The Inaugural Pimlico Special, 1937

May 13th 2008 02:19 am |

When thinking about the history of the Pimlico Special most would think of the 1938 match race between War Admiral and Seabiscuit. However, the first Pimlico Special was held a year before as part of a ‘stake-a-day’ fall meeting organized by Alfred G. Vanderbilt, Pimlico’s 25-year-old majority stockholder and president. Racing historian Tim Capps wrote of Vanderbilt, “he didn’t fit the genre of the old money crowd…He had a sense of what the fans wanted. He understood the value of promotion. He was willing to take chances.” His stake-a-day meeting was one of the many innovative ideas that Vanderbilt brought to ‘Old Hilltop’ in an effort to attract better horses and bigger crowds.

The Washington Post reported on Pimlico’s Stake-a-Day meeting on October 31, 1937:

“Tomorrow will witness the opening of Pimlico’s much heralded ‘stake a day’ meeting, a meeting in fact which may be called a roundup of champions. In the 11 stakes to be decided within ten days the champion of every division is represented, including War Admiral, Seabiscuit, and Menow.

My comment: “A roundup of champions” at the end of the calender year — you can’t help but think of this meet as an early incarnation of what would become the Breeders Cup.

“Exactly when these leaders will go post-ward is uncertain as all three are entered in at least two stake events; War Admiral and Seabiscuit are scheduled to meet each other in the Riggs and the Bowie with the possibility of War Admiral being favored in the Pimlico Special…”

“If War Admiral goes in the Pimlico Special, which is for 3-year-olds exclusively and will be run on Wednesday, he will most likely have to meet Heefly, Burning Star, Eagle Pass, Delloe, Strabo, and War Minstrel.

“In the three and upward class the handicap champion, Seabiscuit, will most likely face Calumet Dick, War Admiral, Cabellero II, Fair Knightess, Burning Star and host of others.”

“On three mornings of the 10 day meeting the track will be the scene of more than just the usual routine. On Friday November 5, there will be a race for gentlemen riders over the flat; on Saturday, Futurity Day, there will be a parade of Maryland stallions, and on Monday there will be the auction of the stable of Cornelius Vanderbilt Whitney, who has announced his retirement from racing.”

The fourth day of the stakes series featured the Pimlico Special with the Triple Crown winner War Admiral scaring away much of the competition.

Bill Benning, handicapper and author of the “At the Post” column in the Washington Post, reported the day before the first Pimlico Special (November 3, 1937):

“War Admiral goes again today providing that track conditions do not change before post time. The champion meets horses of his own age in the $7,500 Pimlico Special and despite top impost of 128 pounds promises to continue his winning streak. He gives away from 13 to 30 pounds and with few exceptions he meets horses which have finished behind him before. Trainer George Conway had him on the track this morning and the Man O’ War colt stepped a half in .51. It was reveled that War Admiral has been named for the $50,000 Widener Challenge Cup and the $100,000 Santa Anita Handicap. Both events are on March 5 and the Riddle forces will choose one of those races soon. This will be the first time that the Glen Riddle Farm has raced in winter in years and is concrete evidence that the Owner Riddle intends to send War Admiral after Sun Beau’s all-time money-winning crown. War Admiral will be going the distance he prefers today–a mile and three sixteenths–the same route at which he won the Preakness here.”

It is interesting that no mention is made about War Admiral running in the two races for older horses mentioned in the other article. War Admiral had won two races for ‘3 and up’ in his previous two starts at Laurel Park on October 26th and 30th (an allowance race and the Washington Handicap). These were his first two starts since winning the Belmont Stakes in June.

Here is an advertisement from the Post for a bus trip from D.C. to Pimlico on the day of the race. Notice that it refers to the race as the “War Admiral Special.”:

As expected, War Admiral won the inaugural Pimlico Special. However, not as impressively as expected. Washington Post correspondent Walter Haight wrote the following about the race:

“War Admiral will not race again this year.

“This announcement was made tonight by Samuel D. Riddle owner of the 3-year-old champion, following the Admiral’s poor showing in winning the Pimlico Special this afternoon. Trainer George Conway will be given a two-month vacation.

“War Admiral won by default. Belying his title of ‘super-horse’ the son of Man o’ War felt the sting of the whip and eked out a victory only because one of his three rivals ran to the outside fence at the turn into the stretch. Appearing anything but a champion, War Admiral came to the finish line a length and a half in advance of Masked General heretofore obscure 3-year-old which ran a half city block further than the son of Man o’ War.

“In trouble for the first time in his career despite the vest pocket field. War Admiral did not handle himself in his accustomed superior fashion and was trailing what appeared to be a potential winner by a length in a half entering the stretch. Unable to get to the front at any stage until presented with the lead, War Admiral was doing his best until the final 20 yards of the 1 3/16 miles race.

Low Odds Set Record

“War Admiral went to the post one of the shortest favorites in Maryland history. The lights on the approximate odds board were turned off when the price shrunk below 1 to 9 and was announced that the colt was 1 to 20. By paying a $2.10 mutuel to win and the same to place, the lowest prices possible under the State’s mutuel law, the track was forced to dig into the ‘breakage’ to make up the difference.

“Jockey Charlie Kurtsinger, who was ridden War Admiral in all his starts, said after the race that the 3-year-old champion failed to get into the stride until the stretch. According to the jockey, War Admiral was not getting into firm footing and the ground broke from under him. However, War Admiral appeared to be in his usual good condition when returned to the winner’s circle.

