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Seabiscuit vs War Admiral: A race for the ages

Learn how Seabiscuit defied the odds and became an iconic figure in horse racing history.

On Nov. 1, 1938, the sold-out crowd at Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore stood elbow to elbow. Two of the greatest horses in history were about to square off against each other in an event that could only be labeled as the “Match of the Century.” One was named War Admiral, a triple crown winner who had won the title of the American Horse of the Year Award the previous year and was considered by many to be invincible. The other was Seabiscuit, an undersized horse who had arguably one of the most unusual paths to eventually becoming not just one of the most iconic names in the history of horse racing, but also a hero to many Americans struggling during the Great Depression.

Seabiscuit’s unorthodox journey
A descendant of fellow legendary horse Man o’ War, Seabiscuit was foaled in 1933 at the iconic Wheatley Stable in Kentucky. Stubborn is one way that Seabiscuit’s trainers describe his upbringing, as the horse displayed little interest in racing during his early years. As PBS reports, James Fitzsimmons, Seabiscuit’s first trainer, recounts the horse as “dead lazy,” but the potential was certainly there.

Seabiscuit’s early racing career was riddled with ugly losses, typically finishing in the back of the field. Fitzsimmons began to focus his training attention to other horses, and the horse was eventually sold to Charles Howard, with training duties shifting to a veteran handler named Tom Smith. When Smith first began working with Seabiscuit, the horse was beyond headstrong, often refusing to eat and was 200 pounds underweight. However, a trusting relationship began to form, and Smith steered Seabiscuit on the path to greatness.

Rise to fame
The tides quickly began to turn after Smith began training Seabiscuit, and in his third season of racing, the horse started to achieve his outstanding potential. By the end of 1937, Seabiscuit had finished first place in 11 of his 15 races, and was the overall money-earning leader in the sport. However, there was still one other horse getting more of the fame and attention. War Admiral was a Triple Crown winner that season, as well as the winner of the American Horse of the Year Award.

Match of the Century
By 1938, America was still feeling the economic impact of the Great Depression, and with WWII developing rapidly in Europe, the public was in dire need of inspiration. The media practically demanded a match solely between Seabiscuit and War Admiral, and after several negotiations and scratched competitions, both parties agreed to find out, once and for all, who was the best horse in the world.

It’s estimated that 40 million people tuned into their radios on Nov. 1, 1938 to listen to the match. While many Americans found themselves rooting for the underdog Seabiscuit, the majority of bets placed were on War Admiral. As the bell sounded, the David versus Goliath race began, and Seabiscuit immediately jumped to the front, capturing a quick lead. War Admiral was behind for most of the race, until Seabiscuit jockey George Woolf used an unconventional tactic, slowing down his horse to let War Admiral catch up. Woolf was told by Seabiscuit’s previous jockey Red Pollard that, “Once a horse gives Seabiscuit the old look-in-the-eye, he begins to run to parts unknown.”

The strategy paid off, as once War Admiral got close, Seabiscuit pulled away down the stretch, winning the match and ultimately pulling off what many consider to be the greatest horse racing upset of all time.

Retirement and legacy
Seabiscuit eventually won the American Horse of the Year Award in 1938, but his racing career ultimately fell victim to many injuries. After a few comebacks and close races, Seabiscuit’s retirement was officially announced on April 10, 1940, which concluded one of the most illustrious careers in horse racing history.

Seabiscuit enjoyed a pleasant retirement at Ridgewood Farms in Santa Barbara, California, and seven years after participating in his final race, Seabiscuit was laid to rest after suffering a heart attack. His legacy not only spawned several books and a Hollywood blockbuster movie, but remains an everlasting icon that helped make horse racing one of the most respected sports in the nation. Don’t miss an opportunity to view this iconic race! click here to watch the video.