The Death of George Woolf, 1946

Jan 26th 2011 07:32 pm |

It’s hard to believe that the man who piloted Seabiscuit in one of the most famous horse races in American history, and banked the majority of his earnings in major stakes, would die as a result of an injury suffered in a race with a measly $3500 purse. ‘ Tragic’ would best describe the sad end of George Woolf, one of the most beloved and successful jockeys of his era.

Image of Woolf from the Canadian Horse Racing Hall of Fame

Most race fans know the name George Woolf.  California race-goers are reminded by the statue of Woolf in the paddock gardens when they attend the races at Santa Anita. And, every year, Santa Anita presents an award in his honor to a jockey who not only is successful on track but has a character that reflects positively on the sport.  George Woolf is remembered, even though he has been gone for over sixty years.

While the death of George Woolf was a story I was familiar with, I was curious to read the news reports of the event and found two articles, one from the New York Times and another from the Los Angeles Times. As always, when reading the primary source, I discovered details that breathed life into a well-known but sad story. The news reports are excerpted below.

The New York Times, published the following in an article that appeared on January 5th 1946:

Georgie (The Ice Man) Woolf, who earned at least $2,000,000 in a dozen years of riding stakes winners, died today of a brain concussion suffered in a fall at Santa Anita Park yesterday in a $3,500 non-handicap race.

“Woolf, who at 36 had nearly twenty years of riding behind him, succumbed about twelve hours after he was thrown to the track by Please Me of the W.W. Taylor stable. He never regained consciousness.

“One of the turf’s most affluent riders and ‘big-timer’ since 1933, Woolf for several years had carefully picked his spots and stables…his 1944 over-all purses totaled $461,965 for only 227 mounts — placing him fifth among the nation’s riders. The leading jockey, Ted Atkinson, tode 1,539 horses to win $899,101.

“In his racing career since 1938 Woolf had 3,784 mounts — 721 of them winners — for purses totaling $2,856,120. Approximately $2,000,000 of that, its is estimated, came in major stakes.

Woolf owned a restaurant and bar in Arcadia, near Santa Anita, where he made his home for the past several years. He was born in Cardston, Alberta. His wife Genevieve was at his bedside when he died.

“Woolf rose from the small tracks in his native Canada and Montana to prominence at Tijuana and Agua Caliente. His first big victory was the 1933 Caliente Handicap aboard Gallant Sir.

“From then on it was steadily upward for The Ice Man, who gained his nickname through his cool, come-from-behind racing technique. His daring sportsmanship brought him victory in nearly every major American stake except the Kentucky Derby…

“…Woolf had ridden two winners in five starts during the current Santa Anita meeting. Please Me, after throwing the jockey at the first turn, continued on to finish first in yesterday’s one-mile race. Moneybags, however, was declared the winner.”

The same day as the New York Times report, the Los Angeles Times reported on the scene at Santa Anita the day Woolf died:

Santa Anita flags were at half-mast yesterday.

“Jockey George Woolf was dead and every man and woman in the vast race track plant, a small city in itself, mourned his passing.

“Greatest stakes rider of the past decade, Woolf died at 3 o’clock yesterday morning in St. Luke’s Hospital…

“…Taps was sounded after the second race yesterday.

“Riders in the race lined up at the finish line and joined with other jockeys and 24,000 spectators in a brief memorial ceremony that choked every throat and brought tears to every eye in the crowd.

“The flags at Santa Anita will continue at half-mast until after the funeral…

“…The Santa Anita management and California Turf Foundation volunteered to handle all the funeral arrangements. They attended to the hospitalization.

“In the tradition of the sport, racing will continue at Santa Anita as scheduled. Mrs. Genevieve Woolf, the widow, expressed the opinion to friends that George would have liked it that way.”

Since 1950, the George Woolf Award has been presented annually by Santa Anita Park to the jockey whose, “…career and personal character earn esteem for the individual and the sport of Thoroughbred horse racing” (Jockey’s Guild).  The trophy is a replica of the statue that stands in the paddock garden at Santa Anita.

In 2010, his hometown of Cardston, Alberta, Canada unveiled a statue of Woolf aboard Seabiscuit, titled “So, Long Charley” for the words Woolf directed toward War Admiral’s jockey, Charley Kurtsinger, as he pulled away in the famous match race of 1938.  Footage of the ceremony and installation of the statue can be seen on YouTube

Last year, if he had beaten the odds of the race track and old age, George Woolf would have turned one hundred. The fact that he lives on in the minds of today’s race fans is quite a tribute to a great jockey and, by all accounts, a damn good guy.

