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Belmont Stakes: War Admiral
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Part Four:  War Admiral

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The modern day general public is most familiar with War Admiral from the Seabiscuit movie released eight years ago.  The Admiral was portrayed as Seabiscuit’s monstrous, evil adversary owned by Daddy Warbucks.  Of course, the movie was undeniably entertaining, once I swallowed all the inaccuracies.  But that is a whole other article!

War Admiral’s 1937 Belmont Stakes performance was the “Kurt Schilling Bloody Sock” moment in horseracing; thrilling, gladiatoresque sportsmanship.  

Since beginning his racing stable, Samuel Riddle had never raced a horse in the Kentucky Derby.  Not because he did not have a horse good enough to run; in fact his highly competitive stable included Man O’ War.  Riddle despised what he considered racing in the ‘West’, and was not attracted to the idea of running three year olds at a long distance that early in the year.

After winning the Chesapeake Stakes by an overwhelming six lengths, Riddle determined that the dark bay or brown colt could handle the Kentucky Derby’s 1 ¼ mile distance.

The Admiral was sent off as the favorite at odds of 2-1 for the 1937 Kentucky Derby.  Out of the field of twenty, his obvious opponent was the juvenile champion, Pompoon.  This distinguished competitor had faced War Admiral once prior to the Derby, and had defeated him by 2 ½ lengths as a two year old. 

However, Pompoon was coming off a fifth place in the Wood Memorial-his second time being tested over one mile (his first start at over one mile was the New England Futurity, where he was second by a neck).

Seventy-five thousand spectators showed up on the first Saturday in May to witness the horses load into the gates for the sixty-third edition of the Kentucky Derby.  War Admiral, and three others, refused to load, and delayed the start by eight minutes.

War Admiral would win wire to wire by an unforced 1 ¾ lengths, finishing in 2:03.2, the second fastest time up to that point.  Pompoon crossed the wire in second.

After the Derby, there was talk about a possible Triple Crown winner.  The Triple Crown was actually a new concept, dawning in the early 1930’s.  War Admiral would be officially recognized as the third to sweep the Triple Crown even though three had preceded him in this achievement.  Sir Barton was the first to accomplish the three win-in-a-row races in 1919 without getting Triple Crown acknowledgement until 1948, ten years after his death. 

In the Preakness, War Admiral ran straight to the lead, but was tested by two others for the majority of the race.  Pompoon was back to his two year old form when he moved earlier than he had in the Kentucky Derby.  The Admiral and Pompoon drew away from the field by eight lengths, but fought to the wire.  War Admiral held a head’s advantage on the opposing colt who was under hard urging from his rider.  At the wire, The Admiral held off Pompoon fair and square, his winning margin being a head.  With a finishing time of 1:58.2, War Admiral was never urged by regular rider, Charlie Kurtsinger.  A Sham v. Secretariat moment was in the making.

Despite a close finish in the Preakness, War Admiral was the overpowering favorite at 4-5 for the Belmont Stakes.  Pompoon was once again the key opponent in the final leg of the Triple Crown, going off at odds of 3-1.


The track was rated fast for the sixty-ninth running of the Belmont, and War Admiral was fractious at the start, postponing the race for over seven minutes.  Out of the gates, all the horses were slow to break.  The Admiral, trying to rush from the gates, grabbed his right heel, and off came a quarter inch of hoof.  Just then, Triple Crown dreams could have been dashed right in the starting gate.  Never had a horse recovered from such a disaster.

Incontestably, he rushed up to dominate the pace with tremendous power.  Pushing through the excruciating pain, The Admiral glided through the sandy track surface, while blood gushed from his hoof. He was never challenged in the Belmont, sustaining his multiple length lead.

War Admiral crossed the wire first by three lengths in what is indisputably one of the greatest Belmont Stakes of all time. When War Admiral stood in the winner’s circle, Charlie Kurtsinger, immediately dismounted, knowing the colt was injured.  Discovering the traumatic foot injury and his blood soaked underside, it became evident that War Admiral had ascended to the peak of horseracing’s glory.  

The injury sustained in the Belmont did not keep him from running a fast race.  War Admiral had run the first ten furlongs in 2:02.3, placing him only 1 ½ lengths behind Animal Kingdom in the Derby.  This was both without urging, and with another quarter of a mile to run.   The Admiral passed the finish pole in 2:28.6, equaling the American record, and breaking the previous track record.

The Admiral not only won wire to wire, something that is a nearly an impossible feat in the Belmont Stakes, but also overcame an injury that would force many horses to pull up from the race.

In the Belmont Stakes, he earned his nickname, “The Mighty Atom”, by overcoming the adversity handed to him in the first moment of the race.  He acquired this name for not only his toughness on the racetrack, but also his small stature. Contrary to the Seabiscuit movie depicting him at 18 hands, he actually stood at 15.2 hands a full inch shorter than Seabiscuit (I know.  I just can’t let go of the Seabiscuit thing!). 

From the breeding of Man O’ War-Brushup, by Sweep, War Admiral has quite a remarkable pedigree.  Winning the Belmont Stakes runs strongly throughout his bloodlines, being by Man O’ War, who won the Belmont Stakes in 1920. Man O’ War is by Fair Play, who not only inherited his sire’s wild disposition, but also his talent at 1 ½ miles by finishing a close second to Colin in the 1908 Belmont Stakes.  In 1896, Hastings, who would sire Fair Play, won the Belmont Stakes for August Belmont, Jr.  His sire, Spendthrift, won the Belmont Stakes in 1879.  It is very clear that War Admiral was destined to be a horse who could run all day, because his broodmare sire, Sweep, won the Belmont Stakes in 1910.

War Admiral was one of the Triple Crown’s “Founding Fathers”, setting a stellar example of what type of horse should be worthy of wearing this coveted title.  He ran a Belmont Stakes that will be heralded throughout horseracing’s history.  

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