Bearing little physical resemblance to his great sire Man o'War and instead looking more like his non-winning dam, paradoxically he went on to become Man o'War's greatest son. Winning the Triple Crown in 1937, he completed a feat his sire could not achieve simply because his connections refused to enter him in the Derby. In War Admiral, the seventeenth book of Blood Horse's "Thoroughbred Legends" series, Edward Bowen gives the reader an in-depth look at the career of this great champion, who displayed "class, stamina, and pure courage."
These three things he possessed are demonstrated time and again in the book. Despite not being highly regarded by his connections early on (they didn't even nominate him for any of the rich year-end futurities), he quickly proved the naysayers wrong. He won the 1937 Derby in easy wire-to-wire fashion in the then second-fastest time ever, and repeated his feat in the Preakness, which at the time was run just a week after the Derby. At the Belmont, he injured his right forefoot in the starting gate but still went on to win the race leading all the way in track record time, with blood gushing from the open wound such that "the under side of his body was dyed with it". The injury looked serious enough that trainer George Conway was absent from the winner's circle photos, having run off to find a veterinarian.
Taking time off for the injury to heal, he did not miss a beat when he returned to the track in October, stretching his winning streak to eleven until he lost the Massachusetts Handicap in late June 1938, battling illness, a 130 pound impost, and a heavy, rain-soaked track. For his achievements he was voted Horse of the Year in 1937.
Arguably the highlight of his career was not his Triple Crown but the 1938 Pimlico Special. Going in as the defending champion, he took on Seabiscuit in a long-awaited match race. Unfortunately for his backers (he was the 1-4 favorite) he "simply didn't have it today" according to his jockey Charley Kurtsinger. Winning jockey George Woolf said that "he looked all broken up" and that he wouldn't "be good for another race." The race handed Seabiscuit Horse of the Year honors for that year.
He made just one start as a five year old, a 7 furlong allowance race at Hialeah which he won in a hand ride. Plans were made to continue the campaign and go for the Mass Cap again, but he suffered an injury in training at Belmont and was retired in June, meaning that the breeding season was lost and the only earnings for that year was the winner's share of the $1500 purse at Hialeah.
As has been custom in this series, the last chapter is dedicated to War Admiral's stud career. He went on to be a great broodmare sire, with his daughter producing such luminaries as Buckpasser and Hoist the Flag. His descendents through his daughters include Seattle Slew and Affirmed, "a bit of the genetics of the fourth Triple Crown winner in the pedigrees of the tenth and eleventh."
This book is recommended for all racing fans who want to look back at the past. It is eye-opening to see how different racing was back then compared to today. We no longer run the Preakness a week after the Derby nor do we see many "Cup races" (races longer than 14 furlongs) or match races, both of which have long since fallen out of favor. Edward Bowen's writing style is fast paced and attention-grabbing, making for an easy entertaining read as well as a useful reference on the Triple Crown champion of 1937.
War Admiral has a list price of $24.96 and is available from Amazon.com for $17.47.
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