabiscuit and War Admiral were inducted into the Hall of Fame at the National Museum of Racing in Saratoga Springs, NY, the same year—1958.