On November 1, 1938, the 5-year-old thoroughbred Seabiscuit defeated former Triple Crown champ War Admiral by four lengths in a match race at Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore.
While the race itself was a straightforward 1 ³/₁₆ mile around Pimlico’s dirt oval, the road Seabiscuit and War Admiral took to get there was long and winding.
Both horses skyrocketed to the top of the racing world in 1937. War Admiral, then a 3-year-old, won the Triple Crown and five other races en route to an unbeaten year. Seabiscuit, a year older, nipped Admiral $168,642 to $166,500 to finish the year as the country’s leading money winner.
Both picked up horse of the year honors in 1937. War Admiral won the more prestigious Turf and Sport Digest sportswriter’s award, clipping his West Coast rival by a mere 18 votes, 621 to 603. Seabiscuit, winner of 11 out 14 starts that year, was tabbed the top horse by the Horse and Horsemen magazine.
Their pedigree was also noteworthy. Each horse had the legendary Man O’ War’s blood coursing through their veins. War Admiral was a son of the once-beaten thoroughbred and Seabiscuit a grandson through his father Hard Tack. The horses shared some characteristics—both were runts in terms of size. In other ways, though, they couldn’t be more different.
War Admiral was known for his blistering starts that built suffocating early leads. Seabiscuit, meanwhile, claimed many of his triumphs by hanging back and surging to the front with a late burst of speed. Additionally, Seabiscuit represented the upstart West Coast racing scene, while the Admiral hailed from the old guard along the Eastern Seaboard.
In the late summer of 1937, several months after War Admiral had completed the Triple Crown by winning the Belmont, and in the midst of the couple’s cash crown duel, the public—spurred on by sportswriters of the day—clamored for a contest between the two horses.
Rumors of a match race between the two bounced around the news pages in August and September, but the first potential meeting came at the Washington Handicap in Laurel, Maryland, where both horses were entered alongside eight others for the end-of-October race. However, Seabiscuit’s handlers, owner Charles S. Howard and trainer Tom Smith, felt that the soggy track didn’t fit their horse’s running style and scratched him the morning of the race.
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After two potential races at Pimlico where the horses could’ve met—but were ultimately entered in different fields—the winter was relatively quiet. Then, in March 1938, the rumor mill began churning out more tales of a Seabiscuit-War Admiral match race. Finally, on April 12, Howard and War Admiral owner Sam Riddle agreed to race their horses one-on-one for a $100,000 prize at Belmont Park on the outskirts of New York City.
The race was billed as one of the top sporting events of the time by the press. Belmont Park officials reportedly spent $30,000 in publicity and preparation. Once again, though, Seabiscuit was scratched, this time a week beforehand and due to knee ailments. Much to the disappointment of the race-watching public—many of whom had traveled far and wide to reach New York for a once-in-a-lifetime event—War Admiral was then inserted into Belmont’s Suburban Handicap, but he too was withdrawn before the starter’s bell clanged.
There was then one more chance for the pair to meet each on the loam. That came nearly a month after the bungled Belmont affair, at Suffolk Downs in East Boston. The pairing was set to meet, with five others, on June 29 for a $50,000 stakes race, the Massachusetts Handicap. Over 60,000 folks crammed the race track the day of.
Quite dramatically, Seabiscuit was declared “absolutely fit and ready to run” by Smith before ultimately skipping another date with War Admiral. This time, Smith and several veterinarians found that the horse was suffering from a pulled tendon about a half hour before the race. And so, only minutes before post time, Seabiscuit was scratched from challenging War Admiral for a third time, which resulted in the massive throng of spectators pouring down a cascade of boos. The Admiral put a poor showing in Massachusetts and finished fourth—his first loss in 11 straight starts.
Other complications plagued a potential matchup between the diminutive turf titans. In February 1938, Seabiscuit’s normal rider, Red Pollard, suffered a devastating injury that left him with a broken arm and cracked ribs. Shortly after the jockey returned to work in July, he nearly broke his leg clean off in a brutal crash involving a runaway horse. Then a month later, after Seabiscuit beat Ligaroti in a match race at the Del Mar track in California that saw both jockeys foul each other, Howard and Seabiscuit’s new jockey Georgie Woolf were accused of race-fixing. Ultimately, they were cleared of wrongdoing, although Woolf was temporally suspended from riding due to his actions in the Ligaroti race.
With three scratches and a slew of other problems, it looked like the public’s desire for Seabiscuit vs. War Admiral would go unquenched. However, one man was determined that would not happen: Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt, Jr., a member of the famous Vanderbilt family and a race promoter holding the vice presidency of the Maryland Jockey Club. After much insistance, he finally got Riddle to agree to match race against Howard and Seabiscuit at Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore.
And so a fourth attempt to stage a race was decided upon in early October, with a November 2 date scrawled into Pimlico’s calendar. This race wasn’t to be about money—the winner would only come away with $15,000, a paltry sum compared to the six figures the Belmont bout would’ve delivered.
