The Greatest Horse Race Ever

Relive the thrilling match race in 1938 between War Admiral and Seabiscuit in this excerpt from Laura Hillenbrand's book Seabiscuit.

From New York came the mercurial, exquisitely beautiful War Admiral, emphatic winner of the Triple Crown. From California came Seabiscuit, a crooked-legged former claimer ridden by a half-blind failed prizefighter, trained by a virtually mute mustang breaker, and owned by a bicycle repairman-turned-overnight-millionaire. Blue-blooded War Admiral was the pride of the East and its old money racing establishment. Rags-to-riches Seabiscuit was the idol of the West and the Depression-stricken masses, whose insatiable demand for information about the horse made him 1938’s number one newsmaker, earning more newspaper column inches than Roosevelt, Hitler or any other public figure.

For two years, the question of which horse was superior was the most passionately contested issue in sport. In 1938, Seabiscuit and War Admiral were headed for a monumental showdown that would transfix the entire nation. More than 60 years later, it is still widely regarded as the greatest horse race ever run.

It was the early morning of June 23, 1938, workout hours. At Boston’s Suffolk Downs, horses skittered and blew over the track, slower ones making lazy loops around the oval, faster ones humming down the rail. In the clocker’s stand, men clicked stop-watches and jotted down numbers.

There was a pause, and all eyes refocused up the track. Around the turn came a long man on a low horse. The man was jockey Red Pollard; the horse was Seabiscuit. The horse bent his body to the rail, a fish arcing through a current. He was a rough little animal, and at the gallop he jabbed out with one foreleg, as if he were swatting flies. But he had a tremendous engine on him. Pollard felt the reins burn his hands and knew the horse was scorching the track. Horse and rider flew under the wire. Thumbs banged down on stopwatches: 1:12 1/5 for three-quarters of a mile, scintillating time.

A smile shimmered over the face of Seabiscuit’s trainer, Tom Smith. Bring on War Admiral.

At the barn, Pollard jumped off and began chatting with a local trainer, The man was in a fix. A rider who had promised to gallop his roguish colt, Modern Youth, had not shown up. The workout was the colt’s final preparation before a race, and though the event in question carried a tiny purse, the trainer was dead broke. Pollard had spent 11 years sleeping in horse stalls, earning food money by getting punched bloody in cow town prizefights, and he knew what desperation felt like.

“I’ll work the bum,” he said.

On the backstretch, Pollard gunned Modern Youth up to a breakneck clip. Sailing into the far turn, the colt suddenly bolted right. Pollard couldn’t stop him. The colt plunged through the rail and fled for the stables. He was doing 30 miles per hour or so when he tried to cut between two barns. He skidded sideways and slammed into the corner of a barn, then fell in a heap. A sickening noise ran down the backstretch. It was Pollard, screaming.

His lower left leg had been nearly sheared off. Doctors told him he would probably never walk again.

The Pimlico SPecial Summer descended into fall. Pollard lingered in his hospital bed, enduring operation after operation. The leg wouldn’t heal. His splendid five-foot-seven-inch boxer’s body dwindled to 86 pounds. He sank into depression, His nurse thought he was dying.

A few hundred miles away, the long-awaited deal to bring War Admiral and Seabiscuit together was finally in the offing. Alfred Vanderbilt, Jr., operator of Baltimore’s Pimlico Racetrack, offered to host a 1-3/l6ths mile match race. One issue remained unsettled: the start. Because War Admiral was a hellion at the gate, terrorizing the assistant starters and endangering himself, officials had begun letting him walk to the starting line on the far outside of the gate while other horses broke from a standstill inside it. War Admiral had mastered the “walk-up,” often out breaking the field. To exploit his horse’s skill, War Admiral’s owner, Samuel Riddle, wanted both horses to use the walk-up in the match race.

