War Admiral 1938-1939


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Patrons at Pimlico in 1938 may have noticed a slim young man here and there about the premises, standing in line at the mutual windows, awaiting his turn at the concession stands. This was Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt, who had purchased a block of stock in the track the year before, and added to it that year until he had a controlling interest.  The soon to be President of Pimlico was operating on the unorthodox principle, for an executive, that the best way to feel the public pulse was to get amongst them.
With other tracks offering larger sums to bring together the two most glittering stars of the period ie Seabiscuit and War Admiral, it was he who swung the deal, and the $15,000-added Pimlico Special, winner-take-all, was set for November 1. The owners of Seabiscuit and War Admiral had posted $5,000 forfeit to guarantee the appearance of each horse.
Also, War Admiral had trouble finding a comfortable spot for his 1938 debut, for Riddle steadfastly refused to accept 130 pounds without a tightener. Finally, an allowance race materialized in which the colt was required to carry only 122, and he was off to a remarkable season.
On the day Seabiscuit was beaten by Stagehand in the Santa Anita Handicap, War Admiral picked up his 130 pounds and won the Widener Handicap. As Riddle was as fastidious about weight as Howard was about track conditions, War Admiral stayed on the shelf three months after his victory because no suitable races were available.
When the Belmont race with Seabiscuit was called off, War Admiral was entered in the Suburban, at 132 pounds, but was scratched after heavy rains the night before the race left the track muddy. (As it happened, the track dried out to an extent that Snark won the Suburban in 2:01 2/5, fastest time of the year for 1 1/4 miles.) A week later War Admiral beat Snark, giving him 6 pounds in the Queens County Handicap.
War Admiral was shipped to Boston, where it was expected he would meet Seabiscuit in the Massachusetts Handicap, for which both horses had been assigned 130 pounds, but because of the heavy track Seabiscuit was scratched forty-five minutes before post time. War Admiral went, and for the only time in his life finished out of the money, as Menow (107 pounds) danced to an eight-length victory with Wall in the saddle.
An eight-length win over Fighting Fox and Exposa in the Wilson Stakes, at weight-for-age, failed to get War Admiral out of the doghouse, but when he picked up 130 and won the Saratoga Handicap after only three days rest, he was restored to grace. After easy wins in the Whitney Stakes and the Jockey Club Gold Cup he was hailed as King of the Turf and headed south for Pimlico.
The agreement stipulated that the track must be fast, and on the morning of November 1, Jervis Spencer, chairman of the Maryland Racing Commission, accompanied by steward A. G. Weston, personally walked around the Pimlico track, nodded affirmatively to Vanderbilt, then stepped over to a microphone and announced that the race between War Admiral and Seabiscuit would be run. By 10 o'clock, when the gates were opened, there was a crowd  standing in line, and by afternoon 40,000 fans had packed themselves into the relatively small plant, well more than half of them standing room customers.
The battle was on: 1 3/16 miles, both horses at 120 pounds. War Admiral, the giant killer, the good little horse; against Seabiscuit, another of the same stripe--they were about equal in height, but the Californian was heavier in frame. Large crowds surrounded the contestants in the paddock as Kurtsinger, undoubtedly well supplied with instructions, mounted for his first ride on the champion pro tem since July. Woolf, the Iceman, after conference with Silent Tom Smith, was relaxed; he gave Seabiscuit a casual, friendly swat on the rump before he mounted, and his chief concern seemed to be finding a place to spit without hitting a spectator.
Clem McCarthy,  already was vibrating with excitement. Was Admiral was a pronounced favorite at 1-4; Seabiscuit was 11-5.
Out of deference to War Admiral's aversion to the gate, a walk-up start had been agreed upon, and George Cassidy had been imported from New York to do the honors. They began moving toward the start, but Woolf, not liking the looks of things, reined to one side. Another try, and Kurtsinger wasn't ready. The third time, and they were off.
The shocking upset of advance calculations was evident immediately. War Admiral, who habitually shot straight into the lead, was outrun from the start, as Seabiscuit, from the outside post position, darted to the front. Woolf steered him over and grabbed the rail, hugging it around the first turn. Kurtsinger, after a futile attempt to a forestall this manuever, settled down to a chase. On the backstretch, Woolf moved Seabiscuit out slightly, presenting an inviting hole, but Kurtsinger knew better. He took War Admiral to the outside, and as he drew abreast his rival a great cheer went up. At the end of a mile Seabiscuit was a head in front, in midstretch it was half a length and then, suddenly, War Admiral surrendered. Seabiscuit crossed the finish line four lengths in the clear, the new champion. The time --:23 3/5,  :47 3/5,  1:11 4/5, 1:37 4/5,  1:56 3/5, -- was a new track record.
The next year, War Admiral was pointed for a repeat victory in the Widener. After winning a 7-furlong prep in near record time in February, 1939, War Admiral developed laryngitis and was taken out of training. He later injured an ankle and was retired permanently with earnings of $273, 240, having won 21 of his 26 starts, finished second three times and third once. The winner-take-all Pimlico Special was the only race in which he did not get part of the purse.