a racehorse with the will to succeed
Seabiscuit (born 23 May 1933 in Lexington, Kentucky; died 17 May 1947 in Willits, California) was an American thoroughbred racehorse. The stallion, whose racing career did not begin very promisingly, became the most successful racehorse of his time, running a number of races with spectacular race results and becoming a symbol of hope for many Americans against the background of the Great Depression. Seabiscuit descended from the mare Swing on and the stallion Hard Track. The latter was a son of the famous racehorse Man O’War. The colt grew up at Claiborne Farm in Paris, Kentucky. There was little to suggest that he would make a successful racehorse; he was relatively small for an English thoroughbred, his knees were not ideally built, and he tended to sleep and eat for long periods.
Charles Howard hired Tom Smith as trainer, who countered the horse’s lethargic character with unorthodox training methods. Tom Smith also found a rider for this horse in the Canadian jockey Red Polland (1909-1981), who was able to deal well with the horse’s character. On 22 August 1936, Seabiscuit ran his first race for his new owner. In November 1936 Seabiscuit was transported by train to California.
His last two races of 1936 took place at the Bay Meadows Racetrack in San Francisco. Both races won by Seabiscuit showed the potential of this stallion. The Bay Bridge Handicap, which carried prize money of $2,700 USD, was only over a mile.
Seabiscuit got off to a poor start in this race; he was behind the field when he came out of the starting gate, but he worked his way through the field of rivals over the short distance, winning by five lengths and missing the record for this race distance by just 0.4 seconds.
This form of racing was to characterise Seabiscuit’s racing for the next few years and made him a favourite with the American public. The press described him as a horse with a fighter’s heart who fought his way to the front even from a hopeless situation.
And Seabiscuit increasingly became a favourite with the Californian racing public. He won his next three races in the West and Howard decided to have the horse brought to the East of the USA, where the most important US horse races were held. Seabiscuit’s winning streak continued there as well.
Between 26 June 1937 and 7 August 1937, he started in five races and won each of them.
With this winning streak, Seabiscuit was the racehorse that had won the most prize money in the USA.
On the West Coast, the unassuming horse, who lethargically endured the victory ceremonies, was by now a celebrity. His races were followed with almost fanatical enthusiasm on the radio; his successes filled the weekly reports of the cinemas and thousands of newspaper headlines dealt with this horse that had such an unpromising start, that was trained by a previously unknown trainer and whose owner was an upstart who only a few years ago had been repairing bicycles. The equestrian establishment was based in the eastern states of the USA and reacted much more cautiously to Seabiscuit.
Despite Seabiscuit’s successes, the three-year-old War Admiral was voted “Racehorse of the Year” because this horse had won the most important East Coast races. The competition between Seabiscuit and War Admiral was to characterise the year 1938 as well. Already during 1937, the press had speculated about the race between Seabiscuit and the seemingly invincible War Admiral.
The “Race of the Century”
On Tuesday 1 November 1938, the two racehorses finally met in what was euphorically dubbed the “Race of the Century”. The race, which was to be run over a mile and 3/16, still ranks as one of the greatest sporting events in US history. Although it was a weekday, an unusually large crowd of 40,000 gathered at the track for the time. So many people wanted to witness this racing event that they even had to open the infield to spectators. Trains had brought spectators from all over the country to the Pimlico Racecourse near Baltimore, Maryland and 40 million people followed the race on the radio. War Admiral was the undisputed favorite for the race; the betting odds at most bookmakers were 1 to 4 in his favor and most sports journalists were also unanimous about the outcome of this race.
When the starting bell rang on 1 November, Seabiscuit took off with such speed that he was already a length ahead of War Admiral after 20 seconds. Seabiscuit was able to maintain this gap for most of the race, but on the back straight War Admiral began to close the gap and draw level with Seabiscuit. George Woolf did not spur Seabiscuit on immediately, but first allowed Seabiscuit to perceive the opposing horse beside him. When he then released the reins, Seabiscuit still had enough power to increase his racing speed once more. War Admiral could not keep up; when Seabiscuit crossed the finish line, he was four lengths ahead of his opponent. On 10 April 1940, it was officially announced that Seabiscuit would run no more races. He returned to Howard’s Ridgewood Ranch as a stud.
He left the Turf as the most successful racehorse of his time.