The demand was grossly unfair. An unusual characteristic of match races is that if one horse grabs a commanding early lead, he usually wins. War Admiral was a half-ton catapult, one of history’s fastest breakers. Seabiscuit, fighting the inertia of a much heavier body, took longer to hit top speed, and virtually all horsemen agreed that trainer Smith couldn’t change that. Even with a gate start, War Admiral held an enormous edge. With a walk-up, which was entirely new to Seabiscuit, the Triple Crown winner’s advantage would be overwhelming. But the issue was a deal-breaker for Riddle.

Seabiscuit’s owner, Charles Howard, conferred with trainer Smith and returned with a counter-demand: the walk-up was acceptable so long as the race started with a bell, not just the traditional starter’s flag. Vanderbilt typed up the terms in a contract, cornered Riddle in New York’s Penn Station, and refused to let him board his train until he signed it. Pollard’s best friend, the supremely talented George “Iceman” Woolf, would substitute for Pollard; Charley Kurtsinger would pilot War Admiral. At four o’clock on November 1, 1938. the “Pimlico Special,” anticipated to be the race of the century, would be run.

“You Could Kill Him Before He’d Quit.” Pollard was lying in his hospital bed when Woolf called. Woolf, like everyone else, thought War Admiral would outbreak Seabiscuit. What strategy should he use? Woolf was stunned by Pollard’s reply. Put the throttle to the floor, Pollard said, and Seabiscuit would beat War Admiral to the first turn. He told Woolf to drive to the lead, but ease up on the backstretch. When the Admiral came after him, he said, do something completely unexpected and probably unprecedented: Let him catch up.

It was a startling plan. If War Admiral’s breaking speed could be neutralized, Pollard said, the race would become a contest of toughness, and this was Seabiscuit’s great strength. “Once a horse gives Seabiscuit the old look-in-the-eye, he begins to run to parts unknown,” Pollard said. “He gets gamer and gamer, the tougher it gets.” Once War Admiral hooked Seabiscuit, he concluded, ‘race him into the ground.”

Pollard was asking Woolf to violate every tenet of reinsmanship. If he was wrong, his strategy would hand the victory to War Admiral. But Pollard understood the horse better than anyone, and Woolf knew it. He came to view the race as Pollard did, as a test of mettle, and he had never seen a competitor fiercer than Seabiscuit. “You could kill him,” he said, “before he’d quit.” Woolf agreed to follow Pollard’s advice.

Anticipating that Riddle would insist on the walk-up, Smith and Pollard had spent the summer using unorthodox lessons to prepare Seabiscuit for the task. Early each morning in the weeks before Pollard’s accident, trainer and jockey had brought a bell and a buggy whip to the track with Seabiscuit. Smith would step behind the horse, ding the bell, and flick the whip over the horse’s heels just as Pollard broke into frantic urging, sending Seabiscuit hurtling forward. It was a perfectly conceived exercise in classical conditioning. Like any prey animal, Seabiscuit was hardwired to lunge at the touch of the whip to his hindquarters, a simulation of a predator’s grasp. By pairing the whip with the bell, Smith was teaching Seabiscuit to associate one with the other, so that he would have the same reaction to each: Run. Seabiscuit was a quick study. After two starts, he was long gone before Smith could wave the whip.

On the day after the match-race deal was made, Smith began reconditioning the horse to Woolf’s urging and Pimlico’s bell. Climbing the starter’s stand, he rang the bell, It clanged like an alarm clock. Returning to the barn, he gathered redwood planks, a telephone and an alarm clock. Dismantling the clock and the phone, he rigged up a bell with the alarm and the phone batteries, then fashioned a redwood box to hold the works. He took Seabiscuit, Woolf and the box to the track.

Spectators, who mobbed the track to watch the horses train, murmured at the sight of the box. Smith lined up Seabiscuit and buzzed the bell, and Woolf threw the reins up on the horse’s neck and sent him jackrabbiting down the track. Day after day, Woolf and Smith repeated the starts dozens of times. Seabiscuit, clearly enjoying himself, began blowing off the line with explosive power.

