We can’t be absolutely certain that War Admiral is trainer John Shirreffs all-time favourite thoroughbred of the past. But we do know that the distinguished trainer of 2010 Horse of the Year, Zenyatta, has a vast collection of racing memorabilia that reflects his passion for the history of thoroughbred racing. In a Thoroughbred Times article about John Shirreffs and his wife, Dottie Ingordo-Shirreffs, the Mosses Racing Manager, entitled “Zenyatta’s People” (11/04/2010), it was pointed out that one of the “jewels” in John’s collection is a program from a banquet held in the 1930’s to honour War Admiral, that features a portrait of Man O’ War on the cover and is signed by Samuel Riddle.
THE VAULT ‘s mission is to celebrate the role of history in shaping the sport of racing and the thoroughbred as a breed. So what better way to celebrate the start of a new year than by dedicating our War Admiral narrative to an appreciative historian of the sport, John Shirreffs?
To our fabulous readers: without your support and encouragement, there would be no inspiration to go on spinning stories. I write for each and every one of you.
Contrary to his portrayal in the most recent movie about Seabiscuit, based on Laura Hillenbrand’s wonderful book of the same name, War Admiral was a small, brown colt who at 3 yrs. stood slightly over 15.2 hands. Clearly, the decision in the movie to depict him as a Titan was a kind of figurative gesture, calculated to add suspense, while indicating to those movie-goers unfamiliar with thoroughbred racing history that “The Admiral” was a champion of giant-esque proportions.
And that he was.
The diminutive brown yearling, who resembled his dam far more than he did his legendary sire, was so woefully unlike Man O’ War in conformation that Samuel Riddle despaired and actually tried to convince his partner, the distinguished Walter M. Jeffords Sr., to take the colt off his hands. For not only did The Admiral resemble his dam, but the exquisitely built little mare had actually only run in three races and failed to win; Samuel Riddle, who owned Brushup with the Jeffords, connected the brown colt’s looks with intimations of his dam’s mediocrity. Riddle jealously guarded the reputation of Man O’ War and one way he attempted to assure that Big Red would achieve immortality was to disperse any offspring that did not appear to meet the standard of excellence of their sire.
However — and happily for Riddle — Jeffords Sr. showed little interest in the tiny son of Brushup.
Unremarkable as her racing career was, Brushup came to Riddle with a lovely pedigree. Her sire, Sweep (1907), descended from the likes of Himyar (1875) and his great son, Domino (1891), as well as Kentucky Derby winner, Ben Brush (1893) and the founder of the Fair Play line, Australian (1858). Himyar (1875) was such an outstanding sire and made such a lasting contribution to the breed itself that he certainly deserves his own spot on THE VAULT! Briefly, he was a speedball on the turf, winning 14 of his 28 starts and was without a doubt the fastest thoroughbred of his generation. Sweep’s dam, Pink Domino (1897) was a granddaughter of Himyar and a daughter of Domino. Sweep won the Belmont Stakes and other top contests during his racing career, but is likely most famous for being the broodmare sire of two Triple Crown winners — War Admiral and Whirlaway.
The blood that raced in The Admiral’s veins was a treasure-trove of great, great thoroughbreds. But despite that, the colt would have to earn the respect of his owner and the horse racing public, most of whom would brook no equal to their hero, Man O’ War, even while they awaited a son or daughter stamped with his greatness. The one person who took the little colt as he was, allowing him to grow and develop into the individual he became, was trainer George Conway — and The Admiral blossomed under his tutelage.
Conway was in the final years of his career when War Admiral came along. He was a quiet, thoughtful and focused professional of few words, but he had an eye for good horses and it didn’t take very long before Conway knew that the tiny son of Man O’ War was destined to be one of the giants of thoroughbred racing. At the beginning, however, Conway doubted that any other thoroughbred could ever be as accomplished as another son of Man O’ War who was dear to his heart, Crusader.
George Conway had learned his trade from a number of trainers before arriving at Glen Riddle, working his way up from the very bottom of the pecking order. Man O’ War’s trainer, Louis Feustel, saw Conway’s potential and made him stable foreman. During those magical years, it was often George Conway who led the always-restive Man O’ War to the start of one of his races. In fact, Conway spent so much time with Big Red that it was he, rather than Feustel, who really accounted for Big Red’s conditioning and overall mental outlook. Following Feustel, Gwyn Tompkins became the head trainer at Glen Riddle and started Man O’ War’s son, Crusader, as a 2 year-old. When Tompkins retired, it was Conway who was asked by Samuel Riddle to take the reins. So it was that George Conway raced Crusader until the champion’s retirement and, in so doing, established himself in the eyes of the sporting public.
Conway treated all his horses as individuals, working to build a program that would suit their abilities and their needs. He was a patient man and he lavished this patience on his charges. As a rule, Conway only raced his 2 year-olds lightly, understanding that, at two, thoroughbreds are still growing into themselves physically, while caught somewhere between babyhood and maturity mentally. However, “lightly” in 1936 meant something quite different than it does today — The Admiral started 6 times as a 2 year-old, winning one stakes race as well as two others in the process. That year, the small bay was among a triad of promising Man O’ War progeny to hit the track running; the other two were Matey and Wand. A fourth youngster, Over The Top, had also been seen as a good prospect for Glen Riddle. But it was the appearance of Wand, Matey and War Admiral that most impressed, hinting that perhaps the ageing Man O’ War still had a champion or two left in him, after years of mediocre crops.
