Writing Sample: Horse Racing

​This writing sample is about a race between the thoroughbreds Seabiscuit and War Admiral held on November 1, 1938.

The owners, Sam Riddle and Marcella Howard, watched silently as the trainers worked in the paddock. Marcella Howard could see the focus in the eyes of the men as they prepared the horses. After Seabiscuit was saddled, Marcella pinned a Saint Christopher’s medal on his saddlecloth. She whispered in his ear. “This will bring you luck.”

Only Marcella’s husband Charles Howard spoke above a whisper. Charles always chattered when he was nervous. He spoke to Clem McCarthy, the most famous sports announcer in the 1930s. McCarthy announced some of the biggest sporting events of the time. Of course, NBC had wanted McCarthy to announce the Race of the Century. 

George Woolf, Seabiscuit’s jockey, strutted into the paddock. George liked to make his opponents nervous by looking relaxed. He did not whisper, he did not look focused on his work and he certainly did not chatter nervously. George gave one of the work ponies a friendly smack on the rump. He said hello to everyone, swung easily into Seabiscuit’s saddle and looked cheerful. It was as if George was the only person at the racetrack who was completely unconcerned about how the race would end.

Moments later, they headed onto the track. War Admiral was first, head up, walking with the starter and flagman to the starting line. Behind them came Seabiscuit, head down. Like George, Seabiscuit looked unconcerned about the race. However, George could feel Seabiscuit’s tight muscles, which reminded George of a coiled spring. Seabiscuit brought his head up once and looked about at the crowd.

Farrell Jones, a teenager that worked with Seabiscuit, had bought a standing room ticket. Nearby were some people that worked for Sam Riddle, War Admiral’s owner. They were very sure War Admiral would win. Sam Riddle’s people joked about Seabiscuit. They pointed out that War Admiral walked like a champion and Seabiscuit did not.

No one said much as the start of the race got closer. They stood and waited for the bell to ring. They squeezed together as people tried to get as close to the track as possible.  

George Woolf continued riding Seabiscuit past the starting line. 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 where they would see the beginning and the end of the race. 40,000 people watched George Woolf and Seabiscuit.

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 bell. The two champion racehorses stepped forward a bit. Then George Woolf jerked Seabiscuit’s reins and the horse stepped away. George could see War Admiral’s frustration. The horses lined up again. Then War Admiral’s jockey Charley Kurtsinger reined out of the starting position. The horses moved towards the starting line. Up at her seat in the Howards’ box, Marcella squeezed her eyes shut. The two horses reached the line together and stood still. George tugged slightly on Seabiscuit’s left rein towards the other horse. There was silence until the starter’s bell sounded. Seabiscuit stared at War Admiral for those few long seconds.

Marcella opened her eyes when she heard the starting bell. 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. Seabiscuit flicked his ears forward. George could feel hard muscles everywhere he touched the horse.

War Admiral was also driving forward. The two horses stretched their legs as hard as they could, side-by-side, building speed. George kept Seabiscuit close, so Seabiscuit could look War Admiral in the eye. 

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. They hoped to get a better view.

The two horses ran next to each other for thirty yards. Marcella could see that one of the horses was pulling ahead a little at a time, inching forward. Someone near Marcella gasped.

Back at the hospital, Red Pollard, Seabiscuit’s regular jockey, leaned towards the radio, concentrating. Clem McCarthy’s voice was shrill: “Seabiscuit is outrunning him!”

After only a sixteenth of a mile, Seabiscuit was half a length ahead of War Admiral. George Woolf could feel Seabiscuit working hard. The crowd reached the infield rail. Those at the rail reached out, some waving their arms 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.

Red heard the announcer say: “They’re halfway down that backstretch and there goes War Admiral after him.”  George pulled in on the reins slightly, signalling to Seabiscuit to slow down a bit.

Farrell could hear people shouting, “Here he comes! Here he comes!” War Admiral pulled even with Seabiscuit. Marcella 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. The horses were so close to each other that the jockey’s knees almost touched.

In the second turn, George loosened the reins some more. He leaned forward to Seabiscuit’s ear and spoke. Seabiscuit started to gain slowly. Seabiscuit turned his head and glared at War Admiral one last time. 

Seabiscuit’s ears flipped up. The moment had arrived. George turned to Kurtsinger and shouted: “So long Charley!” 

George leaned to his left. Seabiscuit accelerated. They were still in the turn and George could feel the increased centrifugal forces pull them away from the rail. Seabiscuit drift outward slightly. The drift was just enough to make War Admiral take another step. Both jockeys leaned to the left to help their horses stay on the shortest line possible through the end of the turn. 

Then George Woolf flattened himself on Seabiscuit’s back. They pulled away.

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. 

Thoroughbred Racing History