Up the track, horsemen gathered for the post position draw. Each camp wanted the rail, which, if their horse could hold it, would ensure the shortest trip. If Seabiscuit drew the rail, observers thought, he might still have a chance. If War Admiral drew it, they believed the race would be over before it began.

War Admiral drew the rail.

“Seabiscuit Americans” and “War Admiral Americans” As November 1 approached, America hung in midair. The entire nation was obsessed with the coming contest. Coverage saturated newspapers and radio, and the division between the horses’ supporters deepened into a fanatical contest of East versus West. “The whole country is divided into two camps,” wrote the San Francisco Chronicle. “People who never saw a horse race in their lives are taking sides. If the issue were deferred another week, there would be a civil war between the War Admiral Americans and the Seabiscuit Americans.” In the horses’ camps, the tension was agonizing. Only Pollard was lighthearted. On the race’s eve, he sent a telegram to Woolf: THERE IS ONE SURE WAY OF WINNING WITH THE BISCUIT. YOU RIDE WAR ADMIRAL.

That night, Pimlico was quiet. In the darkness, Woolf walked onto the course, clutching a flashlight. The track was damp, and he worried that Seabiscuit might struggle over it. Walking around the far turn, the jockey weaved back and forth, hunting for the driest path.

At the top of the homestretch, he stopped. Under his boot he felt a firm strip, a tractor wheelprint, hidden by harrows. He traced it around the entire oval, a few feet from the rail. “I figures to myself,” he said later, “Woolf, get on that lane and follow it.” He walked the course until he had memorized the path, then stepped off the track.

“I knew it,” he said later, “like an airplane pilot knows a radio beam.”

The morning of the race dawned sharp and clear. Fearing that the crowd would swamp his little 16,000-seat track, Vanderbilt had set the race for a Tuesday, hoping that weekday work commitments would limit attendance. They didn’t. All day, cars and special trains disgorged thousands of passengers from every corner of the world. By the time the horses entered the paddock, 30,000 people teemed in the grandstand and clubhouse. Ten thousand more swarmed in the infield, barely restrained by a police line and a retaining fence about 10 feet inside the track rail. Outside the track, some 10,000 fans who couldn’t get in stood on every rooftop, fence, tree limb and telephone pole as far as a mile from the starting line, hoping to catch a glimpse of the race.

In the paddock, the horses were saddled. As Smith cinched Seabiscuit’s girth, Charles Howard’s wife, Marcela, stepped forward and pinned a medal of Saint Christopher, patron saint of travelers, to the saddlecloth. “This will bring you luck,” she whispered.

There was a nervous stir. The starter’s bell suddenly wouldn’t work. With no other options, officials asked to borrow Smith’s homemade bell. The trainer nodded. Years later, a reporter noticed a devious gleam in Smith’s eye when he recalled this incident, making one wonder if the old cowboy had some role in the official bell’s demise. George Woolf strode in, swung lightly aboard Seabiscuit, and spat in the air. Kurtsinger slipped up on War Admiral. It was four o’clock. The horses turned toward the course.

War Admiral emerged first, twirling and bobbing. Seabiscuit followed, head down. A witness compared him to a milk-truck horse. Another thought he exhibited “complete, overwhelming and colossal indifference.” The appearance was deceiving. Woolf could feel it. He sensed a gathering beneath him, something spring-like. The horse was coiling up.

Unable to wade through the crowd to reach his race-calling post, NBC radioman Clem McCarthy shinnied onto the track rail to call the race from there. His voice crackled over the radio waves to 40 million listeners, including President Roosevelt. Drawn up by his White House radio, FDR was so absorbed in the broadcast that he kept a roomful of advisors waiting. He wouldn’t emerge until the race was over.

In the press box, War Admiral was the toast of the newsmen. Every single Daily Racing Form handicapper had picked him to win, as had some 95 percent of the other writers. Only a militant sect of California newsmen was siding with Seabiscuit. Down in the stands, the allegiances were less clear. War Admiral was the heavy betting favorite, but reporters found that most racegoers were pulling for the underdog.

