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“Four Good Legs Between Us”
When the lives of a failed prizefighter, an aging horsebreaker, and a bicycle-repairman-turned-overnight-millionaire converged around a battered little horse named Seabiscuit, the result captivated the nation and transcended their sport
July/August 1998 | Volume 49, Issue 4
For more than half a mile, the two horses dueled shoulder to shoulder. Then, as forty thousand voices shouted them on, War Admiral pushed his head in front.
Ultimately Howard bowed to Riddle’s demands, and Vanderbilt rushed to Manhattan’s Pennsylvania Station, intercepted Riddle between trains, and refused to let him board until he signed the contract. Riddle gave in. The mile and three-sixteenths Pimlico Special was set for November 1, 1938, for a winner-take-all purse of fifteen thousand dollars. Each owner would put up five thousand, and each horse would carry 120 pounds and break from a walk-up start.
Although Seabiscuit was the sentimental choice, War Admiral was the overwhelming betting favorite, and he deserved to be. The most decisive weapon of match races is early speed, and in this department the Triple Crown winner had a critical edge: While Seabiscuit liked to stalk pacesetters, War Admiral was a half-ton catapult, and he had drawn the favorable inside berth. That Seabiscuit could outbreak War Admiral was inconceivable, and most experts predicted the race would be over the instant Riddle’s colt rocketed off the line.
Tom Smith had other ideas. “I’ll give them birds the biggest surprise they ever had in their lives,” he told a friend. “I’m going to send Seabiscuit right out on the lead.” He began by fashioning a starting bell from a dinner bell and telephone batteries and encasing it in a homemade redwood box with a button on the outside. He led Woolf and Seabiscuit to the training track. Standing behind Seabiscuit with a buggy whip, he hit the bell just as he tickled Seabiscuit’s flanks with the whip and Woolf broke into frantic urging, sending Seabiscuit lunging forward. Woolf brought him back, and the drill was repeated. By the third repetition Seabiscuit was long gone before Smith could wave the whip. The trainer then pitted the colt against top sprinters, sending them through countless walk-up starts.
Between workouts Woolf traveled to the hospital to consult with Pollard. In traction the redhead was swigging bow-wow wine Yummy had smuggled in and reciting Old Waldo to the nurses; he was trying to woo one of them, a beauty named Agnes, away from a resident doctor. Pollard told Woolf to gun to the lead at all costs but to let War Admiral catch up to prevent Seabiscuit from loafing. Then, he added, “race him into the ground.”
On the eve of the match, Woolf walked onto the Pimlico track alone, flashlight in hand. Rain had fallen that week, and Woolf worried that Seabiscuit would founder on a damp, soft track. “Biscuit wants to hear his feet rattle,” he liked to say. The jockey scoured the track for the driest path, and at the top of the stretch he found a hardened tractor-wheel imprint, circling the course several feet from the inner rail. The path was obscured by harrows, so Woolf walked the track until he had memorized its location.
Vanderbilt, concerned that sixteen-thousand-seat Pimlico would be overwhelmed by spectators, had scheduled the match for a Tuesday in hopes that fewer people would attend. It was no use. A record crowd of forty thousand wedged into the little track. The clubhouse was so mobbed that the NBC announcer Clem McCarthy couldn’t reach his post and was forced to call the race while perched on the track rail. His voice crackled over the radio waves to millions of listeners, including President Roosevelt, who delayed a press conference to hear the call.
At four o’clock War Admiral and Seabiscuit stepped onto the track. The elegant War Admiral was a grand favorite, whirling and bobbing. Seabiscuit followed in his customary plodding way. Before a crowd, wrote Rice, “keyed to the highest tension I have ever seen in sport,” Woolf worked to fray War Admiral’s famously delicate nerves. While the Triple Crown winner waited with growing agitation at the starting line, Woolf put Seabiscuit into a long, lazy warm-up, sailing past his rival and answering demands that he bring up his mount with a shrugging reply that he was under orders. After an agonizing delay he walked Seabiscuit to the line. The starter’s arm, flag in hand, went up. The two noses passed over the line together, and the arm came down.
At the sound of the bell, Seabiscuit uncorked the greatest burst of speed of his life. To the crowd’s utter amazement War Admiral could not keep up. Woolf drove Seabiscuit to a clear lead, then looked back, laughing, and dropped inside to claim the tractor-wheel path, instantly nullifying War Admiral’s post-position edge. He cruised into the backstretch on a two-length lead, and Woolf, heeding Pollard’s advice, began to reel him in. To his outside War Admiral started to roll. At the half-mile pole he swept alongside Seabiscuit, who dug in, cocked an ear toward his rival, and refused to let him pass. For more than half a mile, the two dueled shoulder to shoulder. Then, as forty thousand voices shouted them on, War Admiral pushed his head in front.