OTD in History… November 1, 1938, Seabiscuit defeats Triple Crown winner War Admiral in a match race at Pimlico
By Bonnie K. Goodman, BA, MLIS
On this day in history, November 1, 1938, famed racehorses Seabiscuit and 1937 Triple Crown winner War Admiral met for the Race of the Century, a two-horse special at Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore, Maryland with underdog Seabiscuit the winner by four lengths and going on to become the 1938 Horse of the Year and the top newsmaker. Seabiscuit was the little horse that could, an underdog that bloomed after a difficult racing start, capturing the hearts of the American public during the Great Depression. Seabiscuit would become the top moneymaking racehorse up to that era and ranked 25th of all horses in the 20th century and voted into the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame in 1958 the same as rival War Admiral. Seabiscuit became a legend captured in books and films, including the 2003 movie Seabiscuit nominated for seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture.
Seabiscuit was the son of Hard Tack, whose sire was one of the greatest horses of the 20th century Man O’War. Seabiscuit had a difficult start to his racing career in an era where horses faced heavy and frequent race schedules; he could not win his first 17 starts as a two-year-old. Famed trainer “Sunny Jim” Fitzsimmons was too preoccupied with 1935 Triple Crown-winning Omaha to spend time with Seabiscuit whom he found lazy. Seabiscuit raced 35 times in his first winning five times, including two notable at Narragansett Park, where he set a track record. His three-year-old season started the same; Seabiscuit raced 12 races in four months winning four. While Fitzsimmons did not give him the attention he deserved, trainer Tom Smith took notice of Seabiscuit’s potential when he saw him race on June 29, 1936, at Suffolk Downs.
Smith recommended to Charles S. Howard to purchase Seabiscuit in August for $8,000 at a race in Saratoga. Soon Smith was training Seabiscuit Smith turned Seabiscuit’s racing around and gave him a new jockey Canadian Red Pollard. Soon Seabiscuit was on a winning streak in the east. Smith then decided to ship Seabiscuit to California where he won his last two races in 1936, the Bay Bridge Handicap and World’s Fair Handicap Bay Meadow’s racetrack the “most prestigious stakes race.”
At the start of Seabiscuit’s four-year-old season in 1937, he was working towards the prestigious Santa Anita Handicap “The Hundred Grander” at Santa Anita Park. He won his first race, however, after being bumped in San Antonio Handicap, he finished fifth, where Rosemont won. The Santa Anita Handicap was another matchup with Rosemont, who won by a nose. The loss was attributed to Pollard, who kept secret his blindness in one eye from an accident. Despite the loss, Seabiscuit would continue with a summer winning streak while becoming a fan favorite, especially on the west coast. For the remainder of the season, Smith moved Seabiscuit to the east when the track was slow and heavy Seabiscuit lost the Narragansett Special at Narragansett Park, where he finished third breaking his streak. However, the rest of the season would prove fruitful with Seabiscuit winning his next three races but coming in second at his last race at Pimlico.
Seabiscuit won 11 out of fifteen races in the 1937 campaign and was the “leading money winner,” but he lost horse of the year honors to that year’s Triple Crown winner War Admiral setting up a rivalry that would come to a head in the 1938 campaign. At the start of the 1938 campaign, Seabiscuit was without his jockey, Pollard was injured riding another Smith horse Fair Knightess and was out. It took three jockeys for Smith to settle on George Woolf to ride Seabiscuit. Their first race was Seabiscuit’s second attempt at the Santa Anita Handicap after getting entangled with another horse Seabiscuit caught up but lost in a “photo finish” to Santa Anita Derby winner Stagehand.
Early on in the season there was talk that Seabiscuit and War Admiral would meet in a matchup, they were set to race in three races but each time they were scratched, usually, it was Seabiscuit because of the track. Their owners settled on May 24, 1938, for a match race at Belmont but “Seabiscuit was scratched,” when Smith was cautious over a possible injury to Seabiscuit’s leg. In June, Pollard was recovered only to be injured again, in what was a crushing blow, a career-ending injury to his leg. In the interim, Seabiscuit ran a match race with Ligaroti, a horse owned by actor Bing Crosby and Howard’s son. Seabiscuit handily won the race at Del Mar Racetrack in Del Mar, California.
Throughout 1938, Seabiscuit’s connections pressured Samuel Riddle, War Admiral’s owner to set up a match race between their two horses. Alfred Vanderbilt, the owner of the Pimlico Race Course was willing to host the event but Riddle balked, he did not think Seabiscuit a good enough horse to go up against his Triple Crown winner. Laura Hillenbrand, who authored Seabiscuit: An American Legend remarked, “Horse racing in the West was considered second rate. War Admiral’s owner did not consider it dignified to have his horse run against a horse like Seabiscuit.” Howard had the press drum up support for the race and put pressure on Riddle. There were practical reasons that pushed the race back a couple of times, including “weather, scheduling and money issues.” Riddle finally agreed to the race at Pimlico with just a purse of $15,000.