“So long, Charley.” The track was one mile around and the race a mile and three-sixteenths, so the start was at the top of the homestretch, with the horses set to circle the course roughly one and a quarter times. As War Admiral trotted to the line by the flagman and the starter, Woolf worked to fray the Triple Crown winner’s famously delicate nerves. He shrugged off the starter’s summons and cantered off the wrong way around the track.

On the backstretch, he pulled up. It was quiet. The infield crowds were massed along the homestretch, leaving the backstretch oddly vacant. Seabiscuit gazed at the throng, stirring gently in the sunshine; Woolf studied War Admiral, watching him unravel at the starting line. After a long interval, he cantered Seabiscuit back and drew up by War Admiral. The flagman raised his arm and the starter poised his finger over the button on Smith’s bell. Seabiscuit and War Admiral walked toward the line together.

At the last moment, something felt wrong to Woolf. He jerked his right rein and pulled Seabiscuit out . Kurtsinger reined up War Admiral, who bounced up and down in frustration. They lined up again and stepped forward, but this time it was Kurtsinger who reined out. The horses trotted back to the turn and began walking up again. Woolf tightened his left rein, tipping Seabiscuit’s head toward War Admiral to let him focus on his opponent. The horses were perfectly even. The flagman’s hand was high in the air. In the Howard box, Marcela squeezed her eyes shut.

The two noses passed over the line together, the flag flashed down, and Smith’s bell clanged over the hushed track. War Admiral and Seabiscuit burst off the line at precisely the same instant.

The gathering Woolf had felt in Seabiscuit vented itself in a massive downward push. Seabiscuit’s front end rose up, and Woolf threw himself forward as ballast. Seabiscuit reached out and clawed at the ground in front of him, pulling the homestretch under his body and flinging it behind him. Beside him, War Admiral scratched and tore at the track, hurling himself forward as hard as he could. For thirty yards, the two horses hurtled past the grandstand side by side, their irregular strides settling into open lunges, their speed building and building.

From the grandstand came a gasp. Seabiscuit’s muzzle forged to the front, then his throat, then his neck. Mccarthy’s voice was suddenly shrill. “Seabiscuit is outrunning him!” War Admiral was kicking so hard that his hind legs were nearly thumping into his girth, but he couldn’t keep up.

A terrible realization sank into Kurtsinger’s mind: Seabiscuit is faster. In the press box, the Californians roared.

After a sixteenth of a mile, Seabiscuit was half a length ahead. Woolf had his eyes on the tractor wheelprint, but War Admiral was on it, Seabiscuit had to get far enough in front to cross over and claim it. Woolf let him roll. By the time he and his mount hit the finish line for the first time, they were two lengths ahead. Woolf looked left and right, pulled his left rein and slid Seabiscuit in until he felt the firm ground of the tractor imprint under him. He dropped his chin and flew toward the turn.

Behind him, Kurtsinger was shell-shocked, lips peeled back, teeth clenched. In seconds, Seabiscuit had nullified War Admiral’s post position edge and his legendary breaking speed. Kurtsinger didn’t panic. War Admiral, though outfooted, was running well, and he had a Triple Crown winner’s staying power. Seabiscuit was going much, much too fast; he couldn’t possibly last. Kurtsinger made a new plan. He’d let Seabiscuit burn up on the lead, then run him down. He eased War Admiral over until he was directly behind Seabiscuit, dragging off him. He took hold of his horse and waited.

As the horses banked into the turn, Woolf remembered Pollard’s advice to reel his horse in. He pulled back slightly and felt Seabiscuit’s stride shorten. His action was little more than a faint gesture, but it meant that Kurtsinger had to either slow down or swing outside. Kurtsinger chose the latter, nudging War Admiral out.

Seabiscuit cruised into the backstretch. War Admiral hunted him. The blur of faces along the rail thinned and the cheering paled to a distant rumble. Woolf executed Pollard’s instructions. Edging Seabiscuit out from the rail, he called to Kurtsinger: “Hey, get on up here with me! We’re supposed to have a horse race here! What’re you doing lagging?”

