Aug 10, 2012
AMERICAN TURF CLUB LEAD-HOOFBEATSFROMTHEPAST-SEABISCUIT
By: HOWARD ROWE
The following is an article from the Hoofbeats From The Past book by Howard Rowe. If you would like to order the book please call 1-800-645-2240.
SEABISCUIT: WAS HE THE GREATEST?
Seabiscuit began his long and demanding career in January 1935 at Hialeah, finishing fourth in an allowance event. He was ridden by Jimmy Stout and went off at 16-1. Why he started in an allowance instead of a maiden race is hard to understand, but the next time out he was more realistically placed opposing $2,500 claiming platers.
The horse was shipped to Maryland and then to Jamaica (N.Y.) but was still winless until he landed in New England. It was in late June and his 18th start that he finally hit the winner’s circle at Narragansett with Stout in the saddle – and surprisingly he was favored in the betting.
Four days later in a claiming stakes, a feature popular in those days, he was again the favorite and repeated his winning performance. He went to the post 35 times as a juvenile and won five races for a total of $12,510, but eventually was sold by the Wheatley Stable to Charles Howard for a sum that has always been disputed. Reported originally as $8,000, the price was corrected by Howard himself, who said, "“I paid the bill, and I know it was $7,500.”
Some time after Seabiscuit became a national treasure and eventual world champion money winner, Sunny Jim Fitzsimmons was asked why the horse was sold for such a low figure. “He wasn’t any good when he worked for us,” the old trainer replied.
Little Frankie Kopel rode Seabiscuit in two of his five winning races as a two-year-old. The Biscuit improved considerably as the season wore on, and Kopel was aboard when he finished in a decisive victory in the Empire City’s Ardsley Handicap. “Even then he had lots of problems,” Kopel said. “But he did beat some pretty good horses by three lengths. In fact, three lengths was the margin in all three races I won with him.” Kopel was badly injured in a spill while riding in Maryland and lost the use of an arm, which terminated his career as a race rider.
Seabiscuit made one of his rare appearances at Belmont Park in a five-horse handicap. He was favored at 6-5 despite the weight he was conceding to horses like Isolater and Regal Lily. Going a mile and a half and giving each of them 20 pounds was a bit much, and the track was muddy, with weather that caused severe damage to much of Long Island that day. He struggled to finish a well-beaten third under 128 pounds.
The Santa Anita Handicap made Seabiscuit the world champ in the cash department. When the horses came onto the track, the announcer stated that the jockey, Pollard, was wearing a red cap. In those days, this was a sign that Howard, the owner, had decided to win with Seabiscuit, although his stablemate, Kayak II, was capable of taking care of the rest of the field. After this race, Seabiscuit had dislodged Sun Beau as the world champion money winning thoroughbred. Unfortunately, he did not prove to be an outstanding sire once his racing days were over and died seven years after his crowning achievement.
When Seabiscuit died in 1947, the Thoroughbred Record commented, “He was a first class racehorse, but a long way from being a great one.” Further on in the obituary, the writer mentioned that the famous trainer Hirsch Jacobs had considered claiming him on several occasions but passed him up because of “suspicious-looking knees.” The article concluded with a terse sentence: “As a sire, Seabiscuit was a failure.”
In his day Seabiscuit was not universally regarded as the greatest horse in history, but his popularity with the majority of horse racing fans was unquestionable. His defeat of the brilliant War Admiral in a match race remains one of the most discussed events in turf history. Nick Wall, who finished on three horses that beat him in important races, admitted he probably wouldn’t have had a chance if the weights had been more evenly assigned. Nick was America’s finest lightweight rider at the time, and after beating the Biscuit in a hundred-grander, he remarked, “Thirty pounds had to make the difference. At fair weights we’d have been whipped.”
In 1949 a film entitled “The Story of Seabiscuit” was a financial and artistic disaster. It starred Shirley Temple and Barry Fitzgerald and a supporting cast of such Hollywood luminaries as Lon McCallister, Rosemary DeCamp, Donald McBride and Pierre Watkin. In recent years Laura Hillebrand’s book and the subsequent movie were a vast improvement.
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