Friday, November 1, 2013

When Seabiscuit Won the Match of the Century

Perhaps you saw the movie about Seabiscuit that was in the theaters a few years back.

It was an inspiring movie. It pushed all the right buttons, and it landed on the American Film Institute's list of the Top 100 inspirational movies of all time. Smack dab in the middle, in fact, at #50.

I'm not sure if it was that inspirational, though. I'm not sure that there weren't exaggerations if not downright falsehoods told in that movie. I guess that's true of most movies, even the ones that supposedly are telling true stories. You've got to exaggerate some things to maintain that level of drama.

You can't tell the truth all the time, can you?

Sometimes, though, it strikes me that the truth is dramatic enough, and so it is with the real story of Seabiscuit.

I realize that Seabiscuit was a horse (of course, of course), but his was really the story of Everyman, the ordinary individual, the underdog facing extraordinary circumstances.

That was Seabiscuit's story. He was a small horse, undersized and underestimated by many, even though he was the grandson of the great Man O' War (who might have won the 1920 Triple Crown if his owner had permitted him to run in the Kentucky Derby).

War Admiral — Seabiscuit's uncle even though he was a year younger — did win the Triple Crown. War Admiral was taller and looked like a race horse whereas Seabiscuit looked like more of a plow horse with his stubby legs.

Seabiscuit's career got off to a shaky start, most likely because his original owner put him through a punishing racing schedule in his early years. He was eventually sold to businessman Charles Howard, who put him in the hands of trainer Tom Smith. Smith put jockey Red Pollard on board the horse, and a winning combination was formed.

Seabiscuit didn't win the Triple Crown because his first owner, feeling the horse was too lazy, pushed a different horse instead. But Seabiscuit's reputation grew with each triumph under Howard, Smith and Pollard, and, by 1938, a debate was raging in the racing world. Which horse was better — Seabiscuit, who raced primarily in the West, or Triple Crown winner War Admiral, who raced primarily in the East?

In 1937, Seabiscuit had been the leading money winner, but War Admiral, having won the Triple Crown, was voted Horse of the Year.

It was decided that the matter would be settled on Nov. 1, 1938, at Pimlico in Baltimore.

In true Everyman fashion, Seabiscuit endured setbacks along the way. His successful relationship with Pollard was derailed in early 1938 when Pollard was injured racing another horse. Another jockey, George Woolf, stepped in for him and enjoyed mixed results before Pollard was able to return to action.

Pollard's return was short lived, though. While working a young colt, Pollard was thrown and his leg was shattered. His career appeared to be over; it would be up to Woolf to ride Seabiscuit in what is remembered as the match of the century — Seabiscuit's match race with War Admiral 75 years ago today.

Conventional wisdom in horse racing holds that, in a head–to–head race, the advantage is with the horse that has the fastest start, and Seabiscuit was notorious for habitually hanging back at the start and then springing to the lead at the end. To a great extent, that was how he had earned a reputation for being lazy.

War Admiral, on the other hand, was known to be a front runner; consequently, War Admiral was a 1–to–4 favorite.

But what most people didn't know was that Smith had adjusted his training methods specifically for the race with War Admiral. He conditioned Seabiscuit to have a Pavlovian response to the sound of the starting bell (through the use of the whip), and Seabiscuit practically exploded from the gate.

It was a dramatic race. War Admiral closed the gap between the two near the midway point, and most observers probably thought he would win as expected. But Seabiscuit seemed to find something within himself — the equine equivalent of another gear, I suppose — and pulled away again.

The result was that Seabiscuit won the race by four lengths and, not long after, was voted the Horse of the Year for 1938 — with War Admiral finishing second again.

The stubby grandson of Man O' War had become an unlikely hero for a Depression–weary nation.

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