Seabiscuit (inside) and Ligaroti heading to the wire in memorable match race.
by Terry Conway
You should have been there. The West Coast's first-ever major match race turned into a slugfest, literally. A pair of jockeys engaged in hand-to-hand and leg-to-leg combat as their mounts barreled to the wire.
Breaking track records at every pole, roaring down the stretch both horses were neck and neck. The crowd was crazed. So were the jockeys — George "Iceman" Woolf on Seabiscuit and Noel "Spec" Richardson on Ligaroti — who unleashed an epic wrestling match on horseback.
At the eighth pole, Ligaroti began to weaken. Richardson grabbed Seabiscuit's saddlecloth. Seabiscuit was towing Ligaroti forward. With seventy yards to go Richardson released the saddlecloth and snatched Woolf's whip hand. Then he locked his leg with Woolf’s — a common roughhouse maneuver in those days. With 20 yards to the wire, Woolf ripped his hand free and retaliated by grabbing Ligaroti's bridle and tugged the horse's head back and to the side as Seasbiscuit's head bobbed forward. Seabiscuit flashed under the wire first, by a nose.
Running the 1 1/8 miles in 1:49, Seabiscuit shattered the track record by four seconds.
Oscar Otis was perched on the clubhouse roof at Del Mar calling the 1938 race for the first-ever national radio broadcast.
“That was as rough a race as I've ever seen in my whole life, ” Otis observed. “They were hitting each other over the head with their whips and Richardson had Woolf in a leg-lock. Never seen so much trouble in one race and there was a hell of a stink about it.”
Del Mar's founder and principal owner Bing Crosby was the mastermind of the match race. When the San Diego track debuted in 1937, Crosby penned the lyrics to the song "Where the Turf Meets the Surf" which is still played at the track today. Crosby had built the magnificent seaside racing palace, pouring $600,000 into the track and lavish grounds, a tantalizing playground for America's favorite crooner and his movie star pals. But in only its second season, the shiny new track was struggling for patrons as the nation was inching its way out of the Great Depression.
A savvy marketing guy, Crosby knew the power of a star. He enlisted the help of his friend, the flamboyant and outspoken Charles S. Howard. He was the owner of California's biggest sports celebrity, Seabiscuit. Rising star Ligaroti, owned in part by Crosby, played the role of the challenger. Crosby's mission was to spark Southern California's sport fans' attention and generate national exposure for the track.
A friendly family rivalry led to the famous race. A bullish, handsome man, Lin Howard wanted to whip his father, Charles, at racing and he believed he had the horse to do it in Ligaroti. Meanwhile, Crosby promoted the race heavily, plastering posters all over the region that read:
August 12, 1938
Seabiscuit vs. Ligaroti
Charles Howard vs. Bing Crosby
Father vs. Son
The "Iceman" Woolf vs. "Spec" Richardson
America vs. Argentina
One of the Greatest Match Races of All Time
With such hyperbole, the local newspapers and racing publications vi wed the race with skepticism. Historian John Hervey ("Salvator") described it in the 1938 edition of "American Race Horses" (Sagamore Press, 1939):
“The sports pages of California grew torrid with ante-post publicity. Of this much was of a derogatory nature. Direct charges were made that the affair was a ‘hippodrome, ’ that it was gotten up only in order to afford Seabiscuit an opportunity to pick up $25,000 of 'easy money,' thereby giving him an unfair advantage toward becoming the champion money winner ... ”
The elder and younger Howards struck a deal to run a 1 1/8 miles with Seabiscuit lugging 130 pounds and Ligaroti just 115. The California Horse Racing Board, aware of the onslaught of prerace publicity, denied Del Mar's request to have betting on the race.
The owners competed for an extraordinary winner-take-all purse of $25,000, when the entire 25-day race meet purses amounted to only $185,000. The Howards made a hefty side wager, Charles betting $15,000 to Lin's $5,000 that Seabiscuit would win. Crosby's promotional efforts enticed NBC to broadcast the match race live to a nationwide audience, the first horse race ever aired on the radio.
Crosby felt the allure of horse racing and, along with his friend, actor Pat O’Brien, formed the Del Mar Racing Association.
The two horses had faced each other twice before with Seabiscuit scoring a pair of victories. Still, Ligaroti was rapidly improving. He stepped on to the Del Mar track with three triumphs in his last four starts. Red Pollard was not aboard Seabiscuit as he had been injured early in 1938, but instead the great George Woolf was in the irons. Spec Richardson, a rough-and-tumble bespectacled western rider was aboard Ligaroti. A coin flip determined post positions. Tommy Smith nailed it and chose the inside for Seabiscuit.
On a sweltering afternoon, special trains and buses poured in from San Diego and Los Angeles, packing the track with 20,000 people, well beyond its capacity. Scores of Crosby's movie chums, including Clark Gable, Carole Lombard, Spencer Tracy and Ray Milland, waved their cerise and white Ligaroti pennants. When the starting gates sprung open Seabiscuit snatched the lead rolling into the first turn a head in front. On the backstretch they raced together with Ligaroti glued to Seabiscuit's flank. They charged around the far turn, side by side, driving the crowd into a frenzy with its jaw-dropping finish.
After the finish of the race, the stewards ruled that both men were guilty of fouls but that they in effect canceled each other out, so the result of the race stood. Both riders were fined and suspended. But a few days later, after viewing the grainy film footage, the stewards, headed by James Gallagher, decided Woolf had clearly acted in self-defense. They lifted the suspensions, since the race had been an exhibition with no public wagering involved. The stewards emphasized that without the fouling, Seabiscuit would have won anyway.
Some reporters claimed that Woolf had instructions from Charles Howard to hold the horse back to intentionally keep the race close.
“Any fool writing about racing ought to know that a race run in 1:49 with the first mile run in 1:36 1/5 and which was caught by numerous clockers as well as the official timer, couldn't be fixed in that manner, ” scoffed Howard. “If Seabiscuit, or any other of my horses, can't win on their merits, I'd retire from racing today. ”
The day Woolf was cleared, Howard contacted the jockey and told him "pack your things we're going east to get War Admiral. ”
Seabiscuit cemented his reputation in racing history three months later by whipping Triple Crown winner War Admiral in another match race at Pimlico. He was named the 1938 Horse of the Year, earning $437,730 ($6.7 million in 2012 dollars). Ligaroti went on to capture the Del Mar Handicap that season.
Just as Crosby had envisioned, Seabiscuit's magnetism provided a tremendous boost to the new track, which ascended from a small-time track to a glorious destination with an instant national identity. Del Mar had its defining moment.