Seabiscuit – War Admiral Race Cancelled, May 1938

Mar 18th 2010 08:25 am |

My Hello Race Fans colleagues and I had an email discussion about where the Rachel Alexandra-Zenyatta race (or lack of one, at this point) fits in the grand scheme of things. We discussed the idea of rivalries and decided it didn’t fit the classic idea of a rivalry (i.e.: Affirmed-Alydar) for the simple, and obvious, fact that they have yet to meet on track. For lack of a better example, we thought the current “rivalry” between the filly and mare, is more in line with the Seabiscuit-War Admiral rivalry. All other rivalries we could think of, evolved as the result of actual racing (a novel concept). The Zenyatta-Rachel A. situation, like that of Seabiscuit and War Admiral, is entirely man-made — that is, the fans of the sport have created the impetus for the two to meet. And, rightly so, when you have a filly and a mare of this caliber, you want to see them race.

So it was interesting to see Ray Paulick evoking the great match race of 1938 to gain some insight on the hoped for showdown of 2010. Early on Sunday – before Jess Jackson pulled his filly from the Apple Blossom – Paulick posted a quote from Laura Hillenbrand,who authored the wildly successful Seabiscuit. Paulick asked the author to compare the loss of Rachel Alexandra on Saturday, with Seabiscuit losing his final prep before his race with War Admiral in November 1938. Hillenbrand wrote:

There are obvious limits to the parallels one can draw between Seabiscuit-War Admiral and Rachel-Zenyatta. But what came to mind as I watched Rachel lose, and Zenyatta win, is that past is not always precedent in such meetings…[read the full quote in Paulick]

Indeed, before knowing that the Apple Blossom showdown was off, she nailed it. Kudos to Ray Paulick for trying to will the race to happen at Oaklawn through the power of historical precedent. Not the strongest of weapons but one that we prefer here at Colin’s Ghost over all others.

I thought about Hillenbrand’s words as I was doing research on the cancellation of a Seabiscuit-War Admiral match that was scheduled for May 30, 1938 at Belmont Park — the closest they came to meeting up to that point. The match was negotiated and finalized in April but was called off less then a week before the race. The reason was the condition of Seabiscuit, who showed signs of a problem two weeks prior to the race, and was declared unfit to run by his trainer.

A column from Joe Williams of the Syracuse Herald provided a colorful description of the circumstances around the cancellation. He claimed he was privy to the meeting that took place where the decision was made to cancel, although he also admitted that ‘no newspapermen were present’.

Here is a selection from Mr. Williams column from May 25th 1938:

“Over the transom came these words: ‘Now if there is the slightest doubt that the Biscuit won’t be up to his best form, we don’t want this race to be held.” And another answered: ‘There is more than a doubt. The horse is lame. And I would just as soon not start him.’

“These words are not exact. But, in a general way, that’s what happened in the room which cancelled the race of the century. Now it cost the owner of the Biscuit a lot of money to bring him up to this race, only in the end to find he wasn’t ready. It must have cost the owner of the Admiral just as much. We won’t go into what it cost the Racing Association or even what it cost Frank Stevens, the caterer.

“What I like about the whole thing, and what you would have liked, is the way everybody took the collapse of the great race. I am talking about now, about the people who had a chance to make dough out of the race. They all say it was a great thing. It would have meant something to Mr [Herbert B.] Swope [chairman of the New York Racing Commission] who took the race away from Chicago. It would have meant something to Mr [C.V.]Whitney who was financially responsible, and certainly it would have meant something to either of the owners, one of who was to get $100,000.

“And yet, what was the answer? No regrets….

…that’s why I say the race of the century turned out to be the sporting gesture of the century. For once the public got a break. All parties concerned got together and decided this would not be a fiasco. If it couldn’t be a real good race, there would be no race at all.”

Maybe we should all take heed and let cooler heads prevail over the decision by Rachel A’s owners not to race her in Oaklawn. In news reports about the cancellation of the big race at Belmont in 1938,  some speculated that the two would never meet.  As far as we can tell in the Rachel-Zenyatta saga, the two champions are sound, which leaves the possibility of a meeting later in the year. So let’s put our faith in historical precedent: the great race of 1938 happened, the most anticipated race of this century will happen too.


Joe Williams, “Sports Roundup,” Syracuse Herald, May 25, 1938

You might ask, how I ended up using the column of a somewhat obscure columnist from Syracuse? I found it at Newspaper Archive, a pay site that includes thousands of pages of historic newspapers. I have a month subscription and the jury is still out on whether it will prove to be worthwhile. So far so good…

Jessica from Railbird put together a nice piece cleverly titled “The Returns of Kelso”.  When the reigning Horse of the Year loses his or her debut, it isn’t always sign of negative things to come.  Ah yes, more historical precedent… [even though my post from last week tells a more cautionary tale]

Also be sure to check out the Ray Paulick/Laura Hillenbrand post

Like all race fans, I am disappointed that Jess Jackson isn’t going to give his filly a shot against Zenyatta. Although I don’t blame him for chickening…I mean, backing out, considering Zenyatta’s absolute dominance every time she hits the track. I thought Rachel A ran a great race off the layoff and, unless they know something I don’t, I would give her a chance based on that performance. I am still heading to Oaklawn as planned and am really excited to see the Queen in person – also hoping that Lookin at Lucky runs in the Arkansas Derby — I loved his performance in the Rebel.


Filed in thoroughbred racing history

3 Responses to “Seabiscuit – War Admiral Race Cancelled, May 1938”

  1. Wowhorse says:

    This was a fascinating look back at history. Thanks for researching the great match race to give us race fans of the 21st century some scope on the Rachel-Zenyatta drama. It’s almost eerie how the present is pantomiming the past. I do believe that the match-up will happen, and if nothing, we know that both camps have said the ultimate goal is the Breeders’ Cup Classic at the end of the year. As long as both females stay healthy and sound, this showdown will happen.

    What intrigues me even more is what will happen if one or both of these champs meet a fit Quality Road on a fast track. Now that’s what I call a race for the ages!

  2. Jim says:

    Thanks for the great historical perspective….without the vitriol….


  3. Becky Ryder says:

    Colin’s Ghost fans: The Seabiscuit & War Admiral Match Race is now available on the Daily Racing Form Online Archives. Check it out at or

    The race day headline for Nov. 1, 1938 in the Midwest Edition is at

    The DRF online archive project received modest funding to continue its operations through June. If we receive additional funding, an opportunity to work as the Project Manager will open up. If you love racing, Thoroughbred history and organizing complex projects, this could be the job for you.