Seabiscuit vs War Admiral – these two great horses have won many famous races between them, and each is well known and loved. It is tricky to compare them, as they were different horses with different skills and talents – but they were closely related, they lived around the same time, and their careers overlapped – in fact, they even raced each other in a run dubbed “the match of the century”, in 1938.
But which was the better horse? Let’s have a little look at them both, then you can make up your own mind.
Seabiscuit was foaled on May 23, 1933, in Kentucky. His father, for whom he was named, was the son of the famous Man o’ War, so racing was in his blood from the get go. He was trained where he was born, and was an undersized horse, with knobby knees, who enjoyed sleeping and eating for long periods of time.
His trainer, “Sunny Jim” Fitzsimmonds, saw potential in young Seabiscuit, but considered him too lazy to actually get anywhere. Seabiscuit never grew bigger than 15 hands, but his career was a good one – with an inauspicious start, he became an unlikely champion, and symbolised hope for may Americans during the Great Depression.
Seabiscuit didn’t actually win a single one of his first 17 races, and usually finished way back in the field – this poor performance made him the butt of many stable jokes, and meant that his trainer didn’t spend much time on him. But, he slowly started coming into his own – he raced 35 times as a two year old, coming first five times and finishing second seven times.
After this season, he was sold and paired with a new trainer, then his success continued and he won some very prestigious races, including the Santa Anita Handicap, California’s biggest race. In 1937 he won 11 of his 15 races and was that year’s leading money winner in the US.
By now, Seabiscuit was well known and loved, and there was much talk about a match race between him and War Admiral, but any races that were organised ended up being scrapped, usually due to Seabiscuit’s dislike of heavy ground.
The pair finally met on November 1, 1938, in a race called The Match Of The Century, which was run over 1.9km at Pimlico Race Course. An estimated 40,000 people watched the race, with another 40 million tuning in on the radio – and for good reason. War Admiral was the favourite, but Seabiscuit claimed the victory by four lengths. Seabiscuit was named as American Horse Of The Year in 1938, understandably.
Seabiscuit was injured in 1939, and diagnosed with a ruptured suspensory ligament. Many predicted that he would never race again, but he came back for the La Jolla Handicap at Santa Anita and was covered in triumph.
Seabiscuit retired officially from racing on April 10, 1940. He was put out to stud and sired 108 foals, including two moderately successful racers, Sea Sovereign and Sea Swallow. He died of a probable heart attack on May 17, 1947.
He was voted into the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame in 1958, and was ranked 25th in the list of Top 100 Racehorses of the 20th Century. There have been several films and documentaries made about his life, and he is immortalised on a postage stamp and in several statues.
War Admiral was born on May 2, 1934, in Lexington Kentucky. His father was Man o’ War, the legendary racer who was widely regarded as the greatest American racehorse of his time.
Although War Admiral inherited his father’s talent, he didn’t look like him – he only stood at 15.2 hands, as opposed to his father’s 16.3, and shared his mother’s brown coat. As well as his racing talent, War Admiral also inherited his father’s fiery temperament which made him a tricky horse to get through the starting gates – but away from the crowd he was a sweet horse, who liked taking long naps!
War Admiral won three of his first six races as a two year old in 1936, then started his three year old campaign by winning two races including the Chesapeake Stakes, then secured his place in history by winning the Kentucky Derby. In 1937 his successes continued, and he won the Triple Crown – but this victory came at a price.
Due to his customary fractious start, he broke through a barrier and cut his leg badly enough that he had to miss the summer racing season. He returned in the October to win three more races, meaning that he won eight out of eight races in 1937, and beat Seabiscuit to Horse Of The Year that year.
In 1938 he won eight more races, then finished up with a race against his nemesis, the year-older Seabiscuit, who was War Admiral’s father’s grandson.
War Admiral was the favourite, especially as he had the advantage of early speed, but because his owner made the fateful decision to request that the race be run without a starting gate, due to War Admiral’s past history with loading into the gates, they raced on a bell instead.
Seabiscuit now took the advantage of early speed, because his trainer had secretly conditioned him to bolt at the sound of a bell, and he not only won but broke the track record. War Admiral only raced twice more after this, winning both times, after which he was injured and forced to retire.
War Admiral stood at stud until 1958, and was the leading American sire in 1945, and the leading juvenile sire in 1948. He has produced 40 stakes winners, and although his sire line no longer exists he is still a significant influence in modern pedigrees due to his daughters, who include two Triple Crown winners.
War Admiral was elected to the Hall Of Fame in the same year as Seabiscuit, and was ranked 13th in the top 100 US Thoroughbred champions of the 20th century. He is immortalised in a portrait which hangs in the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame, and he features in the film Seabiscuit along with his rival.
Everyone has their own personal favourite in the case of Seabiscuit vs War Admiral, and in most cases it is not based on how much money they made for their owners and trainers, but on how they touched people’s hearts. I’ll leave this decision up to you!