War Admiral: The Mighty Atom
Man O’ War was considered the yardstick for greatness in racing for most of the twentieth century––and still is by some. The original “Big Red” was a tall, rangy powerful chestnut with a star and stripe on his face and the look of eagles in his eyes. A fast horse out of the gate, he was almost impossible to pass, except for that one really bad start that cost him his only loss, to a horse aptly named Upset. War Admiral was his best son, amongst some fine stakes horses. Two horses couldn’t have looked more different: Big Red tall, some claim 16.3 hands, and lean; War Admiral muscular and compact, only standing 15.3. Man O’ War a gleaming red chestnut, the Admiral a solid dark brown, almost black. Nevertheless, the two shared a blinding speed and feisty spirit that brought them home first over some very good competition.
War Admiral, nicked named the “mighty Atom” for compressing such a concentration of speed and power in such a small package, was foaled at Riddle Faraway Farm, the home of his magnificent Dad and owned by Samuel D. Riddle (who raced both horses). As a two year old, the colt’s record was respectable, though not spectacular: three wins in six starts, including one stakes race (Drager 62, Robertson 318). Still, he showed both promise and spirit, which he fulfilled by going unbeaten at three. In the Chesapeake Stakes, he trounced the winners of the Flamingo and the Santa Anita Derby, leading Samuel Riddle to break his rule of not running in the Derby for the first and only time (Riddle felt that early in May was too soon to ask a three year old to go 1 1/4 miles). After War Admiral caused an eight-minute delay at the starting gate (the spirited colt loathed the confinement), he shot to the lead and stayed there to romp home by 1 3/4 lengths over the good Pompoon (Drager 62, Robertson 318). The Preakness proved an even more thrilling race, with Pompoon’s jockey sending the colt to challenge War Admiral early and the two staging a furious battle on the lead. War Admiral prevailed by just a head (Drager 63-65, Robertson 318). Interestingly, Robertson claims that the victory was more authoritative than it looked, with the Admiral decisively turning back every attempt Pompoon made to move ahead (318). The Belmont Stakes was a particularly impressive victory, and not just because War Admiral led from start to finish as if he were on a sprint rather than a 1 1/2 distance run––or because he tied the American record for the distance of 2:28 3/5 (Robertson 318). War Admiral left a trail of blood behind him as he trotted to the winner’s circle because at the start of the race, during his hijinks, he had “shear[ed] off a piece of the wall of his right forefoot” (Keller qtd Robertson 318) and “run the race without noticing” (Robertson 318, Drager 68). You can see his accident in the photo above.
War Admiral was out of action for four and a half months, but when he was back in action, he racked up wins in the Washington Cap and the Pimlico Special (under 128 lbs!), to take Horse of the Year Honors for 1937 (Robertson 318). That year, another horse was making headlines, the rag-to-riches handicap star you may have seen a movie about: Seabiscuit. The Biscuit and War Admiral missed meeting in 1937 when the former was pulled out of the Washington Cap, and 1938 proved to be a year of exciting rivalry for handicap and horse-of-the-year honors between the two. Both horses won big and racked up high earnings; both horses carried high weights to victory over the top stakes stars of the year. After several near misses, the two finally met in a winner-take-all match race for $15,000 (not chump change in 1938). Anyone who’s been to the movies in the past few years knows how that turned out. Tom Smith used shrewd training techniques to get the Biscuit to break fast and put on an early burst of speed. For the first time in a long time, War Admiral was headed, almost literally, out of the gate. The Admiral made several runs at the Biscuit, but it was the older horse who finally prevailed (Drager 73-82, Robertson 325-26). Still, War Admiral hardly suffered a broken heart, turning around shortly afterward to trounce his rivals soundly in Rhode Island Cap under 127 lbs. at the old ’Gansett in Rhode Island. War Admiral came back to racing at five; owners weren’t afraid to ask their horses to prove themselves (without necessarily over racing them) in those days. He took a prep for the Widener, then was set back, first, with laryngitis, then with a bowed tendon, and retired (Robertson 326, Drager 83). Marvin Drager (83) suggests that War Admiral got his “revenge” on Seabiscuit by having a far more successful breeding career, siring Busher, War Jeep, and Busanda (the inestimable Buckpasser’s Mom). However you look at it, War Admiral did his Daddy proud.
Sources: The Kentucky Derby: The First Hundred Years (Peter Chew); The Most Glorious Crown (Marvin Drager); The History of Thoroughbred Racing in America (Willaim H. P. Roberston).
