Excerpt From:
With Seabiscuit and WarAdmiral at
The Race of the Century

Peter V. Tamas is author of With Seabiscuit and War Admiral at The Race of the Century , available on Amazon and as an Apple iBook. 

Chapter 43: At The Paddock

Marcella Howard stood with the horse handlers and other owners in the saddling paddock. Everyone in the paddock was quiet, tense. War Admiral’s jockey Charley Kurtsinger looked like he was thinking deep thoughts. Maybe he was praying. Sam Riddle looked smaller and older than Marcella remembered.

Clem McCarthy walked in and began interviewing Charles Howard. McCarthy was the most famous sports announcer in the 1930s. He announced some of the biggest sport events of the time. Of course, NBC had wanted him to announce the Race of the Century.

Marcella’s husband Charles Howard chattered away to Clem McCarthy. Charles always talked a lot when he was nervous.

Marcella watched Tom Smith put George Woolf’s lucky kangaroo skin saddle on Seabiscuit. Then she pinned a Saint Christopher’s medal on Seabiscuit’s saddlecloth. “This will bring you luck” she whispered in Seabiscuit’s ear.

And then Seabiscuit’s jockey, George Woolf arrived. George had waited until just the right moment to appear. George wanted his opponents to be as nervous as possible. First he started with his Iceman routine. George did not look like he was thinking deep thoughts. He did not chatter nervously. He did not walk into the paddock. George Woolf strutted in. He smacked Pumpkin on the rump and swung easily into Seabiscuit’s saddle. Then George smiled and said hello to everyone. He looked very cheerful.

Sam Riddle’s people wanted to make some last minute changes. While trainer Tom Smith argued with the officials, George Woolf just sat there, with a slight smile on his face. It was as if George was the only person at the racetrack who was completely unconcerned about how the race would end.

At exactly 4 p.m., the horses walked onto the track. War Admiral came first, head up, walking with the starter and flagman to the starting line. Behind them came Seabiscuit, head down like a bored farm horse. Like George, Seabiscuit looked unconcerned about how the race would end. But George could feel Seabiscuit’s tight muscles. They reminded George of a coiled spring. Seabiscuit brought his head up once and looked about the crowd.

The people were squeezed together where Farrell Jones stood.  Nearby were some people who worked for Sam Riddle. Sam Riddle’s people joked about Seabiscuit. They were very sure War Admiral would win. They pointed out that War Admiral walked like a champion. Seabiscuit did not.

But as the start of the race got closer, they did not say much. They all knew this would be a great race. They stood and waited for the bell to ring.

Clem McCarthy, the radio announcer, tried to make his way from the paddock to the radio booth. But, the crowd was packed in too tight for McCarthy to make it. In the end, he found a spot near the end of the stretch, where the horses would go into the first turn. He climbed up on the outer rail and looked to his left at the start. He started his broadcast. “Ladies and Gentlemen I found it impossible to get through this enormous throng at Pimlico today… the first time I failed to do that from the paddock.”

George Woolf knew this would be the best time to annoy War Admiral. He got Seabiscuit to jog the wrong way on the track. The starter shouted at George to bring his horse up. “Mr. Cassidy!” George Woolf shouted back politely to the starter. “I have instructions to warm Seabiscuit up before the start!”

The starter shouted something else. George just shrugged his shoulders and rode on. At the backstretch George Woolf turned Seabiscuit to face the infield and the grandstand. The crowd stood on the far side of the infield by the rail near the grandstand. There they would see the beginning and the end of the race.

40,000 people were looking at George Woolf and Seabiscuit. It was quiet.

George Woolf saw War Admiral rear and kick. George waited another moment to let War Admiral get even more worked up. Then he rode Seabiscuit back to the starting line.

The flagman raised his arm. The starter put his hand on the button, ready to ring. The two champion racehorses stepped forward a bit. Then George Woolf jerked Seabiscuit’s reins and the horse stepped away. George could see that War Admiral was getting frustrated. The horses lined up again. Then War Admiral’s jockey Charley Kurtsinger reined out of the starting position.

As the horses lined up for the third try for a fair start, George said: “Charley, we’ll never get a go like this. We can’t watch the start and our horses at the same time. Let’s walk up there watching the horses, and when we get even, lets break away ourselves. Cassidy will see us in line and have to ring the bell.”

Kurtsinger nodded. It was a great suggestion. Of course, it was a better suggestion for George Woolf. George was much calmer than Kurtsinger. The horses moved towards the starting line. George tugged slightly on Seabiscuit’s left rein, so Seabiscuit could stare down War Admiral.

The flagman held up his arms. In the Howards’ box, Marcella squeezed her eyes shut just before the start. George yelled one more thing to Kurtsinger. Kurtsinger looked up for a moment and then turned away. Kurtsinger was getting wise enough to ignore George Woolf. The two horses reached the line together and stood still for a moment.

The race fans at Pimlico were quiet, waiting...

Chapter 44: The Race of the Century

The starter’s bell broke the silence. War Admiral raised his front legs for an instant. George Woolf felt Seabiscuit’s muscles tighten and then push downward. To help with what little momentum he could, George threw himself forward, his legs straight back. George smacked Seabiscuit with the whip once, just to let Seabiscuit know the race was for real. George could feel hard muscles everywhere he touched the horse.

War Admiral was also driving forward as fast as he could go. The two horses ran next to each other for thirty yards. George kept Seabiscuit close, so Seabiscuit could look War Admiral in the eye.

Marcella heard the starting bell and then opened her eyes. The two horses stretched their legs as hard as they could, side-by-side, building speed. People all about Farrell Jones were shouting. The fans were as full of energy as the horses. Marcella could see excited people in the infield running towards the backstretch, as if running would give them a better view.

Marcella could see that one of the horses was pulling ahead a little at a time, first by a nose, and then inching forward. Someone near Marcella gasped.

Back at the hospital, Red leaned towards the radio. He concentrated, trying to hear Clem McCarthy’s voice. The voice was shrill: “Seabiscuit is outrunning him!”

The horses were only halfway through their first time through the home stretch. But, the crowd was so excited that Marcella could see the people in the infield pushing over the fence that was supposed to hold them ten feet back from the track.

After only a sixteenth of a mile, Seabiscuit was half a length ahead of War Admiral. George Woolf could feel Seabiscuit working hard. Seabiscuit flicked his ears forward. The crowd reached the infield rail. Those at the rail reached out. Some arms waved at Seabiscuit. Others stretched as if trying to touch the horses. George could see that Seabiscuit’s ears were flat, eyes forward, not looking at his fans.

Farrell Jones had often heard that War Admiral had never had to go all out and race as hard as he could. But now Farrell could see War Admiral race like the champion he was. He went to the outside and gained on Seabiscuit.

Red heard Clem McCarthy say on the radio: “They’re halfway down that backstretch and there goes War Admiral after him.”

Farrell could hear people shouting, “Here he comes! Here he comes!” War Admiral pulled even with Seabiscuit. Farrell could feel the grandstand shaking.

George Woolf loosened the reins slightly. This told Seabiscuit he could start to speed up again. Seabiscuit did so, refusing to let War Admiral pass him.

Everyone thought this would be the race of the century. And now halfway through, the son and grandson of the greatest race horse of the twentieth century were running right next to each other.

The horses were so close to each other that the jockey’s knees almost touched.

The moment had arrived.

Note: several paragraphs removed from Chapter 44 for this sample

Thoroughbred Racing History