On November 1, 1938, a match race at Baltimore’s Pimlico Race Course took US minds off the Depression and impending war. President Franklin D Roosevelt had a lot on his plate at the White House on November 1 1938. But during a cabinet meeting, he stopped all business of presiding over the nation to listen to the radio broadcast of a race between two horses 40 miles up the road in Baltimore. He, like an estimated 40 million people listening around the world, was captivated by the match race at Pimlico Race Course between Seabiscuit and War Admiral – one of the most anticipated sporting events of the 20th century.
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“Horse racing was in its heyday, and Seabiscuit was an enormous cult hero,” said Laura Hillenbrand, author of the best-selling book “Seabiscuit.”
“He was the number one newsmaker in 1938, a star with the kind of magnitude you don’t see today.”
This race between two legendary horses was an event for the times, with America trying to climb out of the Great Depression. “It captured the imagination of the public,” said Edward Bowen, author of “War Admiral.”
“It had all kinds of social implications,” he said.
“The race gave people a temporary respite from the daily hardships caused by the Great Depression,” said Allan Carter, historian at the National Museum of Racing.
Seabiscuit was the underdog, the Cinderella Man of racing. “He was the horse from the other side of the tracks who became a champion,” Hillenbrand said.n
War Admiral was the regal ruler of racing, the son of the great Man O’War who had won racing’s Triple Crown in 1937, an aristocratic horse that seemed unbeatable. And, like the great match race of 1823 between Eclipse and Henry that became a battle between the North and the South, Seabiscuit and War Admiral was a geographical war. War Admiral was the favorite of the established East Coast, while Seabiscuit was the upstart from West Coast racing.
“It really was a territorial thing,” said horse trainer and racing historian John Shirreffs. “Anything west of the Rockies in those days in racing was not really taken seriously. That helped make this a big national event.”
“Horse racing occupied a higher place in the public consciousness than it does now. Baseball, boxing and horse racing were the dominant sports of the time. And this horse race had all the ingredients that made a terrific story.”
It had a hero – Seabiscuit – and a villain in War Admiral.
Howard, Smith and Pollard were willing participants, eager for a chance for their horse to go up against the Triple Crown champion. The owner of Pimlico Race Course, home of the Preakness, Alfred Vanderbilt, was eager to host the race. But Riddle balked several times at attempts to make the match race.
“Horse racing in the West was considered second rate,” Hillenbrand said. “War Admiral’s owner did not consider it dignified to have his horse run against a horse like Seabiscuit.”
An important, emotional part of the Seabiscuit story was the rider. In February 1938, his jockey, Red Pollard, fell while riding Fair Knightess, another Howard horse. Pollard suffered chest and rib injuries, along with a broken arm. Howard picked a friend of Pollard’s and a successful jockey, George Woolf, to ride Seabiscuit. The night before the face, Woolf walked the track in the dark, and found one particular track that was hardened a few feet from the rail. It would be Seabiscuit’s path to victory.