Right up to the very end, in early 1946, when he fell off a horse in a race at Santa Anita, hit his head and died, George Woolf always said he never had more fun on a racehorse than he did that day in '38 at Pimlico, when Silent Tom Smith, the horse's trainer, lifted Woolf aboard Seabiscuit for the big match race against War Admiral.
I have sometimes imagined what it would have been like to have been there that day I have imagined it like this.
I am the son of Seabiscuit's groom. All year in '38 I traveled with that stable circus, scrubbing tack and walking hots to earn money for college. So I was there in Baltimore that glorious autumn afternoon. I walked with Seabiscuit to the Pimlico paddock and stood with him there as Smith, taciturn as ever, cinched up the girth and then turned to George and whispered, "You're on the best horse. You do what we planned, and you won't need no excuses."
I hung the Biscuit's halter on my shoulder, sat on the outside rail near the finish line and took a long look around. Never saw a race day anything like it. Not even when War Admiral swept the Triple Crown the year before, winning all three races by rushing hell-bent to the lead and daring every other horse to come and get him. From my spot on the rail I could see the crowd lining both sides of the homestretch from the quarter pole to the wire. Forty thousand fedoras and ladies' hats! Half of Baltimore society squeezed into a place with only 16,000 seats! It got so crowded in the clubhouse that Clem McCarthy, the radio announcer, finally gave up trying to wade through the bodies to his broadcast perch; he ended up atop the wooden rail, calling the race right next to me.
You could touch that rail and feel the beat of Pimlico's pulse. This was the horse race of the century, the first big match to command a national audience through the voice of radio. For nearly a year I'd watched men from every big racetrack in America come through our barn, hats in hand, to plead with Smith to let them stage the Biscuit-Admiral race. You didn't have to be P.T. Barnum to see that this had all the fixings of the greatest show on earth, the perfect match between the two fastest horses on the planet: War Admiral, the patrician, the royally bred brown son of Man o' War from the East, against the sore-kneed former claimer Seabiscuit, the bay, the off-bred commoner from the far West. Even their styles were in contrast. While the 4-year-old Admiral, who had won nine of 11 races in '38, liked to burn on the lead, the 5-year-old Biscuit, who had won 17 of his 26 races in the past two years, had become America's leading older horse by chasing the pace and then pouncing on the leaders down the lane.
No wonder, then, that there was such a rising national clamor for the race and that Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt, the ambitious 26-year-old vice president of Pimlico, never gave up on his dream to host it. The track offered just $15,000, winner take all, but racing's boy wonder convinced everyone involved that Old Hilltop was the ideal place for the showdown. Fearing that it would attract too many people for Pimlico to handle, Vanderbilt had decided to run the race on a Tuesday, but they turned out in droves just the same. The bookmakers were offering 1-4 on the Admiral, and I wanted to get $10 down on the Biscuit at 2-1, but there was no way I'd have made it through the moiling crowds and back again.
Thirty-five miles south, Franklin Roosevelt delayed a presidential press conference so he could tune in on the radio to McCarthy's familiar raspy voice, which crackled with excitement as he growled the horses' names into the mike: And now, War Admiral and Seabiscuit are on the track....
Not a soul on the grounds doubted that War Admiral would spring to the lead like a flushed deer—and probably never look back. Except the few of us around the Biscuit who had watched Smith set up one of the great shockers in the annals of racing. In a small box Smith had wired batteries to a bell and then trained the Biscuit, in Pavlovian style, to break into an all-out sprint when he heard it ring. As every handicapper knows, the horse who sets the pace in a match race always has the advantage over his pursuer.
All this led to the damnedest sight I've ever seen in all my years around the track. Looking for a bell to begin the 1 3/16-mile race, the visiting starter, imported from New York for the occasion, ended up using the one with which Smith had trained the Biscuit, and when the horse heard the familiar ringing and felt the lash of Georgie's whip, he bounded forward in a burst. Then as a gasp and a roar rose from the crowd—"My gawd! Seabiscuit's going to the lead!" a man cried out behind me—Georgie steered the Biscuit to the rail, and in that low, rhythmic thunder of pounding hooves, there he suddenly was, rocking in the stirrups and laughing as he turned and saw the Admiral and jockey Charley Kurtsinger, the Flying Dutchman, giving chase. Down the backside, the Admiral closed the gap until they were racing head and head and, finally, nose and nose into the far turn. They called the unflappable Georgie the Iceman, and once again he did not flinch. The noise was so deafeningly rich that I could barely hear McCarthy shouting into his microphone right next to me as the two horses hurtled through the final turn as one.
They swung into the straight, and I could see them surging toward me as a team, two wild horses reaching and folding the earth beneath them. All that is left to remember through the last 300 yards are the jockeys' whips flashing and their right arms rising and falling, then the Admiral's mouth coming open as he spit the bit a furlong from the wire and, finally, the Biscuit, his ears pricked forward, pulling away to win by four lengths in a track-record 1:56 [3/5].