Wednesday, September 5, 2012


[NOTE: With everyone agreed that the race for the presidency has started in earnest with party conventions, I thought that I would offer, as a light diversion, my views on the horserace which really matters, a hypothetical match-up of Secretariat and Seabiscuit. If you have not read Laura Hillenbrand's "Seabiscuit" or seen the PBS American Experience documentary based on it, you have missed two treats. Hillenbrand's book is one of the best on a sports figure, and the movie is a joy. After I read the book, I passed it to my wife. After she read it, we made it a present to our four children and her mother. I read it to seniors at Good Sam's. Everyone agrees that it is a wonderful book.

But there are disbelievers out there, the fallen from sense, who offer up a false idol. This brief blog addresses the heretics.]

The Better Horse: Secretariat or Seabiscuit?

A friend believes that Secretariat is the greatest American racing thoroughbred of modern times. I recall watching him run in, and win, all three races of the Triple Crown in 1973. I wept at his astonishing victory by 31 lengths in the Belmont—running not to beat his easily defeated opponents, but to be the epitome of a thoroughbred champion.

I never saw Seabiscuit run. I do not recall seeing the 1949 movie, but I do recall reading about him in a book on racehorses. So I had a twinge of recollection half a century later when I came across Laura Hillenbrand’s Seabiscuit, bought it, and read it (and re-read it many times). I saw the 2003 movie, disappointing in itself and dismal in comparison. The 2003 PBS documentary Seabiscuit in the American Experience series follows her book and provides excellent original film footage and good commentary.

The book and the documentary build to a double-climax. The first is the greatest match race in American thoroughbred racing history, between Seabiscuit and War Admiral, the previous year’s Triple Crown winner. A day later, his jockey famously remarked that Seabiscuit had made “a Rear Admiral of War Admiral” with a win by four lengths. The second was his victory in the 1940 Santa Anita Handicap. At the age of seven, after 88 races, recovered from a serious leg injury thought to be career-ending, carrying 133 pounds, more weight than any other horse in the race, Seabiscuit won in the second fastest mile-and-a-quarter ever run in America. Many sports fans regard this performance as the greatest comeback in American sports history.

My friend and I debated who would win a match race between the two horses. She never admitted defeat but allowed that, because of their records based on races run with different weights carried, Seabiscuit would be hard for Secretariat to beat. I think that, in a match race today, Seabiscuit would make a stenographer of Secretariat. The facts favor Seabiscuit.

Track: In Seabiscuit’s day, tracks were less well built—thus, slower—than those in Secretariat’s day. Seabiscuit’s records then would be records now.

Weights: Seabiscuit carried weights according to handicapping by track stewards. Once he achieved a reputation, he carried weights usually at or over 130 pounds, sometimes 30 pounds more than his competition. Secretariat never carried more than 126 pounds. The rule-of-thumb is that, at distances of a mile or more, each pound is a length-and-a-half. Secretariat could not “spot” Seabiscuit 6- to 10 ½-lengths and win.

Competition: Seabiscuit’s competition was strong, yet many competitors carried much less weight. Secretariat’s competition was also strong, but all carried the same weight. Seabiscuit would be a hare at 126 pounds; Secretariat would be a turtle at 133 pounds.

Career: Seabiscuit ran 89 races between the ages of 2 and 7; as a three-year-old, he ran 23 races. Secretariat ran 21 races, 9 as a two-year-old and 12 as a three-year-old.

Character: Seabiscuit was tough. He recovered from poor training, poor jockeys, and over-racing in his early years. Restored by a good trainer and a good jockey, he found joy in racing, was a responsive mount, and a determined runner. He had remarkable idiosyncrasies and great intelligence; he knew the game, loved it, and, I think, even teased his crew before what he sensed would be his last race and one, during his recovery, he wanted to run.

Final Comment: George Woolf, perhaps the greatest jockey on many of the greatest horses of his day, was Seabiscuit’s jockey in the 1938 match race against War Admiral. Late in his career, after winning all three 1942 Triple Crown races on Whirlaway, Woolf answered a reporter’s question about his best mount ever: at once, without hesitation: “Seabiscuit.”

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