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How do you live up to great expectations, especially when your daddy was the immortal Man o’ War?
For the diminutive brown colt War Admiral, earning the respect of his owner and the racing public wasn’t easy. He was deemed so unlike "Bid Red’s" standard of excellence in conformation that Sam Riddle tried to convince his Thoroughbred owner/breeder partner Walter Jeffords, to take the colt off his hands.
Sensing a spate of late evening battles with Riddle, his wife’s uncle, if the colt excelled in his racing colors, Jeffords declined.
Foaled in 1934 at Riddle’s Faraway Farm near Lexington, Ky., simply put, War Admiral was racing royalty. His pedigree combined Fair Play, Ben Brush and Domino, the stallions at the core of the three most influential American lines. Sweep, sire of War Admiral’s dam, Brushup, was by Ben Brush, and out of the Domino mare Pink Domino. Fair Play, of course, was the sire of Man o’ War.
Born: May 2, 1934
Died: Oct. 30, 1959
Owner: Glen Riddle Farm
Trainer: George Conway
Awards Won: Triple Crown Winner
War Admiral would go on to rank as Man o’ War’s greatest son and No. 13 on The Blood-Horse’s list of top Thoroughbreds of the 20th century. Standing 15.2 hands, War Admiral reached the racetrack as a juvenile on April 25, 1936 at Havre de Grace Racetrack in rural Maryland. He won easily. He then won his second start at Belmont Park the following month. His final four starts of the year were all in stakes - one win, two seconds and one third.
The small bay colt blossomed under the tutelage of George Conway, a quiet, thoughtful man who had a keen eye for good horses. Conway had worked his way up the ladder at Riddle’s Glen Riddle Farm, serving as Louis Feustal’s foreman when the trainer oversaw Man o’ War’s superlative 2-year old career.
Contrary to popular myth, War Admiral’s "fiery" temperament was not a signature trait. His most severe outbursts revolved around his refusal to be loaded in the starting gate. Around the barn, the colt tended to be more relaxed than most, taking long naps at least twice a day. His groom labeled him “sweet” and noted his intelligence. War Admiral’s reputation for misbehaving, the groom insisted, was motivated by the desire to connect the colt to his sire - a beloved, fiery American legend.
Come spring 1937, War Admiral scored an easy victory in a six-furlong race at Havre de Grace. Next came the Chesapeake Stakes, where he delayed the start by seven minutes with starting gate antics before wiring the field and winning by an easy six lengths. Race fans began to call him "The Mighty Atom," or, simply "The Admiral".
Riddle had generally frowned upon running his horses outside of Maryland and New York states. Man o’ War didn’t run in the 1920 Kentucky Derby and Riddle continued that tradition for years with his horses. He didn’t like racing in the "West". Even more, he thought the Derby distance of a 1 1/4 miles was too far for a young 3-year-old. But Riddle made an exception with War Admiral - the only horse he would ever start in the run for the roses.
SHORT WAR ADMIRAL DOCUMENTARY
The Admiral went to post in the Kentucky Derby on May 8 before one of the largest crowds ever assembled. Up to his old antics, War Admiral delayed the start for eight minutes. When the starter finally sent off the field of 20, War Admiral rocketed to the lead and never looked back. He easily earned his roses by galloping home a 1 3/4-length winner. It was the second-fastest recorded time ever in only his second experience racing at over a mile. Along the way, War Admiral soundly defeated his previous conqueror, 2-year-old champion Pompoon.
Neville Dunn, sports editor for the Lexington Herald, wrote, “A little brown horse that takes after his mammy in size but runs like his daddy charged to victory in the 63rd Kentucky Derby … and he won so easily, so effortlessly, that 65,000 fans nudged one another in the ribs and said, ‘I told you so! I told you that War Admiral could run like Man o’ War.’ ”
The same evening, War Admiral boarded a Baltimore-bound train. In the Preakness Stakes, he drew the one hole and was sent away the overwhelming favorite in the field of eight. The Admiral shot to the front leading his rivals into the far turn when Pompoon ranged up on the inside to challenge. The duo hooked up in a furious battle storming down the stretch. Hand ridden to the finish line, War Admiral prevailed by a head.
