Underdogs

by Ed Meyer

posted on November 4, 2008 in General Discussion, Other Events | No Comments >>

On Election Day, it only seems appropriate to tell a story about an underdog. No, this is not a voting bumper. It is about when things looked one-sided, and the outcome was a bit different.

The Pimlico combatants, beginning to stir under brightening skies, were no strangers to headlines. One, the favorite, was the great War Admiral, reigning horse of the year and winner of the coveted Triple Crown, after victories in the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont. Son of mighty Man O’ War, the dark horse was the emblem of genteel Kentucky society and the favorite of thoroughbred nobility.

In a nearby stable rested a slightly built, almost web-footed horse from the “unproven wilds” of California. His name was Seabiscuit. The Admiral was a proven winner but Seabiscuit had lost his first 17 races before claiming a win. Wealthy Samuel Riddle hired only the most prestigious horsemen to train War Admiral. Seabiscuit’s owner Charles Howard, who came to California in 1903 with 21 cents in his pocket (before becoming a millionaire selling Buicks), made Tom Smith, son of a western stage coach driver, trainer for the ’Biscuit. Smith seldom talked, Howard almost never stopped, and Riddle privately disdained them both. Underdogs everywhere began to root for the ’Biscuit.

Seabiscuit’s regular jockey, Red Pollard, was not even able to ride following a stable accident that left him bedridden with a shattered leg. Yet all was not lost. George Woolf, known as “the Iceman”, and probably the finest jockey in racing, was persuaded to fill for the match race that had taken more than a year to arrange. The great event was scheduled for a Tuesday in the hope that the crowd would be small for the 4:30 p.m. start. By 10 that morning, Baltimore streets were filled with fans waiting to get in. Before noon, more than 30,000 filled the grandstands. Another 10,000 poured into the infield, standing where they could. Outside, thousands more milled around the track, found places atop buildings and climbed trees searching for a glimpse of the race track.

At post time, the two horses broke from a standing start under a rope with a fire engine bell serving as the starting signal. Woolf had learned his lessons well from Pollard and Smith, training Seabiscuit to leap forward quickly, knowing that to fall behind the Admiral would mean certain defeat. Legs flailing, the ’Biscuit somehow got the lead into the first turn as the crowd roared. An estimated one out of every three Americans, including many in Bluefield, listened to Clem McCarthy call the race on the NBC radio network. Woolf took the gamble Pollard had encouraged and gave up his lead to allow Seabiscuit to get a glimpse of War Admiral on the backstretch. The flying horses, running at nearly 50 miles an hour, and covering an astonishing 80 feet per second as they matched 21-foot strides coming toward the back turn, seemed to be running as one.

Then it happened. Seabiscuit saw his rival, got one powerful surge and began to pull ahead. Thundering down toward the wire, the ’Biscuit steadily increased his lead. When he flew under the wire he was four lengths in front. Witnesses said the grandstands were literally shaking amid the celebration. War Admiral had run faster at Pimlico than any horse ever had, except the flying chestnut in front of him.

At the White House, Roosevelt turned off his radio and went back to a Cabinet meeting he had held up for several minutes to listen to Seabiscuit’s victory.

And Seabiscuit, who earned more inches of newspaper coverage that year than either Churchill, Roosevelt, or Hitler, had raced into legend with the greatest gift his biggest fan could ever wish for.

It was “Red” Pollard’s birthday.

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