With all the well-merited excitement over American Pharoah’s [sic] being the first horse to cop a Triple Crown in 37 years, I thought people might like to know a little about the eleven colts who preceded him in attaining this difficult feat. First, you might like to know that the Derby, Preakness, and Belmont Stakes were not officially dubbed the Triple Crown by the Thoroughbred Racing Association until 1950, after Citation (Big Cy) swept them in 1948. In the first quarter of the twentieth-century, they came to be considered the most important races for three-year-olds (the only age allowed to run in them). Then, in the mid-1930s, Charles Hatton of the Morning Telegraph and Daily Racing Form referred to them, unofficially, as the Triple Crown of stakes for three-year-olds when Omaha swept them (Chew 74, Drager 3). So let’s take a look at the first triple crown champ, Sir Barton.
Sir Barton (foaled 1916), a striking chestnut with a white blaze, scored the Triple in 1919. Owned by Canadian J.K.L. Ross, the colt was quite a character. No Kelso who would eat ice cream sundaes from children’s hands, he was more likely to eat the children. As Marvin Drager writes, Sir Barton, “ignored horses, despised humans, and hated pets” (19). Drager posits that Sir Barton’s bad attitude might have stemmed from having had tootsies so tender that he had to be shod with piano felt between his feet and his horse shoes (12, 19). But that orneriness translated to gameness on the track. Even more interesting, Sir Barton was not only the first triple crown winner, but the first maiden to take the Derby. The term “maiden” in horse racing has nothing to do with being demure or virginal. It just means the horse has not yet won a race.
With the Derby, Sir Barton made up for lost time. His owner put him in the race as a “rabbit” for his stable mate, Billy Kelly––a rabbit being a fast horse who sets a killer early pace to make sure any front-runners are too exhausted to withstand a late rush from a come-from-behind runner. Jockey Johnny Loftus let Sir Barton have his head, then let him keep it in the drive to the finish, where Sir Barton scored by five lengths. The colt proved what a tough cookie he was by coming back four days later to crush the Preakness field by four lengths (And people think the races are too close together, today!). Then he sealed the deal by taking the Belmont Stakes by five. Only two other horses dared face him that day. The racing chart amusingly states that for a 1/4 of a mile Sir Barton “indulged Natural Bridge with the lead over the Belmont course” (qtd. Drager 18). Cold, man. Barton proceeded to finish out the season with a total of eight wins in thirteen starts, over the best of stakes company (Drager 14-18, Lauder 8, 18, 39; Robertson 234-35). Not bad for a cranky Canadian “tenderfoot.”
The next year, 1920, turned out to be the best and worst of times for Sir Barton. He came home first in numerous stakes and handicaps, carrying impressively high weight (129, 132, 133, 134 lbs.) and defeated 1918 Derby winner and beloved handicapper Exterminator (Old Bones), as well as fine stakes horses such as Wildair, The Porter, and Mad Hatter. Mad Hatter provides us with an interesting transition, since his sire (Fair Play) also fathered Sir Barton’s equine version of Kryptonite: Man O’ War. Now you might have to be of a certain age to know who Man O’ War is, but the truth is that the original “Big Red” was the yardstick against which all great racers were measured––until 1974, when another chestnut colt with a star and stripe on his face copped his nick name and the triple crown. There are still people who see the first Red as the best––I’m one of them. In fact, Man O’ War would undoubtedly have been a member of the Triple Crown club but that his owner (Samuel Riddle) believed that the first Saturday in May was too early to run a young three-year-old 1 1/4 miles––but I drift wide in the stretch (digress). These two met and this time it was Man O’ War’s turn to briefly “indulge.” Then he crushed Sir Barton with an unsurpassable surge of speed in track record time for a pot of $80,000 dollars––not hay in 1920 (Drager 26-27, Robertson 242).
Sir Barton raced three more times after this, and though he performed creditably, he still didn’t win (Robertson 242, Drager 28). With nothing left to prove, he was retired, and did fairly well for himself at stud in Virginia. At seventeen, “he was turned over to an U.S. Remount Station.” Eventually, he finished out his days comfortably on a ranch in Wyoming (Drager 28). He doesn’t look so cranky in this picture. Maybe his tootsies weren’t sore from running hard, any more.
Sources: The Kentucky Derby: The First Hundred Years (Peter Chew); The Most Glorious Crown (Marvin Drager); The Triple Crown (Bill Lauder) The History of Thoroughbred Racing in America (Willaim H. P. Roberston).
Photographs: Sir Barton 1 (Roberston), Sir Barton winning the Derby (Draber), Sir Barton grazing (Drager).