At Belmont, the third leg of the Triple Crown, Riddle’s colt repeatedly crashed through the gate - dragging an unfortunate assistant starter along as well. He delayed the start for nearly nine minutes. At the bell, War Admiral stumbled out of the gate and grabbed a quarter when his hind feet overran his front, and the toe of his shoe gouged into his right forehoof. He left behind an inch-square chunk of his hoof on the track.
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Having every excuse to throw in the towel, instead War Admiral ran the race of his life. After 10 strides he was flying past the entire field. By race’s end, he had left a trail of blood and beaten horses, winning by three lengths in the 1 1/2-mile race. He stopped the timer in 2:28 3/5 which not only broke the Belmont track record that had been held by his father but equaled the American record for the distance. War Admiral became the fourth winner of the coveted Triple Crown.
At three, he was perfect. He started eight times and eight times he entered the winner’s circle. The Triple Crown winner was named Horse of the Year, although Charles S. Howard’s Seabiscuit took honors as the season’s leading money winner, topping the Admiral’s $166,500 by a mere $2,080. That fall Riddle turned down an offer of $250,000 for the colt, a price considered colossal.
At age four, the champion finally arrived in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., where an injury after the Belmont derailed his appearance the year before. Saratoga was the favorite racing venue of Riddle, the site where he purchased Man o’ War for $5,000 in 1918. At the Spa, The Admiral continued his run of excellence, winning all four of his starts, including the Whitney, the Saratoga Cup and the Saratoga Handicap.
At the Saratoga Cup, a spellbound John Hervey, the legendary racing historian, wrote: “when he came prancing back to the stand … it rose to him and he was applauded to the echo.” From here it was on to Belmont, where War Admiral won the prestigious Jockey Club Gold Cup, his eighth win in nine starts as a 4 year-old.
This was also the year of the famous Seabiscuit-War Admiral $15,000 winner-take-all match race. After several failed attempts, the match-up finally went off on Nov. 1, 1938. An estimated 40-million people listening around the world were captivated by the match race at Pimlico Race Course, one of the most anticipated sporting events of the 20th century. It played on regional rivalries and was a tonic for Depression-era Americans who flocked to the underdog.
Before Riddle would agree to the match race, the concession was made to have a walk up start since Riddle believed The Admiral had gotten some harsh treatment at Pimlico when he showed his usual reluctance to be loaded into the starting gate.
In a surprising development Tom Smith, Seabiscuit’s trainer, had retrained his horse to bolt at the sound of the bell. He gained an early lead. War Admiral fought gamely to range alongside his rival at the half-mile pole. Racing on the outside the two battled side by side to the top of the stretch where Seabiscuit slowly began to pull away scoring a four-length victory, clocking in at 1:56 and 3/5 seconds, a track record.
“Seabiscuit did just what I thought he’d do,” crowed Red Pollard, Seabiscuit’s regular rider. “He made a rear admiral out of War Admiral.”
War Admiral bounced back to win the Rhode Island Handicap 11 days after his loss to Seabiscuit. In 1939, he won his first start, but wrenched an ankle and was retired. War Admiral finished his career with a record of 21 wins, three seconds and one third from 26 starts and earnings of $273,240.
Fittingly, both Seabiscuit and War Admiral were inducted into the Hall of Fame at the National Museum of Racing in Saratoga the same year - 1958.
War Admiral got his revenge as a stallion. He was sent to stud at Riddle’s Faraway Farm, and then was moved to Hamburg Place in 1958. War Admiral sired 40 stakes winners. The Admiral was the leading sire of 1945 and ranked among the top 20 sires 11 times. He was on the leading broodmare sire list in 1962 and again in 1964.
War Admiral’s name remains alive today in pedigrees because of his success as a broodmare sire. Among his daughters was the great handicap mare Busher, who beat Calumet Farm’s champion gelding Armed in the Washington Park Handicap and was named 1945 Horse of the Year. Busanda was another multiple stakes winner whose victories included the 1951 Suburban Handicap and two runnings of the Saratoga Gold Cup, and whose offspring included Buckpasser, the 1966 Horse of the Year.
War Admiral died at age 25 in 1959 and was buried next to his father underneath the famous Man o’ War statue and Brush-Up at Faraway Farm. The graves were eventually moved to the Kentucky Horse Park, where they remain today. More than eight decades have come and gone since War Admiral thundered across the American racing landscape. As the greatest son of Man o’ War and one of only 11 Triple Crown winners, The Admiral earned his place alongside the greatest American racehorses of all time.
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