While the public had come to distrust a Seabiscuit-War Admiral billing, the pairing was nonetheless a hot ticket and over 40,000 packed Pimlico. Millions more tuned in to hear the race’s call on the radio. Among the listeners was President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who arrived a few minutes late to his routine press conference due to the race.
War Admiral, jockeyed by usual rider Charley Kurtsinger, was generally regarded as the favorite. Before the scheduled Belmont race in May, 95 percent of sportswriters tabbed the horse to win. For the Pimlico affair, Seabiscuit, who was to be helmed by Woolf because Pollard still hadn’t recovered from his injuries, failed to make much of an impression and only 20 percent of the public picked him. At the betting window, War Admiral was a 1 to 4 favorite by post time; Seabiscuit sat at 2 to 1.
The race itself got underway at around 4 pm. Perhaps as a bit of gamesmanship, Smith convinced the race starter to use his own homemade bell—one that Seabiscuit was familiar with. Officially, the track’s bell was broken due to unknown causes and wouldn’t work. However, some have speculated that Smith played a role in damaging the track’s gong. Whatever the reasoning for using Smith’s bell, Seabiscuit roared out in front after hearing the familiar dong and led at the first turn.
Because Seabiscuit was known for sitting back early on, this move shocked the crowd. But there he was, with a two length lead as the pairing made the first turn.
War Admiral wasn’t done yet, though, and Kurtsinger’s whip clawed the stead back into the race along the backstretch. By the third turn, the son of Man O’ War had edged in the lead by head. Going around the final bend, the pairing traded blows—one in front, then the other—with the roar of the crowd goading them on.
They were head and head entering the last turn before Woolf guided Seabiscuit along the inside rail, enabling the horse to shoot past his rival with only quarter mile to go.
Kurtsinger willed his mount down the homestretch, but the Admiral was beat. With his opponent fading down the final furlough, Seabiscuit raced ahead to the finish post, snagging the win by four lengths and securing his spot in the upper echelon of horse racing royalty.
He’s the best horse in the world. He proved that today.
Seabiscuit’s jockey for the November race
Seabiscuit’s winning time stood as 1 minute, 56.6 seconds—a Pimlico track record for the 1 ³/₁₆-mile distance. The horse paid out $6.40 to bettors. His track record wound stand until 1943, when Riverland shaved a fifth off the time in the Dixie Handicap.
A day after the dust settled, Riddle told the press that War Admiral would not run in another match race, whether against Seabiscuit or any other horse. Howard, meanwhile, was open to the idea of racing the pair again and the press later substantiated a few final rumors involving the duo in December. According to news reports of the time, Howard and Riddle were apparently discussing a rematch with a February 1939 slate in Miami. However, talks apparently fizzled out and no race materialized. War Admiral had two more starts after the legendary race and Seabiscuit five, but the rivals never lined up at the post together again.
Of his final two runs, War Admiral won both. After the horse struggled with a rheumatic ailment and scratched at the Widener Handicap in Hialeah, Florida, Riddle announced on June 5, 1939 that the former Triple Crown champ would be retired. In 26 career races, War Admiral picked up $273,240 in earnings.
Seabiscuit, meanwhile, ran until he was 7-years-old. He lost the three starts following the dramatic triumph over War Admiral, but closed out his career with wins in the San Antonio Stakes and the Santa Anita Handicap. That final victory in his California homeland dished out a $100,000 prize, enabling the horse to vault past Sun Beau’s record total of $376,744 with career winnings equaling $437,730. On March 11, 1940, Howard announced at a press conference that Seabiscuit would retire from racing.
While Seabiscuit bested War Admiral on that autumn afternoon in 1938, the result failed to conclusively determine which horse was truly better. Seabiscuit did end with up with not quite double the winnings of War Admiral; however, he did so in over three times as many starts. Additionally, Man O’ War’s offspring lost only five of his 26 starts. The son of Hard Tack, who was something of a late bloomer, won just 33 of his 89 races.
Both horses spent their retirement as sires. War Admiral was probably the more successful at this endeavor, having sired Busher, a filly named horse of the year in 1945. The thoroughbred also crops up in the pedigree of 2015 Triple Crown winner American Pharoah.
Seabiscuit, on the other hand, had less successful offspring. His best foal was Sea Swallow, who won three races over the course of his career. Perhaps a busy schedule affected his baby-making; in Seabiscuit’s seven years of retirement at a rural California ranch, the horse played host to over 50,000 visitors.
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Seabiscuit would die suddenly in 1947 at 14 due to heart failure. War Admiral lived 12 years past his rival’s death, passing in 1959 at 25 after becoming ill and suffering a fall.
In the years since Seabiscuit’s passing, a couple of related Hollywood films have been made. 1949’s “The Story of Seabiscuit” starred Shirley Temple, while two of Seabiscuit’s offspring, Sea Soverign and Sea Gamble, played the horse. In 2003, Tobey Maguire and Jeff Bridges starred as Red Pollard and Charles S. Howard, respectively, in “Seabiscuit”. That film received seven Oscar nods, including Best Picture, but failed to top any category.
