Seabiscuit-War Admiral Race Announced, 1938

Feb 18th 2010 07:00 am |

Cover of the Pimlico program from November 1, 1938

The recent announcement that the Rachel Alexandra-Zenyatta race was back on at Oaklawn Park got me thinking about another highly anticipated but difficult to arrange match-up.  No horse race resonates more in popular culture than the Seabiscuit-War Admiral match of 1938.  Of course, a best selling book followed by a Hollywood film will do that. The Rachel-Zenyatta race isn’t likely to crack popular culture but it does have the possibility of being the most important race of the new century.

Time will tell how a race between the two great fillies will be remembered but, before we start thinking about the historical significance of the race, we need to get there first. Like most fans, I am cautiously optimistic that the two will meet as scheduled on April 9th.  However, if we use the Seabiscuit-War Admiral match as a guide, maybe any kind of optimism is foolhardy. It took over a year from the time the race emerged as the “white whale” for track owners to the time it finally happened at Pimlico on November 1st 1938.

Here is how the great Walter Haight from the Washington Post described the long and winding road to the big race:

“The matching of War Admiral and Seabiscuit has been in the making since the spring of 1937…

“…Strong talk of a race in the fall of 1937 brought no action. Then it was believed that the rivals would clash at Santa Anita the following March. However, [Charles] Howard shipped Seabiscuit to California and [Samuel] Riddle sent War Admiral to Florida. Seabiscuit lost the $100,000 West Coast race [Santa Anita Handicap] by another nose, this time to Stagehand, while War Admiral galloped away from the $50,000 Widener Cup [at Hialeah Park in Miami].

Program page for the great match race

“Belmont Park’s offer of $100,000 finally was accepted. The track hired an army of press agents and the ballyhoo began. The rivals reported on the scene and then Seabiscuit staled off in his training and the race was cancelled.

“Riddle and his trainer, George Conway, then changed their tactics with War Admiral and began sending the Man o’ War colt after all purses in sight.  It was in the Naragansett Special, over a muddy track that War Admiral met his first defeat since his 2-year-old season.  In the meanwhile, Seabiscuit recovered his form, although he was beaten several times.

“The War Admiral-Seabiscuit race has been the most discussed meeting in the history of the American turf.  Both owners have had many chances to match their horses in regularly scheduled stakes.  At Laurel last fall, each scratched out of races in which the other went postward. Pimlico tried to solve the problem with a special race [the first Pimlico Special in 1937] but only War Admiral accepted the issue and he had a hard time defeating Masked General…

“…While Howard and Riddle drew adverse criticism for the proposed $100,000 race, the setup for the Pimlico clash with the modest $15,000 at stake returns the race to sport proportions – which is as it should be.”

I like that a reasonable stake of $15,000 was considered sporting where $100,000 was considered distasteful. It is important to remember that the race took place in the throes of the depression so it is understandable that posting $100,000 for horse race may not have gone over too well.  I wonder if the Santa Anita Handicap – the first race worth six figures that stared in 1935 – drew similar criticism.

And finally the Washington Post racing columnist Bill Bennings reported some thoughts from the ground at Pimlico:

“It looks as if we are going to have a War Admiral-Seabiscuit race at Pimlico. It took a long series of events to swing the race to the Maryland Jockey Club, including [Pimlico’s majority owner] Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt marrying into the family of C.S. Howard, owner of Seabiscuit. While horsemen and officials at this track are agreed that they will believe the two stars will meet only after they leave the post…”

Like race fans of the late 1930s, we’ll have to wait and see if the much ballyhooed race at Oaklawn Park goes off as planned.


“Riddle Signs Contract for Turf Classic,” The Washington Post, October 6, 1938
“At the Post, Bill Bennings,” The Washington Post, October 4, 1938

The program from the match race used above is from the outstanding collection of Ron Micetic. Ron is in the market for pre-1975 racing programs. If you have programs for sale, he is a serious collector and would be happy to talk.  He can be reached at 708-925-1775 or


Filed in Pimlico Race Track,Pimlico Special,Seabiscuit,thoroughbred racing history,War Admiral

5 Responses to “Seabiscuit-War Admiral Race Announced, 1938”

  1. Interesting as always…I loved seeing the program!

  2. Jim says:

    Enjoyed the piece. Puts the current ‘ballyhoo’ in perspective.



  4. Salvador1940 says:

    I used to breed thoroughbreds (the first of my family) when I was younger and my colts and fillies won many good races. One year my small studfarm was placed 14th on the Argentine Breeders Statistics. Now, watching the film, I remembered some of the races I won with a 15-hand chestnut colt I reserved (I used to reserve fillies), El Presagio, who always started behind the pack to make room and move ourtwards (!) then he gave all throttle power and passed the others as if they were trotting. Seabiscuit’s film performances made my hair stand on end, choke my breath and cry as a child. I’m not young now, but every time I watch a race my heart beats with that of the horse and I imagine myself riding it. By the way, the two horse had similar male-line pedigree but while War Admiral’s descendants are still around, Seabiscuit’s are not.