Saturday, November 01, 2008

The Match Race - 70 Years Ago Today

Seabiscuit vs War Admiral - November 1, 1938

Clem McCarthy making the call.

"He made a rear admiral out of the War Admiral."
--Jockey Red Pollard

Forget about the presidential horse race for a moment. The 1938 Match Race between Seabiscuit and War Admiral is still widely regarded by people-in-the-know as the greatest horse race in history.

Last Summer I'd noticed that Crystal and William were both talking about the book Seabiscuit: An American Legend. I gave it a read too. Very good book.

Charley Kurtsinger was the jockey on the swift, sleek, regal, elegant, highly regarded but ornery and wildly flaky War Admiral. The perpetually hard-luck storied Red Pollard was the usual jockey on the small, knock-kneed, square-bodied Seabiscuit. He was injured before the race, so the jockey on this day was the more highly regarded Georgie Woolf.

Actually seeing this race is really interesting, because Biscuit was a notoriously slow starter, a horse who loved to come from behind in the closing stages of a race and to kick in with his fierce competitive spirit and devastating closing speed. As for War Admiral, he was equally well-known for his fast starts, and for never wanting another horse in front of him. As you can see in the video, Seabiscuit (the lighter-colored horse) got off to a great jump from the standing start, and led War Admiral for almost the entire race, just letting the Admiral catch up and pass him briefly at the 3/4 mark, just so Biscuit could look him in the eye and reach down for that extra kick.

A humorous anecdote from the book... The race was on and off several times, as each side looked for the most favorable terms. At one point, the injured Red Pollard was interviewed on national radio before the race and was asked to express his thoughts on it. In his usual irreverent fashion, he went off script...

That night David Alexander and a host of radio technicians arrived at Pollard's hospital room. NBC had asked Alexander to host a nationally aired, live interview with Woolf and Pollard, conducted from Pollard's hospital room. Woolf would be on a hookup from a Boston broadcasting studio. Alexander found Pollard lying supine with his leg up in traction, his misery greatly assuaged by a leggy private nurse named Agnes. The technicians set up a makeshift radio studio around his bed. Concerned that Pollard's famously mischievous ad-libs might get them kicked off the air, Alexander had come prepared. He presented Pollard with a complete script for the interview, leaving nothing to the jockey's rich imagination or questionable vocabulary. At the studio, Woolf was given the same script.

At first the interview went as planned. Woolf read his lines, and Pollard read his responses. When they reached the section devoted to race tactics, Woolf dutifully recited his line asking Pollard how he should ride the race. Just then, Pollard's script spilled to the floor. The pages fluttered everywhere. Alexander hurriedly tried to gather them up. He looked up, a mess of papers in hand, just as Pollard opened his mouth. In the jockey's eyes, Alexander saw "an evil gleam."

"Why, Georgie boy," said Pollard to the eager ears of the entire nation; "get on the horse-face to the front-put one leg on each side of him, get someone to lead you into the gate, and then f__ it up like you usually do."

For a moment the only sound reaching the NBC radio audience was a brief swish! as the radio technicians lunged for their controls. Woolf collapsed into peals of laughter. Alexander forged on with the interview, but the discussion he had planned so carefully had broken down completely. Woolf couldn't stop laughing and was barely able to grunt out his responses.

NBC didn't think it was so funny. The quip was a national scandal. The network, horrified at Pollard, wrote up a sanitized transcript of the interview.


crystal said...

Thanks for the video, Jeff. I've never seen that race before. What a great book that was! Sad how at the end everyone went their own way and Red didn't do so well. When I read the last part about Seabiscuit being buried, I cried (sniff, sniff).

cowboyangel said...

That's great, Jeff. I had never seen the race either.

La Reina is actually showing the movie right now in her American Culture Film Class for her ESL students. I'm going to send her the link for this so the students can watch it.

Fascinating to watch the actual race. It does look like Seabiscuit was toying a bit with War Admiral.

Jeff said...

Hi guys. Thanks for recommending the book.

Yeah, it was really sad that Seabiscuit didn't get to enjoy his retirement for very long. That great, big ole heart gave out on him.

If you ever get the chance, you should see the excellent documentary that was done on on PBS on The American Experience. I thought it was much better than the movie.