Even some of the most casual racing fans are familiar with Seabiscuit and his legendary match race against War Admiral in 1938. Seabiscuit’s four-length victory over the Triple Crown winner was ranked as the greatest single race in history by BloodHorse and was brought to national prominence by the best-selling book Seabiscuit: An American Legend and the successful movie based on the book.
But as rare as match races might be today, Seabiscuit was actually a veteran of such events. Way back in 1936, before he was purchased by Charles Howard and trained by Tom Smith, Seabiscuit had won a minor two-horse handicap race at Saratoga. And on Aug. 12, 1938 – a mere 2 ½ months before his showdown with War Admiral – Seabiscuit was involved in another match race that resulted in a much closer finish… and a much more controversial outcome.
The $25,000 event was held at Del Mar and pitted Seabiscuit against the talented Ligaroti, an Argentinean runner that had been a top-class horse in his native country. Adding intrigue to the 1 1/8-mile race, which would be held as a betless exhibition, was the fact that the owners of Seabiscuit and Ligaroti were related. Ligaroti was owned by Binglin Stable, the partnership comprised of Charles Howard’s son, Lin Howard, and the famous singer and actor Bing Crosby, who co-founded Del Mar. In an even more remarkable coincidence, Tom Smith’s son Jimmy Smith was the trainer of Ligaroti, meaning that the father/son aspect of the race would extend to the trainers as well.
The crowd of 22,000 people that attended the match were treated to a thrilling race from the start. With George Woolf riding Seabiscuit and Noel “Spec” Richardson guiding Ligaroti, the two horses engaged in a battle for the lead and were never more than a head apart as they battled through a testing half-mile in :46 2/5 and a stiff three-quarters of a mile in 1:10 4/5. Seabiscuit, toting 130 pounds (15 more than Ligaroti), held a narrow advantage coming into the homestretch, but Ligaroti wasn’t done yet. As the crowd roared in excitement, Ligaroti battled back, and the two horses hit the wire together in the track-record time of 1:49 flat. The finish could have gone either way, but at the wire Seabiscuit had his nose in front when it counted.
But before the race was declared official, there was a steward’s inquiry involving the run down the homestretch. Speculation swirled about rough riding; the Aug. 13, 1938 edition of the Daily Republican noted that “board members called [the jockeys] for an explanation of the alleged rodeo tactics that most spectators missed in the heat of the neck-and-neck battle.” The Los Angeles Times of Aug. 13 quoted Woolf as saying “Richardson grabbed my whip hand when he headed into the stretch,” while Richardson reportedly claimed that Woolf “had grabbed Ligaroti’s bridle during the run down the backstretch.”
The stewards eventually allowed the results to stand, though both jockeys were suspended as a result of their actions. Later on, film of the race would reveal that Richardson had sparked the incident, which remained a topic of conversation and newspaper reports for days – even weeks – after the race.
While the event was a huge boost of publicity for Del Mar, which had opened for business just one year earlier, not everyone was thrilled with the outcome. In an article published in the Aug. 24, 1938 edition of the Cincinnati Enquirer, writer Jack Cuddy noted that the race “left such a bad taste” that there was speculation “there’ll never be another match race on that track.” While that prognostication wouldn’t quite prove true, it would be 56 years before another match race was conducted at Del Mar.
Seabiscuit’s victory over Ligaroti marked his fourth win of the year, and his later triumph over War Admiral would earn him Horse of the Year honors while also bringing his record in match races to a perfect 3-for-3. Suffice to say, in a head-to-head battle, you didn’t want to mess with Seabiscuit!