When you mention his name today, most people view his career through the prism of the 1938 Match Race with Seabiscuit. Something that does a great disservice to the talented champion that was War Admiral.
When Man O’ War retired to stud duty, his owner Samuel Riddle kept the horse as a private stallion restricting most of his breeding to mares either he or his partner, Walter Jeffords, Sr. selected. Because of this, the mares Man O’ War received were, charitably speaking, less than stellar.
Brushup was a daughter of the 1910 Belmont Stakes winner, Sweep, but was winless in three starts. She was a tiny thing barely hitting 15 hands. Breeding her to Man O’ War would combine the three great American bloodlines: Domino and Ben Brush in Brushup with that of Fair Play in Big Red.
The resulting foal was a dark brown almost black colt measuring about 15.2 who physically resembled his dam’s side of the family, but soon let it be known that he had inherited much of his illustrious sire’s difficult nature.
On April 25, 1936, War Admiral made his first start in a maiden a winning one holding on by a nose over a fairly nondescript field. At Belmont almost a month later, he led start to finish to win an allowance. In the National Stallion, he finished third to the future two year old champion, Pompoon. After that War Admiral won the Eastern Shore by five carrying top weight, but finished second in both the Great American and Richard Johnson Handicaps. His final record at two showed 6 starts 3 wins 2 seconds 2 thirds.
His three year old season in 1937 would show the racing world that the small mud brown colt had inherited not only the temperament of his sire but also his extraordinary talent.
War Admiral got the ball rolling with a quick win in an overnight at Havre de Grace in preparation for the Chesapeake Handicap. In the latter race he grabbed the lead and trounced both the Flamingo winner, Court Scandal and Fairy Hill, the Santa Anita Derby winner, by six lengths.
His owner Samuel Riddle was so excited by this result that he decided to send War Admiral to Churchill Downs for the Kentucky Derby. Thus ignoring not only his long standing antipathy towards racing outside of Maryland and New York but his view that the 1 1/4 Derby distance was too early in the season for three year olds.
The 1937 Kentucky Derby was the highlight of the social calendar. Over 70,000 people attended the race including the Vice President, several cabinet members, motion picture stars and prominent sport figures. War Admiral was installed as the favorite in the bulky field of 20 horses. He broke on top and never looked back finishing ahead of Pompoon by a length and 3/4.
Now it was on to Pimlico and the Preakness. Again War Admiral took the lead at the start. But on the final turn Wayne Wright on Pompoon moved his charge to the inside of the Admiral. Suddenly the two horses were neck and neck as they entered the stretch. They battled this way with the Riddle standard bearer prevailing by a short head.
On June 5, 1937, War Admiral faced six rivals in the Belmont Stakes. He was particularly fractious at the start, repeatedly breaking through the barrier and dragging the assistant starter around the track. After delaying the start for a full eight minutes, he stumbled, almost going down to his knees after leaving the gate.
He quickly recovered his stride, but War Admiral had sliced off a quarter inch of his right heel. In spite of spewing blood from the wound, the Mighty Atom, as he was nicknamed, turned in a bravo performance leading wire to wire to become the fourth American Triple Crown winner and in the process tying the American record of 2:28 3/5 for a mile and 1/2.
War Admiral was put away for 4 1/2 months to grow a new hoof. He reappeared on October 26th to capture an allowance which was a prep for the Washington Handicap and a meeting with the California sensation, Seabiscuit. While racing fans anticipated the showdown between the two champions, The Biscuit trained poorly and with the forecast showing rain for the day of the race, he was scratched leaving the Admiral fully in charge.
His last race of the season was a victory in the Pimlico Special. With a perfect record of 8 for 8, War Admiral was named the 1937 Horse of the Year and Champion Three Year Old.
As a four year old in 1938, he started 11 times with 9 victories in such prestigious races as the Widener, Whitney, Saratoga Cup, Jockey Club Gold Cup and Queens County. His only losses were to Menow in the Massachusetts Handicap while toting 130 and spotting the winner 23 lbs and of course, to Seabiscuit in the famed Match Race.
In the last analysis War Admiral was probably a better horse than Seabiscuit. Certainly he had a better race record than the Howard champion. But on that day, he was left flat footed at the start with Charlie Kurtsinger playing catch up throughout the race—an unusual position for the son of Man O’ War. Certainly it didn’t help the high strung War Admiral that George Woolf delayed the start at least twice further rattling the Riddle horse.
When Seabiscuit went under the wire three lengths ahead in track record time, it was clear that War Admiral had not only lost the match race but championship honors as well. Little did he know that his entire career would be encapsulated in this one race.
The Admiral came back as a five year old annexing an allowance in preparation for the Widener. But the next day, he ran a high fever and shortly thereafter, he wrenched his ankle and was retired.
His race record shows 26 starts 21 wins 3 seconds and 1 third with earnings of $273,240. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1958. On the Blood Horse List of Top 100 American Racehorses, War Admiral is ranked number 13 while Seabiscuit can be found at number 25.
War Admiral was not only Man O’ War’s best racing son, he was also his most successful son at stud. Although his tail male sire line is extinct, War Admiral is best known as a Broodmare sire.
Mated with La Troienne and her daughters, War Admiral sired:
Busanda: who was the dam of Buckpasser;
Searching: this is the family of Affectionately, Priceless Gem and Allez France; Striking: through her daughter Glamour, she factors in the pedigree of Poker who was the Broodmare sire of Seattle Slew. Glamour is also present in the pedigree of California Chrome through her daughter Intriguing;
Busher: whose son Jet Action factors in the pedigree of Seattle Slew.
War Admiral can also be found in the pedigrees of Dr. Fager, Affirmed, Swaps, Cigar, Zenyatta, American Pharoah and many others.
War Admiral stood next to his sire at Faraway Farm. But after Riddle died and his executors sold the remaining sections of the farm, War Admiral was moved to Hamburg Place where he died in 1959. Today father and son lie together beneath the bronze statue of Man O’ War at the Kentucky Horse Park.