Seabiscuit would go on to win just one more out of three races before he was again set to meet War Admiral for a Pimlico Special. Scheduled for November 1, Seabiscuit would meet up with War Admiral with his jockey Charles Kurtsinger at the race publicized as the “Match of the Century” and would run on 1 3/16 miles (1.9 km). The stands were filled up with 40,000 fans and hundreds of reporters set to see the Biscuit and the Triple Crown champion, and another 40 million listening on the radio. Among the listeners was the President of the United States Franklin Roosevelt, who stopped a cabinet meeting at the White House to hear the event. Despite the fans, War Admiral was the odds-on favorite to win the race.
As the Great Depression hung on and war in Europe loomed, Americans stopped for what was one of the most anticipated sporting events of the century. Plimico did not even have space that many attendees. There was room comfortably for 15,000; another 10,000 were in the infield, the remaining outside and around the track. Vanderbilt scheduled the race for Tuesday, hoping to limit the number of people attending but nothing stopped Americans from seeing the race. Hillenbrand recounted, “They didn’t know what to do with all the people. They funneled 10,000 people into the infield. People were hanging from the rafters in the grandstand. Thousands more were outside the track, hanging from trees, standing on rooftops. All of America was holding its breath for this race.”
Part of the agreement for the race was that Riddle chose the terms; there would be no starting gates instead, the race would start with a bell ringing. The terms favored War Admiral, who was a fast starter, did not like starting gates, and whose hoof had been injured in the starting gate at the Belmont the year before, and match races favored fast starters. Seabiscuit liked to start slower, keep pace, and “then take the lead.” Smith worked to train Seabiscuit to start quickly with the ring of a bell. Seabiscuit became used to Smith’s bell. Part of the myth was that right before the race, Smith took Plimico’s starting bell, and they asked Seabiscuit’s trainer for his bell. Hillenbrand recounts, “No one was ever able to confirm if Tom (Smith) took it but reporters said there was a sparkle in his eye when asked about it.”
The track was muddy from days of rain, something Seabiscuit had an aversion to, Smith scoured the track the night before finding the perfect trail near the rail for Seabiscuit to run. At post time, Seabiscuit was 2–1, while War Admiral was 1-to-4 and the favorite. Seabiscuit started fast; after 20 seconds, he led War Admiral by over a length and then switched to the rail where at one point, Seabiscuit was two lengths ahead. The Triple Crown winner soon caught up in the backstretch, and two alternated with being ahead by just barely ahead at a time. Pollard told Woolf to keep Seabiscuit racing near War Admiral so he can see his rival than speed up, which he did after the last turn, winning by four lengths in a track record speed of 1:56 3/5. Although War Admiral did his best speed for the distance, he could not keep up with Seabiscuit. William Nack of Sports Illustrated, who covered Secretariat’s Triple Crown run, commented in 1999, “George Woolf always said he never had more fun on a racehorse than he did that day in 1938 at Pimlico, when Tom Smith, the horse’s trainer, lifted Woolf aboard Seabiscuit for the big match race against War Admiral.”
Sports reporter Grantland Rice, who was among the hundreds covering the race, wrote:
“A little horse with the heart of a lion and the flying feet of a gazelle yesterday proved his place as the gamest thoroughbred that ever faced over an American track. In one of the greatest match races ever run in the ancient history of the turf, the valiant Seabiscuit not only conquered the great War Admiral but, beyond this, he ran the beaten son of Man O’War into the dirt and dust of Pimlico…..the drama and the melodrama of this match race, held before a record crowd keyed to the highest tension I have seen in sport, set an all-time mark.”
Horseracing does not have the excitement it did then; the public just does not have the interest it did. There were horses since then that excited the public including Secretariat most recently, fan-favorite California Chrome and Triple Crown winners American Pharoah and Justify but not to the same extent. Hillenbrand indicates, “Horse racing was in its heyday, and Seabiscuit was an enormous cult hero. He was the number one newsmaker in 1938, a star with the kind of magnitude you don’t see today. He was the horse from the other side of the tracks who became a champion.”
Edward Bowen, author of War Admiral recounts, “It captured the imagination of the public. It had all kinds of social implications.” Bowen explains, “A horse race had the potential to attract a frenzy that would be difficult to imagine today. Horse racing occupied a higher place in the public consciousness than it does now. Baseball, boxing, and horse racing were the dominant sports of the time. And this horse race had all the ingredients that made a terrific story.” Allan Carter, a historian at the National Museum of Racing, explains that the times contribute to the excitement, “The race gave people a temporary respite from the daily hardships caused by the Great Depression.”