As for other posthumous developments, the most notable came in 2018 when a group of scientists at Binghamton University in New York extracted DNA from one of Seabiscuit’s silver hooves. They found the horse had genetic variants trending towards stamina and speed—an ideal combo in the sport of kings. Interestingly, this rare genotype indicates a potential late bloomer, which fits Seabiscuit’s profile nicely.
I have no excuses. What else can I say? I just didn’t make it.
War Admiral’s jockey after the defeat
Luckily, newsreel footage featuring the two-minute entirety of the race is available on YouTube:
This image of Seabiscuit blasting in front of War Admiral is perhaps the most well-known photo from the race:
Another great photo from the race is this one, showing off some infield viewers:
There’s also one more great shot: This image below provides a glimpse at the lead Seabiscuit built down the homestretch. It ran in The Los Angeles Times the day after the race:
Finally, here’s a photo of Woolf atop Seabiscuit shortly afterwards (owner Howard is near the horse’s head). It does a nice job showing the crowd that surrounded Seabiscuit after his victory:
I’ve seen football games and World Series shows and heavyweight fights that left goose pimples all over my frame. But I’ve never quite had the thrill that came when this race started.
The unofficial dean of sports writers
- After much speculation and a cancelled race, Samuel D. Riddle and Charles S. Howard agreed to a match race between their horses, War Admiral and Seabiscuit.
- In the 1 ³/₁₆-mile race at Pimlico Race Track in Baltimore, Seabiscuit defeated the 1937 Triple Crown champion by four lengths, winning in a track record 1 minute, 56.6 seconds.
- Seabiscuit retired in 1940 as the highest earning horse of all-time, having taken home $437,730 in 89 races. War Admiral halted his racing career in 1939 due to a rheumatic ailment after winning $273,240 in 26 starts.
I think the race definitely decides the question of which is the better horse. After all, that’s why the race was run, and you see how it turned out.
Charles S. Howard
The owner of Seabiscuit
- Seabiscuit: An American Legend by Laura Hillenbrand (buy on Amazon)
- “MENOW OUTRUNS WAR ADMIRAL”, The Baltimore Sun, June 30, 1938 via Newspapers.com
- “WOOLF PRAISE WINNING MOUNT”, The Baltimore Sun, November 2, 1938 via Newspapers.com
- “SEABISCUIT TOPS ADMIRAL BY THREE LENGTHS BEFORE PIMLICO CROWD OF 40,000”, The Baltimore Sun, November 2, 1938 via Newspapers.com
- “Riverland Sets New Record In Capturing Dixie Handicap At Pimlico”, The Baltimore Sun, May 2, 1943 via Newspapers.com
- “The Spotlight by Grantland Rice”, Dayton Daily News, November 3, 1938 via Newspapers.com
- “SEABISCUIT-WAR ADMIRAL RACE PROPOSED”, The Los Angeles Times, December 15, 1938 via Newspapers.com
- “WAR ADMIRAL TOPS ALL RACE HORSES”, The New York Times, December 10, 1937 via TimesMachine
- “War Admiral to Race Seabiscuit Here May 30”, The New York Times, April 13, 1938 via TimesMachine
- “MATCH SEABISCUIT WITH WAR ADMIRAL”, The New York Times, October 6, 1938 via TimesMachine
- “War Admiral’s Owner Declines Another Match With Seabiscuit”, The New York Times, November 3, 1938 via TimesMachine
- “SEABISCUIT IS FIRST IN POLL OF WRITERS”, The New York Times, December 13, 1938 via TimesMachine
- “WAR ADMIRAL QUITS WITH $273,240 WON “, The New York Times, June 7, 1939 via TimesMachine
- “War Admiral and Seabiscuit Set for Massachusetts ‘Cap”, The Philadelphia Inquirer, June 26, 1938 via Newspapers.com
- “War Admiral Dies in Kentucky”, The Philadelphia Inquirer, October 31, 1959 via Newspapers.com
- “WAR ADMIRAL SOLIDLY BACKED IN EAST”, The San Francisco Chronicle, May 7, 1938 via GenealogyBank
- “Seabiscuit Definitely Retired!”, The San Francisco Examiner, March 12, 1940 via Newspapers.com
- “Seabiscuit Dies”, The San Francisco Examiner, May 19, 1947 via Newspapers.com
- “War Admiral Easily Outclasses Rivals in $15,000 Washington Handicap”, The Washington Post, October 30, 1937 via ProQuest
- “Roosevelt Listens To Seabiscuit Victory”, The Washington Post, November 2, 1938 via ProQuest
- “Seabiscuit Wins Over War Admiral by 3 Lengths”, The Washington Post, November 2, 1938 via ProQuest
- “40,000 Jam Pimlico for ‘Big Race'”, The Washington Post, November 2, 1938 via ProQuest
- “Seabiscuit vs War Admiral: the horse race that stopped the nation”, The Guardian
- “Scientists Extract DNA From Seabiscuit’s Hooves To Figure Out How He Was So Fast”, Smithsonian Magazine
- “Seabiscuit beats War Admiral at own game”, UPI