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Great Racehorses Of The Thirties

Apr 15, 2008
The 1920s, to hear some historians tell it, were one big party - at least for the luckier part of the population, the folks listed in the Social Registry, the partygoers who found themselves fictionalized in the novels of F. Scott Fitzgerald, the descendants of the robber barons of the Gilded Age. But all that partying brought on a painful hangover: the stock market crash of October 29, 1929, and the ten years of economic downturn that followed.

As always, people looked to popular culture, and especially to sports, for escape, distraction, even for symbols of hope, and the great Thoroughbred race horses of the 1930s rose to the occasion.


One of the first horse-racing stars of the 1930s, Equipoise (1928-1938) first attracted notice with his Keene Memorial Stakes win at Belmont Park in 1930. Unlikely victories were Equipoise's specialty - he was late out of the gate at the Pimlico Futurity that year, even leaving two of his shoes behind in his rush to catch up, but still beating out Twenty Grand and Mate for a first-place finish. He returned from injury after a hoof crack ended his two-year-old season and severely curtailed his three-year-old season (in which he raced only three times); his four-year-old season saw wins at the Metropolitan Handicap, Stars and Stripes Handicap and the Whitney Stakes, plus a world mile record.

Continuing hoof problems shortened a brilliant career, but his son Shut Out came within a hairsbreadth of a 1942 Triple Crown victory (he won Kentucky and Belmont), rendering a fitting tribute to this horse's bloodied-but-unbowed greatness.

Seabiscuit & War Admiral

The history of horse racing during this period can, in part, be told as the story of Man O'War's descendants.
Of no one is that more true than of Seabiscuit, grandson of that legendary Thoroughbred and son of Man O'War's talented but excessively ornery offspring Hard Tack (for whom Seabiscuit was named - Seabiscuit being another name for the tough bread known as hardtack). Initially scrawny and lazy, Seabiscuit changed hands several times and posted a solid but unremarkable three-year season (five wins out of thirty-five starts), but under owner Charles S. Howard and trainer Tom Smith the horse developed a fierce will to win that would make him both lucrative and, for spectators, inspiring.

With steadily increasing imposts, Seabiscuit still managed a run of five stakes wins during the summer of 1937, even after a devastating early-season loss to rival Rosemont (due to jockey Red Pollard's never-admitted blindness in one eye, which caused him not to see Rosement creeping up in the home stretch).

He finished the year with 11 wins out of 15 races, and was the most lucrative horse on the track for this sixth year of the Depression; the horse's up-then-down-but-never-out record captured the American imagination (and, consequently, earned boatloads of money for owner Howard, a savvy merchandiser). All was set for the match of the century - between Seabiscuit and his uncle War Admiral, another Man O'War descendant and the previous year's Triple Crown winner.

A star with East Coast racing fans (just as Seabiscuit's most fanatical following could be found in and around California), War Admiral, who matched his famous father in temperament (touchy, to say the least) but not in size (War Admiral was smaller and more compact than Man O'War, though he is played in the 2003 movie Seabiscuit by a Clydesdale-sized bruiser), won not only 21 of 26 starts during 1937, but spent the early part of 1938 winning major races up and down the East Coast.

Thus an Ali-vs.-Frazier, Superman-meets-Batman level of hype greeted the matchup between the two, which took place on November 1, 1938, at a packed (40,000 spectators) Pimlico Race Course. War Admiral entered the race heavily favored, with 1-4 odds and heavy press support. After all, not only was his record more consistent, he had a lightning-fast start (all-important in a head-to-head race) and good health.

But trainer Tom Smith had a trick card up his sleeve - he'd been secretly training the usually smooth-beginning, strong-finishing horse to explode from the gate. Seabiscuit took an early lead, which War Admiral ate into and even, for a brief period, erased, before a blazing finish took Seabiscuit to a four-length victory over 1937's Horse of the Year.

Just when no greater accomplishment seemed possible for this legendary horse, Seabiscuit spent the years 1939-40 recovering from an injury some had deemed career-ending - this time with his original jockey Red Pollard in the saddle. (Pollard had had to give up Seabiscuit's reins to George Woolf after a near-fatal 1938 accident.) In 1940 the once-injured horse and returned-from-the-brink-of-failure jockey won the Hundred Grander stakes race, the only major stakes race for horses in Seabiscuit's age range that the horse had not yet won.

He sired 108 foals in his well-deserved retirement. But as befits a legend, Seabiscuit's gravesite is a secret - only the Howard family knows where his corpse is buried. Meanwhile, the horse's impact on American hopes was celebrated in the 1949 movie The Story of Seabiscuit (starring Shirley Temple), in Laura Hillenbrand's bestselling 2001 book, and the Oscar-nominated film of 2003 that Hillenbrand inspired.
About the Author
TRP Services offers Thoroughbred horse racing and horse racing tips online for horse racing handicapping and those who love thoroughbred horses for the horse racing tracks.
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