SOURCES, NEWS, AND NOTES

“Jockey Woolf, 36, Dies After Fall,” New York Times, January 5th 1946

“Riders Pay Tribute to George Woolf,” Los Angeles Times, January 5th 1946

Read George Woolf profiles from: Canada Sports Hall of Fame, Canadian Horse Racing Hall of Fame, and National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame

Hello Race Fans is back this year! Be sure to sign up for their Derby Prep Alerts to keep up with all of the action leading to the big race in May.  Dana and the gang have added a great deal of content since launching last year and will continue to add new content throughout 2011.  We’ll be publishing the first “Ten Things you Should Know About…” of the year later in in the week.  “Ten Things” is a series I write that includes details and a little history about major American stakes races.

THANKS FOR READING AND GOOD LUCK!

Filed in Seabiscuit,thoroughbred racing history,Woolf, George



16 Responses to “The Death of George Woolf, 1946”

  1. Linda says:

    Another great post on the best historical racing blog in existence. I always learn so much from them!

  2. E-man says:

    Woolf was also a diabetic (at least according to Laura Hillenbrand). Which makes his successes even more remarkable.

  3. Kevin says:

    Hi Linda: Thank for the comment and kind words.

    E-Man: Yes, Woolf was diabetic…I have read speculation that the fall that killed him may have been caused by a dizzy spell associated with his diabetes. His wikipedia page claims that stewards or jockeys didn’t notice an incident that would have caused the fall. However, if you read the news reports, Woolf’s mount stumbled going into the turn and that is why he fell.

    Kevin

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  5. E-man says:

    Stumble vs. fainting spell = not mutually exclusive. If he was even slightly woozy or weak from the diabetes, the horse’s stumble could have been enough to throw him off, whereas if he was healthy he should have been able to hold on.

    On another subject: the screenplay for a George Woolf bio-pic could almost write itself, don’t you think?

    BTW Kevin, I always enjoy your articles — keep it up! 🙂

  6. Undine says:

    This post makes a great companion piece to the account of Woolf in Hillenbrand’s book.

    I’m glad there are blogs such as yours to keep this sort of horse racing history alive.

  7. RG says:

    Woolf’s Derby history is covered in an article on page 2 of the May 4th,1946 DRF.
    RG

  8. joan wall says:

    Woolf was an alcoholic.

    Jimmy Jones had to send out a search party and
    drag him out of a Providence bar
    to ride Whirlaway a Narragansett race.
    (Shut Out Match Race)

    More thn likely, the IceMan was dead drunk
    wnen he fell off that horse on that fateful day at Santa Anita.

    That said, Woolf was the money rider of his era.

    His Derby Restaurant, on Huntington Drive,
    was the watering hole for the racing cognoscenti.

  9. Patrick says:

    $3500 is indeed measly, but adjusted for inflation that race was worth roughly $39,600 in today’s dollars.

  10. Kevin says:

    Hey E-Man: Yes, a film on Woolf would indeed be a winner. Thanks for the kind words and the commeny.

    Undine: I should have mentioned the Hillenbrand book. I was actually re-watching the Seabiscuit movie while putting the piece together — making the oversight that much more perplexing 🙂 Thanks for the comment!

    Hi RG: Here is the link to the referenced DRF piece: http://is.gd/eNJL4D

    Joan: Thanks for the additional info!

    Patrick: Good point…40K is definitely not ‘measly’

    Many thanks for the comments!
    Kevin

  11. Paul Legall says:

    Hello Joan-
    I’m doing research about George Woolf for a feature article or possibly a book. I knew that he had a taste for fine Scotch but I’d never heard hew as an alcoholic. Could you elaborate. Also, is there any documentary evidence – i.e., coroner’s report – that he was drinking when he died at Santa Anita?

  12. Nicole Bennett says:

    The day George Woolf died was a very sad sad day in my family.. it’s a shame I didn’t have the honor to meet him. He was my great uncle and my father was named after him.

    Joan, were you there? Did you personally know the man?? What evidence to you have to prove your theory?

    Paul, I would love to read your book!

  13. Tony says:

    Being a diabetic it sounds like he suffered from a diabetic malady during the race. I believe he simply passed out, fainted, due to a very low glucose level. In making weight for the race he probably worked hard to lose a pound or two. They didn’t have the medications then that they do now. I believe that if he had eaten a few sugar cubes before the race he may have made it to the end.

  14. RAY says:

    WHAT A GREAT STORY HOW THE ICE MAN ,RED, TOM SMITH AND CHARELS HOWARD ALL FOUND EACH OTHER AND SEABISCUIT IT IS A GREAT STORY OF SPORTS THAT WILL LIVE FOREVER GO ICEMAN

  15. Dale says:

    Woolf was given Phar Lap’s saddle by his jockey and Woolf considered it his lucky charm and never rode without it, except for the day he died.

  16. Don Merrill says:

    Does anyone know in what year George Woolfe arrived in California, specifically Arcadia? Was he as young as a teenager?