War Admiral’s “fiery” temperament, contrary to the myth, was not a signature trait. His worst temper tantrums appear to have been provoked by the imposition of a starting gate, although he was also unnerved by noise and camera flashes. In the quiet of his barn with its familiar smells, routines and humans, the little bay was no different than most 2 year-old colts. He even tended to be more relaxed than most, indulging in long naps at least twice a day. His groom called him “sweet” and noted his intelligence. His trainer found him more like his dam in overall personality than his sire. In fact, if photographs can be considered a kind of visual history, it must be said that photos of a quiet, well-behaved War Admiral vastly outnumber the few that depict him misbehaving.It seems likely that the exaggerated myth about his explosive personality might well have been the stuff of folkways, motivated by the desire to connect a noble son to a beloved, fiery American legend.
In his juvenile season, it became clear that The Admiral had an indomitable determination to win. He was always “on his toes” on race day and although the colt acted very badly at the starting gate, when the race was on he switched to a completely focused running machine. His regular jockey, Charley Kurtsinger, was impressed with how War Admiral handled himself on the track that year: he was responsive, eager to learn and always tried his best. As it would turn out, what Man O’ War had bequeathed to the little guy was stamina, heart and courage. Nowhere was this more apparent than in War Admiral’s victory in the Eastern Shore Handicap, where the colt strutted his stuff, running a quarter-mile in :22 3/5 and the half in : 45 4/5. In the end, the 2 year-old won by 5 lengths and in so doing, garnered a modest though enthusiastic following. Despite that victory, it was Pompoon (1934) who took the honours for 2 year-old champion that year.
It was during his 3 year-old campaign that the diminutive colt raced into the pantheon of thoroughbred champions, earning the respect and admiration of his owner and trainer and winning the hearts of the thousands who saw him run. It is impossible to think that George Conway, who had struggled to reach what would be the apex of his career in 1937, was not naturally drawn to this son of Man O’ War who would be called upon to show something greater than ability to earn his own rightful place in the history of American thoroughbred racing. Conway watched as The Admiral won his first two starts of the season at Havre de Grace with relative ease. In his second victory, the Chesapeake Stakes, the Daily Racing Form carried the annotation of “Easily best.” But beating the likes of Court Scandal, or his stablemate, Over The Top, certainly didn’t mean that The Admiral was something special.
But the nimble bay’s march through Kentucky, Maryland and New York on the Triple Crown Trail was still to come.
On May 8, 1937, one of the largest crowds ever assembled saw the favourite, War Admiral, make all the running to win the Kentucky Derby in the second fastest recorded time ever, on what was only his second experience racing at over a mile. It was also Samuel Riddle’s first Kentucky Derby win; the sportsman generally frowned on running his horses outside of Maryland and New York states and felt that running a 3 year-old in May over the Derby distance was asking too much of most young thoroughbreds. But the little Admiral would prove him wrong, soundly defeating the 2 year-old champion of 1937, Pompoon, along the way.
The 1937 Preakness was run just a week after the Kentucky Derby that year. Again, the race was essentially War Admiral vs. Pompoon in what turned out to be quite a stretch dual, much to the excitement of the fans. War Admiral won by a short head against his stalwart rival, but George Conway must have seen the heart of a champion in his tiny colt’s refusal to give up, no matter how determined the competition.
But the real drama of War Admiral’s Triple Crown occurred in the Belmont, where the colt stumbled leaving the starting gate and then went on to win in a time that surpassed the record set by his sire in 1920. The win was breathtaking and other than his jockey, no-one knew that the 3 year-old was running wounded. War Admiral had been his usual self at the starting gate, charging through it prematurely and helping to hold up the race for a full 8 minutes. But when he finally stood still long enough for there to be a proper start, The Admiral darted out so quickly that, as John Hervey (Salvator) described it, “…he struck the quarter of his right front fore-foot and sheared off it, as with a knife, a portion of the wall of the hoof an inch or more square, leaving a gaping wound from which blood was flowing…” In actual fact, The Admiral had spurted blood from the damaged hoof throughout the race, leaving his underside a bright red, something Kurtsinger and Conway noted just before the colt entered the winner’s circle.
Here is War Admiral, in all his glory, winning the Belmont and securing the Triple Crown.
After the Belmont, it was clear that Brushup’s courageous son was a legend in his own right, with a devoted following for whom he would always reign supreme. His every move was now the subject of a dizzying array of photographs, camera footage and sports commentary. And the little fellow? Well, he was given a well-deserved time out to heal and replenish, before returning in October 1937 to win an allowance race, the Washington Handicap and the Pimlico Special. Then he was shipped to Florida with the rest of Conway’s stable, where the warmer temperatures and the blessing of the sun ushered in his 4 year-old campaign.
The Admiral enjoyed Hialeah where he began working in preparation for the first of two wins of the Widener Cup. He would annex his second Widener victory in 1939. As well, in 1938 the champion finally made it to Saratoga, the favourite horse racing venue of Mr. Riddle and company, having been derailed from racing there after his Belmont injury. At the Spa, The Admiral continued to chalk up victory after victory, winning all four of his starts, including the Whitney, the Saratoga Cup and the Saratoga Handicap. An utterly spellbound Hervey wrote of the 4 year-old’s triumphal return passed the grandstand after his stunning Saratoga Cup victory, “…when he came prancing back to the stand…it rose to him and he was applauded to the echo.” From here it was on to Belmont, where War Admiral won the prestigious Jockey Club Gold Cup, his eighth win in 9 starts as a 4 year-old.
As most know, this was also the year of the famous Seabiscuit-War Admiral Match Race, won handily by the West’s hero. It took two tries before the contest finally went off, at Pimlico, on November 1, 1938. In publicity shots for the May 30th race between the two (which was canceled) War Admiral showed his feisty self off to a barrage of noisy and jostling reporters. He did, however, cool off enough for the press to get a few portraits as well, of which one is below.