Kurtsinger studied the ground ahead. Woolf was dangling the rail slot in front of him, inviting him to take it back. Kurtsinger measured the gap between Seabiscuit and the rail. War Admiral was narrow enough to get through. But Kurtsinger knew the Iceman too well. He knew that the instant he drove for the hole, Woolf would drop left, forcing him to change course and lose momentum. Kurtsinger shifted War Admiral outside. He reached back and cracked his colt once across the hip.

War Admiral lunged forward. A shout rang out in the crowd: “Here he comes!” Woolf heard the wave of voices and knew what was happening. In a few strides, War Admiral’s head was beside Seabiscuit’s shoulder. A few more, and he was even. Kurtsinger thought: I’ve got it won. The grandstand shook.

Woolf loosened his fingers and let an inch or two of rein slide through. Seabiscuit lowered his head and accelerated. He cocked an ear toward his rival: listening, watching. He refused to let War Admiral pass. The battle was joined.

The horses stretched out over the track moving at a seething clip. Their strides, each 21 feet long, fell in perfect sync. They rubbed shoulders and hips, heads snapping up and reaching out together, legs gathering up and unfolding in unison. The pace was impossible: At the mile mark, they were almost a full second below a 15-year-old speed record. The rail slipped up under them and unwound behind.

They ripped out of the backstretch and leaned together into the final turn. The crowds by the rails thickened, their faces a pointillism of colors, the dappling sound distinct voices now blending into a sustained, deafening roar. Kurtsinger began yelling, his voice whipped away behind him. He drove furiously, sweeping over his mount’s right side. War Admiral was slashing at the air, reaching deeper and deeper into himself. The stands were boiling over. A reporter, screaming and jumping, fell halfway out of the press box. His colleagues snatched his shirttails and hauled him back in. Throughout the crowd, several dozen spectators dropped to the ground, fainting from the excitement.

The horses bent around the far turn and flew at the crowd. Woolf was still, his eyes trained on War Admiral’s head. He could see that Seabiscuit was looking right at War Admiral. War Admiral glared back at him, eyes wide open. Woolf saw Seabiscuit’s ears flatten and knew the critical moment was near. One horse was going to crack.

As 40,000 voices shouted them on, War Admiral thrust his head in front.

Woolf looked at War Admiral’s elegant head, sweeping through the air like a sickle. He could see the depth of the colt’s effort in his large amber eye, rimmed in crimson and white. It was rolling in its socket, he recalled later, “as if the horse was in agony.” Woolf dropped low and called into Seabiscuit’s ear, asking for everything he had. Seabiscuit gave it to him. War Admiral tried to answer. Woolf felt a subtle hesitation in his opponent, a wavering. The dark bay colt’s tongue shot out of the side of his mouth. Seabiscuit had broken him.

War Admiral clung to Seabiscuit for a few strides, then began to drop away. He slid from Seabiscuit’s side as if gravity were pulling him backward. Seabiscuit’s ears flipped up. Woolf made a small motion with his hand.

“So long, Charley.” He had coined a phrase that jockeys would use for decades.

Galloping low with Woolf flat over his back, Seabiscuit flew into the lane, the peninsula of track narrowing ahead as the hysterical crowd swelled forward, as if it might swallow him. Thousands of spectators stormed over the infield retaining fence and rushed to the track rail inches from the horses, leaning over it and waving. Others stood atop the rail by the wire, bending down toward Seabiscuit and screaming. Clem McCarthy’s voice was breaking into his microphone: “Seabiscuit by three! Seabiscuit by three!” He had never heard such noise Hats waved and arms flailed and mouths gaped in incredulity as Seabiscuit came on, ears wagging. Thousands of hands reached out from the infield to slap his chest as he blew past.

In deep stretch, Woolf looked back at War Admiral and felt a stab of empathy. “He looked all broken up,” he later said. “Horses, Mister, can have crushed hearts like humans.”