“Despite the fact that few race fans believed that there was a chance in a million of War Admiral being extended, the program drew a crowd of 15,000 and $57,487 was wagered on the feature event. Regardless of how he won, War Admiral ran his winning streak to eight straight and virtually clinched the money-making title for the year he added $5,589 to his earnings bringing his total to $160,820 for the year.

My comment: A crowd of 15,000 might seem modest but remember the race was held on a Thursday afternoon in November.

Had Inside Position

“War Admiral’s time for the race was 1:58 4/5 a fraction over the track record and two-fifths of a second slower than his Preakness victory over the same ground last spring.

“As had been the case since the start of the year. War Admiral did not start between horses. This time he had the inside post position, the same spot from which he began the Preakness. The original field of ten had shrunk to seven after scratch time this morning and three others dodged the issue later.

“Only Masked General, War Minstrel, and Bottle Cap lined up with the champion and Masked General was the longest shot of the quartet. War Admiral post actions were usual. He pushed against two starters and lunged forward at every opportunity. However, when the starting bell came he was not making his usual dive. Instead he began sort of flat-footed.

“War Minstrel lunged to the front at the break and War Admiral appeared to lug out, soon finding himself between War Minstrel and Bottle Cap. As these three went toward the clubhouse turn, Masked General was full of run and had his head up on the flank of War Admiral. Perhaps feeling that Masked General, a habitual runner-outer, would lunge, Jockey Eccaro was forced to take up the colt, losing several lengths.

Admiral Drops Back

“War Admiral failed to do the expected when he did not go though between his rivals, instead he dropped back as War Minstrel became a definite leader turning into the back stretch. Bottle Cap soon dropped out of it, but Masked General taking the long way around moved on the outside midway into the back stretch. It was at this point that Kurtsinger went to the whip for the first time in War Admiral’s career. The champion failed to respond noticeably to the punishment but ran steadily.

“War Minstrel then began to fade, like a shot, Masked General went to the top and gradually opened a lead. There were groans from the stands. Wasn’t War Admiral doing his best and under punishment at that? Wasn’t Masked General running rather easily and not under punishment?

“The came the ‘break’ that spelled victory for War Admiral. When Eccard tried to turn Masked General’s head to swing into the stretch, the colt failed to answer the bit. Across the track he went with Eccard standing in the stirrups, pulling futiley on the left rein. It was only as the outside fence loomed in front of him that Masked General swung into the straightaway. Meanwhile, Kurtsinger made the turn with War Admiral and he was now in front some three lengths ahead.

“Eccard rallied Masked General some, but inside the sixteenth pole Kurtsinger looked back and then began taking in the reins.”

The final comment on War Admiral and the inaugural Pimlico Special came in Bill Benning’s “At the Post” column two days after the race:

“Trainer George Conway said this morning that War Admiral and other members of the Glen Riddle Stable will be sent to the farm at Berlin, Md. on Monday…Willie Doyle patrol judge at the turnout of the backstretch said that he thought War Admiral would have overhauled Masked General even if the latter had run true and not bore out. Doyle said War Admiral had just started to run when he left the backstretch. Jockey Charlie Kurtsinger reported that War Admiral was inclined to loaf in the early stages, but when he struck him at the five-eighths pole, the champion began running. Kurtsinger said that Masked General began bearing out leaving the backstretch.”

The Pimlico Special was the last race in Admiral’s undefeated 3-year-old season. Six of those eight races were held at Maryland tracks (2 at Havre de Grace, 2 at Laurel, and 2 at Pimlico). The only two outside of the state: The Kentucky Derby and the Belmont Stakes.

War Admiral’s return to Berlin, Maryland ended the possibility of a 1937 meeting with Seabiscuit. Seabiscuit would race at Pimlico two days after War Admiral on November 5th, winning the Riggs Handicap. Six days later on November 11th he would race again, losing by a nose to Esposa in the Bowie Handicap.


By 1939, just two years after its first running, Time Magazine wrote:

“Most racing experts did not give the Pimlico Special an outside chance to attain the prestige of a World Series or a Rose Bowl. By last week, however, the Pimlico Special (a weight-for-age affair at a mile-and-three-sixteenths for three-year-olds and up) was recognized as the annual post-season race that determines the U. S. thoroughbred champion. Some 25,000 turf fans crammed into Pimlico’s mid-Victorian stands to see if this year’s Special would be as dramatic as the first two.”
Read the full article…


‘At the Post with Bill Bennings’, Washington Post, November 3, 1937
‘At the Post with Bill Bennings’, Washington Post, November 5, 1937
‘Stakes-a-Day Card is Set for Pimlico,’ Washington Post, October 31, 1937
‘War Admiral Out Rest of Year; Wins ‘Special”, Washington Post, November 4, 1937
‘War Admiral is favored in ‘Special”, Washington Post, November 3, 1937

The wiki page for the Pimlico Special includes a list of winners and a brief history of the race.

James Eisenberg’s excellent Native Dancer: Grey Ghost, Hero of the Golden Age provides details on the life of Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt (the Dancer’s owner) and his prominent role as a racing executive and horse owner during the 20th century

A highly recommend the entertaining tribute to Washington Post race writer Walter Haight at the National Turf Writers Association site.

Filed in Pimlico Special, 1937,Stake-a-day meeting at Pimlico Race Course,War Admiral

Question? Email me at kevin[{AT}]