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Sport: Man o’ Warriors

4 minute read

A year ago no two horse-racing enthusiasts could agree whether War Admiral or Seabiscuit was the No. 1 thoroughbred of 1937. Temperamental War Admiral, undefeated in eight starts (including the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes), was champion of the three-year-olds and the darling of the tracks because of his spectacular habit of getting in front at the start and staying there. Even-tempered, hardy Seabiscuit, a year older and graduated from the three-year-old class into the more difficult handicap class, was champion of his division (eleven victories in 15 starts), was the No. 1 money winner of the year ($168,580), and had a sentimental following because he asked no favors, ran under any weight on any track against all comers.

Both descendants of famed Man o’ War,† War Admiral (his son) had been brought up like Little Lord Fauntleroy, while Seabiscuit (his grandson) had been treated like a fairy-book stepchild—sent out as a breadwinner in 35 overnight races and minor stakes when he was only two years old. As a three-year-old he was entered in a claiming race for $6,000, but no one wanted the homely little son of Hard Tack.

By last spring sportswriters had built up the rivalry of the two Man o’ Warriors (who had never met on the turf) to such a point that even folk whose only acquaintance with a horse was a nod at the morning milkman’s were arguing over The Admiral and The Biscuit. Owner Samuel Riddle (who once refused $250,000 for The Admiral) and Owner Charles S. Howard (who bought The Biscuit from the late Ogden Mills for $7,500 two weeks after he was unclaimed for $6,000) finally agreed to a special race on Memorial Day at Belmont Park—for $100,000, winner-take-all.

Ballyhooed as “the race of the century,” the magnificent bubble burst a few days before the scheduled rendezvous when Owner Howard scratched The Biscuit because of a weak knee. Disgruntled racing fans felt cheated, muttered unpleasant words about Owner Howard’s weak knees. When a subsequent attempt to get the two horses on the same track at the same time failed at the last moment, popular interest subsided.

Last week, with no rataplan of drums, The Admiral and The Biscuit met at Pimlico. The purse was $15,000—mere horse feed. Both had been beaten by mediocre horses since last spring. But 40,000 devotees, nonetheless interested, jampacked the old Civil War race course outside Baltimore. In hushed silence they watched the two thoroughbreds walk up to the starting line,* watched Seabiscuit, with Georgie Woolf up, zoom in front in the first few strides. At the first quarter Seabiscuit was two full lengths ahead. Then a roar swept over the ancient stands: pretty little War Admiral, the favorite, was closing the gap—one length, two lengths. At the half-mile post they were neck & neck; at the three-quarter post they looked like one horse against the autumn background.

Now The Admiral would show his class. But at the mile, coming into the stretch, The Admiral had not yet poked his nose in front. Jockey Kurtsinger gave him the whip. But War Admiral seemed to be standing still. It was Seabiscuit who was pulling away—one length, two lengths, three lengths—in a crazy burst of speed. Still going away when he crossed the finish line four lengths ahead, the little ex-plater set a new track record (1 min., 56 3/5 sec.) for a mile-and-three-sixteenths.

Forty thousand spectators, limp and hoarse, agreed that the race they feared might be as exciting as a warmed-over soufflé turned out to be just what last spring’s publicity had promised: “the race of the century”—even more thrilling than the great Man o’ War-Sir Barton (1920) and Papyrus-Zev (1923) match races.

†But not related, according to the rules of thoroughbred breeding. The female line, not the male, is the basis of all relationships in a pedigree.

*The old-fashioned walk-up start was used because Owner Riddle’s War Admiral dislikes stall gates.

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