The Iceman straightened out and rode under the wire, laughing into his horse’s mane. Seabiscuit sailed into history four lengths ahead, running easy.

Pandemonium ensued. Seabiscuit’s wake created an irresistible vacuum, sucking the fans in behind him. Thousands of spectators vaulted over the rails, gushed onto the track, and ran after him, leaping and shouting. Ahead of them all, Woolf stood in the irons like a titan. He cupped his hand around his mouth and yelled some thing back at Kurtsinger. His words were lost in the cheering.

“The Other Horse Refused to Quit” In the Howard box, Marcela’s eyes opened and filled with tears. Her d sprang up and whooped. Nearby, Riddle lowered his binoculars, turned to the Howard and smiled weakly, then hurried away, his eyes wide and shining with the shock.

Howard sprinted downstairs as fast as could go, babbling and shaking hands. He dashed into the mob on the track and began jumping up and down with the fans. The race time lit up the tote board and the croud roared anew. Seabiscuit had run the mile three-sixteenths in 1:56 3/5. No horse in Pimlico’s history, through thousands of had tried stretching back nearly to the Civil War, had ever run the distance as fast.

Woolf cantered Seabiscuit back. The people enveloped them, shouting, “Georgie, Georgie!” McCarthy shoved his way up; propped his microphone on Seabiscuit’s withers. Woolf bent to it.

“I wish my old pal Red had been on instead of me,” he said. “See ya, Red.”

Kurtsinger pulled War Admiral up and sagged in the saddle, weeping. War Admiral had run arguably the greatest race of his life, lopping more than a second off his best time for the distance, but it had not been enough. As a groom took the bridle, Kurtsinger slid off, whispered something in the horse’s ear, and walked away.

It took 15 minutes to clear a path for Seabiscuit to leave the winner’s circle. Woolf and Smith, mobbed by well-wishers, walked to the jockeys’ room and stopped in the doorway. “If only Red could have seen Biscuit run today,” Woolf said.

“Yeah,” said Smith, a smile dying on his lips. “But I kinda think the redhead was riding along with you, George.”

On a bench inside, Kurtsinger was pulling off his boots and quietly crying. Someone gently asked him what happened.

“We just couldn’t make it,” he said. “The Admiral came to him and looked him in the eye, but that other horse refused to quit. We gave all we had. It just wasn’t good enough.”

In the hospital, Pollard greeted reporters with a rhyme:

The weather was clear, the track fast. War Admiral broke first and finished last.

“What did you think of it?” a newsman asked.

“He did just what I’d thought he’d do.”

“What was that?”

“He made a Rear Admiral out of War Admiral.”

An envelope from Woolf arrived. Inside was $1,500, half the jockey’s purse.

That night the Howards stayed up late in their hotel, surrounded by reporters. The newsmen asked if Seabiscuit would be retired; he was an aging warrior now, about to turn 6. Charles shook his head. Beating War Admiral had always been a secondary ambition. Seabiscuit’s phenomenal career–the enormous obstacles overcome, the smashing victories and gut-wrenching near misses–all pointed to one final challenge: California’s $100,000 Santa Anita Handicap, the world’s richest race. They were taking Seabiscuit west to make a run at it. Pollard was leaving the hospital to join them, hoping he could somehow learn to walk again and ride the horse to the one victory that had eluded them. They could not have foreseen the epic struggle that lay ahead.

Excerpted from the book Seabiscuit: An American Legend, by Laura Hillenbrand; copyright ? 2001. Reprinted by arrangement with Random House Trade Publishing, a division of Random House, Inc. For more information, visit




Related Posts

Gray horse head in profile on EQ Extra 89 cover
What we’ve learned about PPID
Do right by your retired horse
Tame your horse’s anxiety
COVER EQ_EXTRA-VOL86 Winter Care_fnl_Page_1
Get ready for winter!


"*" indicates required fields


Additional Offers

Additional Offers
This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.