Winning the Triple Crown will assuredly bring everlasting fame to a champion Thoroughbred.
Like the other 11 horses who have swept to victory in the Kentucky Derby, Preakness Stakes, and Belmont Stakes, War Admiral will always be remembered for the historic achievement he shares with the likes of Citation, Secretariat, and American Pharoah.
Yet some 66 years after his Triple Crown season of 1937, War Admiral found new fame as an antagonist in 2003’s Academy Award-nominated film “Seabiscuit.” A central part of the film focused a new spotlight on the famed match race between War Admiral and Seabiscuit in the 1938 Pimlico Special.
Spoiler alert: War Admiral lost that race to the hero of movie, yet for the son of the legendary Man o’ War that loss was a rare event.
While a movie dramatically boosted Seabiscuit fame to a new generation of fans, War Admiral should be remembered as one of the sport’s great champions. He won 21 of his 26 starts, and with three of those wins coming in Triple Crown races, it says everything anyone needs to know about a great champion named War Admiral.
Born in Kentucky, War Admiral was owned by Samuel Riddle, one of the most successful horsemen of his era, and trained by George Conway.
In his first start, the regally-bred colt won an April 25, 1936, maiden race at Havre de Grace, a racetrack in Maryland that closed in 1950, but then enjoyed only modest success at 2. He won only three of six 1936 starts, registering a front-running stakes win in the Eastern Shore Handicap at Havre de Grace.
When he turned 3, War Admiral won his first two races, an allowance race and the Chesapeake Stakes, both at Havre de Grace, and that was enough to make him an 8-5 favorite in the Kentucky Derby.
Ridden perfectly by Charles Kurtsinger, War Admiral grabbed the lead at the start of the 63rd run for the roses and never looked back, crossing the wire a 1 ¾-length winner over 2-year-old champion Pompoon in 2:03 1/5 for the mile and a quarter.
One week later, War Admiral returned in the Preakness and once again was favored, this time as an odds-on $0.35-to-1 choice.
Though the Preakness was shorter than the Derby, Riddle’s colt faced a much tougher challenge from Pompoon at Pimlico as he had to withstand a bitter stretch duel with the champion 2-year-old to prevail by a head.
Three weeks later in the Belmont Stakes, when Pompoon turned in a dull effort, War Admiral overcame rambunctious antics that delayed the race by eight minutes and a stumbling start when he grabbed a quarter and gashed his right front foot. Despite all of those problems, he cruised to a three-length victory to become the sport’s fourth Triple Crown winner, joining Sir Barton (1919), Gallant Fox (1930) and Omaha (1935).
His time of 2:28 2/5 for the mile-and-a-half broke the 17-year-old track record set by his sire, Man o’ War, and matched the United States record at that distance.
War Admiral closed out his unbeaten 3-year-old campaign with three more wins, capping the year with a length-and-a-half triumph in the Pimlico Special and earning accolades as Horse of the Year and the champion 3-year-old male.
In 1938, War Admiral won his first three races, to lift his winning streak to 11, before he suffered a stunning fourth-place loss in the Massachusetts Handicap at Suffolk Downs.
He then re-asserted his dominance reeling off consecutive victories in the Wilson, Saratoga Handicap, Whitney, Saratoga Cup, and Jockey Club Gold Cup, each time as an odds-on favorite.
Yet for all of War Admiral’s impressive wins, he had a formidable challenger for the hearts and minds of racing fans. Seabiscuit was a folk hero in California who became a stakes winner on both coasts after losing his first 17 races.
After winning the 1938 Hollywood Gold Cup and a match race with Ligaroti at Del Mar, Seabiscuit was shipped east in hopes of a showdown with War Admiral, which came to pass with a match race in the Pimlico Special for a purse of $15,000 on Nov. 1, 1938.
The battle at Pimlico between the two future Hall of Famers became a national sensation as it brought together a working-class hero in the 5-year-old Seabiscuit and a blue blood in the Triple Crown champion War Admiral.
Contested on a Tuesday, the match race nevertheless captured the fascination of the entire nation as it attracted a standing-room-only crowd of 40,000 to Pimlico and tens of millions more tuned in on radio.
War Admiral’s superior early speed made him a 1-4 favorite, but Seabiscuit’s trainer, Tom Smith, had a plan for that. The race was contested without a starting gate and a bell was used to signal the beginning of the race. Smith worked long and hard to teach Seabiscuit how to start running at top speed at the sound of a bell and that played a key role in the outcome.
When the bell sounded for the walking start, jockey George Woolf, subbing for the injured Red Pollard on Seabiscuit rushed out to take a quick lead and moved over to the inside. War Admiral chased and moved alongside Seabiscuit on the backstretch for a duel that brought them to the quarter pole glued to each other.
But in the stretch, Seabiscuit proved best. He edged away to a half-length lead in mid-stretch and removed all of the suspense in the final furlong as he drew clear for a fourth-length victory that Hollywood would make famous more than a half-century later.
War Admiral captured his next two races, winning the 1938 Rhode Island Handicap at Narragansett Park and an allowance race at Hialeah in Feb. 1939, before an injury ended his career with earnings of $273,240.
Years later, Hollywood would not be kind to him, but contrary to the view movie-goers may have of him, in the end War Admiral came away with a greater prize than Seabiscuit.
Each year in the spring, when the Kentucky Derby draws close on the calendar, the sport’s focus turns to the Triple Crown and the dozen horses good enough to sweep all three races.
One of them was War Admiral, and that, more than a match race, says it all about his greatness.
- He was inducted into the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame in 1958.
- He sired 40 stakes winners, including 1945 Horse of the Year Busher, and was North America’s leading sire in in 1945 and leading broodmare sire in 1962 and 1964.
- War Admiral was 13th in BloodHorse magazine’s list of the Top 100 Horses of the 20th Century.