Sea Biscuit wins “Match of the Century” (1938)

Most are familiar with the racing horse Sea Biscuit from Laura Hilldebrand’s wonderful book Sea Biscuit: An American Legend or the 2003 film. Horse racing was a big deal in the U.S. in 1938. On November 1, 1938, Seabiscuit raced War Admiral in what was dubbed the “Match of the Century.”

War Admiral, a 1-4 favorite, was known for his quick starts. Sea Biscuit was a pace stalker, staying with the pack before pulling away with late acceleration. Sea Biscuit’s trainer knew that match races — one horse vs. one horse — favored quick starters, so he secretly trained Sea Biscuit on his starts. After gaining the early lead, Sea Biscuit’s jockey was instructed to ease up so that Sea Biscuit would be able to see War Admiral, before the jockey would ask for more effort. The plan worked to perfection as you’ll see in this video.

Here’s how famed sports writer Grantland Rice captured the race in his prose.

The drama and melodrama of this match race,
held before a record crowd keyed to the highest tension I have ever seen in
sport, set an all time mark.

You must get the picture from the start to absorb the thrill of this perfect autumn dayover a perfect track. As the
two thoroughbreds paraded to the post there was no emotional outburst. The big crowd
was too full of tension, the type of tension that locks the human throat.

You looked at the odds
flashed upon the mutual board–War Admiral, one to four, Seabiscuit two to one.
Even those backing War Admiral,
the great majority of the crowd, felt their pity for the son of Hard Tack
and Swing On [Seabiscuit], who had come along the hard way
and had churned up the dust of almost every track from the Great Lakes to
the Gulf, from the Atlantic to the Pacific.

After two false starts,
they were off. But it wasn’t the fast-flying War Admiral who took the lead.
It was Seabiscuit, taking the whip from Woolf, who got the jump.
It was Seabiscuit who had a full-length lead as they passed the first
furlong. The Admiral’s supporters were dazed as the ‘Biscuit not only held this lead
but increased it to two lengths before they passed the first quarter.

The ‘Biscuit’ was moving along as smoothly as a southern breeze.
And then the first roar of the big crowd swept over Maryland. The Admiral
was moving up. Stride by stride, Man o’ War’s favorite offspring
was closing up the open gap. You could hear the roar from thousands of throats
“Here he comes, here he comes!”

And the Admiral was under full steam.
He cut away a length.
He cut away another length as they came to the half-mile post–and now they
were running head and head.
The Admiral looked Seabiscuit in the eye at the three-quarters but Seabiscuit never got the look.
He was too busy running with his shorter, faster stride.

For almost a half mile they ran as one horse, painted against the
green, red and orange foliage of a Maryland countryside. They were neck and
neck — head and head — nose and nose.

The great Admiral had thrown his challenge.
You could see that he expected Seabiscuit to quit and curl up.
But, Seabiscuit has never been that brand of horse.
I had seen him before in two $100,000 races at Santa Anita, boxed out,
knocked to his knees, taking the worst of all the racing luck —
almost everything except facing a firing squad or a machine-gun nest — and
yet, through all this barrage of trouble Seabiscuit was always there,
challenging at the wire. I saw him run the fastest half-mile ever run at
Santa Anita last March, when he had to do it in his pursuit of Stagehand.

So, when War Admiral moved up on even terms
and 40,000 throats poured out their tribute to the Admiral, I still knew
that the ‘Biscuit would be alongside at the finish.
The ‘Biscuit had come up the hard way. That happens to be the only way worth
while. The Admiral had known only the softer years —
the softer type of competition. He had never before met a combination
of a grizzly bear and a running fool.

Head and head they came to the mile.
There wasn’t a short conceded putt between them. It was a question now of
the horse that had the heart.
Seabiscuit had lost his two-length margin.
His velvet had been shot away. He was on his own where all races are won-
down the stretch. He had come to the great kingdom of all sport —
the kingdom of the heart.

The Admiral had shown his reserve speed.
From two lengths away he was now on even terms.
But as they passed the mile post with three-sixteenths left — the vital
test — the stretch that always tells the story — where 40,000 looked for the
fleet War Admiral to move away — there was another story.
Seabiscuit was still hanging on. Seabiscuit hadn’t quit. With barely more
than a final furlong left, the hard-way son of Hard Tack must have said to
the Admiral — “Now, lets start running. Let’s see who is the better horse.”

Foot by foot and yard by yard,
Woolf and Seabiscuit started moving away. Charlie Kurtzinger
gave the Admiral the whip.
But you could see from the stands that the Admiral suddenly knew he had
nothing left in heart or feet to match this crazy five-year-old who all his
life had known only the uphill, knockdown devil-take-the-loser route,
any track — any distance — any weight — any time.
And who the hell are you?

War Admiral had no answer.
Down the final furlong the great-hearted ‘Biscuit put on extra speed.
He moved on by. Then he opened a small gap. Forty thousand expected the
Admiral to move up, close the gap again.
But the Admiral was through. He had run against too many
plow horses and platers in his soft easy life.
He had never tackled a Seabiscuit before.

He had never met a horse
who could look him in the eye down the stretch and say to him, in horse
“Now let’s start traveling, kid. How do you feel?
I feel great. This is down my alley.”

Yard by yard Seabiscuit moved on ahead.
Then it was length by length. Seabiscuit left the Admiral so far behind
that it wasn’t even a contest down the stretch. War Admiral might just have
well be chasing a will-o-the-wisp in a midnight swamp.
He might just as well have been a fat poodle chasing a meat wagon.
He had been outrun and outgamed — he had been run off the track by a battered
five-year-old who had more speed and heart.

The race, they say, isn’t to the swift.
But it is always to the swift and the game. It so happened that Seabiscuit
had these two important qualities in deep abundance.
War Admiral could match neither flying feet not fighting heart. Man o’ War’s
brilliant son hung on with all he had until it came to the big showdown–
to the point when the hard-way thoroughbred,
the horse from the wrong side of the track,
began really to run.

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