There are racehorses and then there are legends. War Admiral definitely belongs in the latter category. Foaled at Faraway Farm in Lexington, Kentucky, War Admiral defined racing success in the first half of the 20th century. He was not only one of the most talented runners to every compete but a horse that could very literally inspire fear in his opponents, both the horses he ran against and the jockeys that rode them.
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War Admiral was sired by the equally talented Man o’ War. Just like his sire, War Admiral possessed an aggressive temperament. He did not stand as tall as his sire…only 15.3 hands…but his smaller size did nothing to diminish his attitude. In the popular movie Seabiscuit, War Admiral is depicted as an 18 hand monster. In truth, owner Samuel Riddle may have contributed to this misrepresentation in his own day when there was no television and the only people that actually saw War Admiral in person were racetrack patrons. Riddle commissioned a painting of War Admiral that contributed to the belief that he was very large perhaps in an effort to spread intimidation ahead of War Admiral’s races.
War Admiral’s career was conducted in the Eastern US where he dominated tracks like Pimlico Racecourse and Saratoga. In 1937 the horse had a phenomenal year by winning the Triple Crown. Despite his remarkable achievements, however, War Admiral is most remembered today for a match race with Seabiscuit in the 1938 running of the Pimlico Special.
Seabiscuit’s owner, Charles Howard, had been clamoring for a match race with War Admiral to determine once and for all which horse was supreme. After chasing War Admiral and attempting to enter in races where War Admiral was expected to race the Seabiscuit camp began a very public campaign to draw Riddle and War Admiral out. The terms of the race were eventually set and the horses met in the second running of the Pimlico Special for a purse of $25,000.
Several conditions had been demanded by Riddle prior to the race. One of these was an insistence that the horse begin from a walk-up start with no starting gate. War Admiral had a notorious reputation for being unruly in the gate. Jockey George Woolf took extra time warming up Seabiscuit because he knew that the longer War Admiral had to wait the more agitated he would become. By the time the horses approached the spot to begin the race War Admiral was washed-out (showing sweaty white lather on his body), a sure sign that his nerves were on edge. Whether or not this affected War Admiral’s performance is unknown. What is known is that Seabiscuit bested him that day and broke the track record in the process.
It is probably unfair to War Admiral to judge him solely on his loss to Seabiscuit. He won the Triple Crown, a feat which only three horses had accomplished before him, earned over $200,000 in an era when purses rarely approached the $25,000 offered in the Pimlico Special, and was the leading American sire in 1945. War Admiral was also named to the National Racing Hall of Fame.
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