Although Seabiscuit won, his match race against War Admiral, the ultimate prize the Santa Anita handicap still eluded him. Early in his six-year-old season in 1939, Seabiscuit ran in the Los Angeles Handicap at Santa Anita, he finished second but Woolf noticed his leg was injured. Even before the race, Smith, and Howard contemplated scratching the horse because a possible injury but the crowd was too large at Santa Anita. The injury was a ruptured suspensory ligament in Seabiscuit’s left front leg, it seemed almost certain Seabiscuit’s riding career was over. Seabiscuit recovered at Howard’s ranch were his former jockey Pollard was also convalescing. Pollard had turned to acholicism, in an attempt to save his leg’s functioning a doctor broke and reset his leg. Together jockey and horse recuperated and with the help of a brace was able to get upon Seabiscuit and ride again.
Throughout the year, Seabiscuit improved. By the winter Seabiscuit was ready for training for his seven-year-old and the 1940 season. Pollard begged Smith to return as Seabiscuit’s jockey. They ran their first race together on February 9, 1940, at the La Jola Handicap at Santa Anita Park, where he was third losing by two lengths. Seabiscuit won his third race the San Antonio Handicap against training mate Kayak II by two and a half lengths and equally the track record the mile and 1/16 distance.
The next week was the big race, the one that alluded Seabiscuit the Santa Anita Handicap, where 78,000 came to cheer the Biscuit. Throughout the race, Seabiscuit faced setbacks first; he was blocked, after getting through the pack Seabiscuit led in the only to be blocked again in the backstretch by Whichcee and Wedding Call. Pollard pushed Seabiscuit through them and into the lead and winning the prized hundred grander by a comfortable length and a half. The moment was Seabiscuit’s second crowning moment and the crowning glory of his career.
Hillenbrand opened her book Seabiscuit: An American Legend describing the American phenomenon known as Seabiscuit. Hillenbrand wrote, “The subject of the most newspaper column inches in 1938 wasn’t even a person. It was an undersized, crooked-legged racehorse named Seabiscuit. In the latter half of the Depression, Seabiscuit was nothing short of a cultural icon in America, enjoying adulation so intense and broad-based that it transcended sport. His appearances smashed attendance records at nearly every major track and drew two of the three largest throngs ever to see a horse race in the United States. In an era when the United States’ population was less than half its current size, seventy-eight thousand people witnessed his last race, a crowd comparable to those at today’s Super Bowls.” Seabiscuit was retired shortly after winning the prized Santa Anita Handicap on April 10, 1940, where he stood Ridgewood Ranch in Willits, California holding court for thousands in the seven years before he died of a heart attack at age 14.
Bowen, Edward L. War Admiral. Lexington, KY: Eclipse Press, 2002.
Congdon, Lee. Legendary Sports Writers of the Golden Age: Grantland Rice, Red Smith, Shirley Povich, and W.C. Heinz. Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield, 2017.
Hillenbrand, Laura. Seabiscuit: An American Legend. New York: Ballantine Books, 2003.
 Lee Congdon, Legendary Sports Writers of the Golden Age: Grantland Rice, Red Smith, Shirley Povich, and W.C. Heinz, (Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield, 2017), 30.
 Laura Hillenbrand, Seabiscuit: An American Legend, (New York: Ballantine Books, 2003), xxvi.
Bonnie K. Goodman, BA, MLIS is a journalist, librarian, and historian. She is the author of Silver Boom! The Rise and Decline of Leadville, Colorado as the United States Silver Capital, 1860–1896, The Mysterious Prince of the Confederacy: Judah P. Benjamin and the Jewish goal of whiteness in the South, We Used to be Friends? The Long Complicated History of Jews, Blacks, and Anti-Semitism, and the viral article, “OTD in History… October 19, 1796, Alexander Hamilton accuses Thomas Jefferson of having an affair with his slave creating a 200-year-old controversy over Sally Hemings.”
Ms. Goodman has a BA in History and Art History, and a Masters in Library and Information Studies both from McGill University has done graduate work in Jewish history at Concordia University as part of the MA in Judaic Studies, where she focused Medieval and Modern Judaism. Her research area is North American Jewish history, particularly American Jewish history, and her thesis was entitled, “Unconditional Loyalty to the Cause: Southern Whiteness, Jewish Women, and Antisemitism, 1860–1913.”
Ms. Goodman contributed the overviews and chronologies to the “History of American Presidential Elections, 1789–2008,” edited by Gil Troy, Arthur M. Schlesinger, and Fred L. Israel (2012). She is the former Features Editor at the History News Network and reporter at Examiner.com, where she covered politics, universities, religion, and news. She currently blogs at Medium, where she was a top writer in history and regularly writes on “On This Day in History (#OTD in #History)” Feature and on the Times of Israel. Her scholarly articles can be found on Academia.edu. She has over a dozen years of experience in education and political journalism.