Right up to the very end, in early 1946, when he fell off a
horse in a race at Santa Anita, hit his head and died, George
Woolf always said he never had more fun on a racehorse than he
did that day in '38 at Pimlico, when Silent Tom Smith, the
horse's trainer, lifted Woolf aboard Seabiscuit for the big
match race against War Admiral.
I have sometimes imagined what it would have been like to have
been there that day. I have imagined it like this.
I am the son of Seabiscuit's groom. All year in '38 I traveled
with that stable circus, scrubbing tack and walking hots to earn
money for college. So I was there in Baltimore that glorious
autumn afternoon. I walked with Seabiscuit to the Pimlico
paddock and stood with him there as Smith, taciturn as ever,
cinched up the girth and then turned to George and whispered,
"You're on the best horse. You do what we planned, and you won't
need no excuses."
I hung the Biscuit's halter on my shoulder, sat on the outside
rail near the finish line and took a long look around. Never saw
a race day anything like it. Not even when War Admiral swept the
Triple Crown the year before, winning all three races by rushing
hell-bent to the lead and daring every other horse to come and
get him. From my spot on the rail I could see the crowd lining
both sides of the homestretch from the quarter pole to the wire.
Forty thousand fedoras and ladies' hats! Half of Baltimore
society squeezed into a place with only 16,000 seats! It got so
crowded in the clubhouse that Clem McCarthy, the radio
announcer, finally gave up trying to wade through the bodies to
his broadcast perch; he ended up atop the wooden rail, calling
the race right next to me.
You could touch that rail and feel the beat of Pimlico's pulse.
This was the horse race of the century, the first big match to
command a national audience through the voice of radio. For
nearly a year I'd watched men from every big racetrack in
America come through our barn, hats in hand, to plead with Smith
to let them stage the Biscuit-Admiral race. You didn't have to
be P.T. Barnum to see that this had all the fixings of the
greatest show on earth, the perfect match between the two
fastest horses on the planet: War Admiral, the patrician, the
royally bred brown son of Man o' War from the East, against the
sore-kneed former claimer Seabiscuit, the bay, the off-bred
commoner from the far West. Even their styles were in contrast.
While the 4-year-old Admiral, who had won nine of 11 races in
'38, liked to burn on the lead, the 5-year-old Biscuit, who had
won 17 of his 26 races in the past two years, had become
America's leading older horse by chasing the pace and then
pouncing on the leaders down the lane.
No wonder, then, that there was such a rising national clamor
for the race and that Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt, the ambitious
26-year-old vice president of Pimlico, never gave up on his
dream to host it. The track offered just $15,000, winner take
all, but racing's boy wonder convinced everyone involved that
Old Hilltop was the ideal place for the showdown. Fearing that
it would attract too many people for Pimlico to handle,
Vanderbilt had decided to run the race on a Tuesday, but they
turned out in droves just the same. The bookmakers were offering
1-4 on the Admiral, and I wanted to get $10 down on the Biscuit
at 2-1, but there was no way I'd have made it through the
moiling crowds and back again.
Thirty-five miles south, Franklin Roosevelt delayed a
presidential press conference so he could tune in on the radio
to McCarthy's familiar raspy voice, which crackled with
excitement as he growled the horses' names into the mike: And
now, War Admiral and Seabiscuit are on the track....
Not a soul on the grounds doubted that War Admiral would spring
to the lead like a flushed deer--and probably never look back.
Except the few of us around the Biscuit who had watched Smith
set up one of the great shockers in the annals of racing. In a
small box Smith had wired batteries to a bell and then trained
the Biscuit, in Pavlovian style, to break into an all-out sprint
when he heard it ring. As every handicapper knows, the horse who
sets the pace in a match race always has the advantage over his
All this led to the damnedest sight I've ever seen in all my
years around the track. Looking for a bell to begin the 1
3/16-mile race, the visiting starter, imported from New York for
the occasion, ended up using the one with which Smith had
trained the Biscuit, and when the horse heard the familiar
ringing and felt the lash of Georgie's whip, he bounded forward
in a burst. Then as a gasp and a roar rose from the crowd--"My
gawd! Seabiscuit's going to the lead!" a man cried out behind
me--Georgie steered the Biscuit to the rail, and in that low,
rhythmic thunder of pounding hooves, there he suddenly was,
rocking in the stirrups and laughing as he turned and saw the
Admiral and jockey Charley Kurtsinger, the Flying Dutchman,
giving chase. Down the backside, the Admiral closed the gap
until they were racing head and head and, finally, nose and nose
into the far turn. They called the unflappable Georgie the
Iceman, and once again he did not flinch. The noise was so
deafeningly rich that I could barely hear McCarthy shouting into
his microphone right next to me as the two horses hurtled
through the final turn as one.
They swung into the straight, and I could see them surging
toward me as a team, two wild horses reaching and folding the
earth beneath them. All that is left to remember through the
last 300 yards are the jockeys' whips flashing and their right
arms rising and falling, then the Admiral's mouth coming open as
he spit the bit a furlong from the wire and, finally, the
Biscuit, his ears pricked forward, pulling away to win by four
lengths in a track-record 1:56 3/5.
We all hung limp on the rail. Up in the press box Grantland Rice
was writing that Seabiscuit's victory was "one of the greatest
competitive efforts I have seen in a matter of forty years." No
one who saw the race will forget it. I can still close my eyes
and see Silent Tom tinkering with that little box of batteries
and wires, the Iceman grinning catlike on the lead and McCarthy
telling FDR and millions more, "Seabiscuit and War Admiral are
head and head!" Throughout the century, in this greatest of all
match races, the sport as a national spectacle rarely got any
better or rose any higher than it did on that day.
COLOR ILLUSTRATION: ILLUSTRATION BY MAX GINSBURG A surprise strategy and a supreme effort had put the underdog Biscuit in the lead as the two colts raced down the stretch.
I could see them surging toward me, two wild horses reaching and
folding the earth beneath them.