War Admiral

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War Admiral (May 2, 1934 – October 30, 1959) was a champion American Thoroughbred racehorse who is the fourth winner of the American Triple Crown. He was also the 1937 Horse of the Year and well known as the rival of Seabiscuit in the "Match Race of the Century" in 1938. War Admiral won 21 of his 26 starts with earnings of $273,240 and was the leading sire in North America for 1945. He was also an outstanding broodmare sire whose influence is still felt today in descendants such as Triple Crown winners American Pharoah and Justify.

War Admiral
War Admiral at Saratoga, July 1938
SireMan o' War
GrandsireFair Play
FoaledMay 2, 1934
DiedOctober 30, 1959(1959-10-30) (aged 25)
CountryUnited States
BreederSamuel D. Riddle
OwnerGlen Riddle Farm
Silks: Black, Yellow Sash, Yellow Bars on Sleeves, Black Cap
TrainerGeorge Conway
Record26: 21-3-1
Major wins
Eastern Shore Handicap (1936)
Great American Stakes (1936)
Washington Handicap (1937)
Pimlico Special (1937)
Saratoga Cup (1938)
Whitney Handicap (1938)
Wilson Stakes (1938)
Jockey Club Gold Cup (1938)
Queens County Handicap (1938)

Triple Crown race wins:
Kentucky Derby (1937)
Preakness Stakes (1937)
Belmont Stakes (1937)

4th U.S. Triple Crown Champion (1937)
U.S. Champion 3-Yr-Old Colt (1937)
United States Horse of the Year (1937)
Leading sire in North America (1945)
Leading broodmare sire in North America (1962, 1964)
United States Racing Hall of Fame (1958)
#13 - Top 100 U.S. Racehorses of the 20th Century


War Admiral raced as a homebred for Samuel D. Riddle, who also owned Man o' War. War Admiral was foaled at Faraway Farm in Lexington, the offspring of Man o' War and Brushup. Man o' War was widely regarded as the greatest American racehorse of his time, but Brushup never won a race. They were bred together six times, producing five undistinguished fillies and one Triple Crown winner.

War Admiral inherited his father's talent, but did not resemble him physically. At 15.2 hands (62 inches, 157 cm), or 15.3 he was smaller than Man o' War's height of 16.3 hands. War Admiral's dark brown coat was inherited from his dam, who also contributed to War Admiral's smaller size as she was under 15 hands. Because of his size, one of War Admiral's nicknames was The Mighty Atom. Others referred to him simply as The Admiral.

Most sources say that War Admiral also inherited his sire's fiery temperament, which manifested chiefly in his reluctance to load in the starting gate. Away from the crowds though, he was more relaxed and given to taking long naps. His groom called him sweet, and his trainer, George Conway, found him more like his dam in terms of personality. Conway was in a position to know as he had been stable foreman to Louis Feustel while the latter trained Man o' War. Conway stayed with Riddle after Feustel's retirement, and trained several of Man o' War's most successful offspring. War Admiral's regular jockey was Charles Kurtsinger.

Racing career

1936: Two-year-old season

As a two-year-old in 1936, War Admiral won three of six races including the Great American Stakes and Eastern Shore Handicap. However, the star of this crop was then considered to be Pompoon, who defeated War Admiral in the National Stallion Stakes. War Admiral was rated at 121 pounds on the Experimental Free Handicap, seven pounds below two-year-old champion Pompoon and seventh overall.

1937: Three-year-old season

In 1937, War Admiral started his three-year-old campaign by winning two races at Havre de Grace, including the Chesapeake Stakes. Riddle then made a fateful decision. In 1920, Man o' War was not entered in the Kentucky Derby as Riddle did not like racing outside of New York and Maryland, and also felt the distance of the Derby was too great for three-year-olds so early in the season. For War Admiral, Riddle made an exception and made the trip west to Churchill Downs in Louisville. War Admiral went off as the favorite, and, despite delaying the start for several minutes, won in wire-to-wire fashion with Pompoon 1+34 lengths back in second. Neville Dunn, sports editor for the Lexington Herald, wrote, "A little brown horse that takes after his mammy in size but runs like his daddy charged to victory in the 63rd Kentucky Derby… and he won so easily, so effortlessly, that 65,000 fans nudged one another in the ribs and said, 'I told you so! I told you that War Admiral could run like Man o' War.'"

The Preakness Stakes was held just a week later. After again acting up at the start, War Admiral went to the lead early but had trouble negotiating the turns. Pompoon saved ground along the rail and closed alongside War Admiral as they exited the last turn. The two horses dueled down the stretch with War Admiral finally prevailing by a head.

On June 5, War Admiral faced six rivals in the Belmont Stakes, going off as the 4-5 favorite. He was particularly fractious at the start, repeatedly breaking through the barrier. After delaying the start for eight minutes, he stumbled leaving the gate. He quickly recovered his stride and won the race by three lengths with "speed to spare". His time of 2:2835 tied the American Record for 1+12 miles, while breaking Man o' War's track record by a fifth of a second. War Admiral thus became the fourth winner of the American Triple Crown. But the victory came at a price: War Admiral had struck the quarter of his right front fore-foot when stumbling at the gate, which left a gaping wound. During the race, his jockey did not notice that anything was amiss. But when led into the winner's circle, his connections found that his belly and legs were covered with blood.

The injury was severe enough to cause War Admiral to miss the summer racing season. He returned in October to win three more races, including the Washington Handicap and the inaugural Pimlico Special. All told, in 1937 War Admiral won eight of eight races including the Triple Crown. He was the unanimous selection as Champion 3-Year-Old, and also earned the title of Horse of the Year in a close battle with Seabiscuit, the Champion older horse.

1938: Four-year-old season

In 1938, War Admiral won eight major races, including the Whitney Handicap and Jockey Club Gold Cup. He is linked forever with the year-older Seabiscuit, who was a grandson of Man o' War and the preeminent horse based in the western U.S. Seabiscuit's owner, Charles Howard, brought his horse across country to give Seabiscuit the chance to prove himself to the eastern racing establishment. Seabiscuit and War Admiral almost faced each other several times that summer but for one reason or another, they never met. Finally, a meeting was arranged for November 1, 1938, in the Pimlico Special in what was billed as The Match Race of the Century. Samuel Riddle asked that the race be run without a starting gate in light of War Admiral's problematic history. With War Admiral's early speed, he was widely seen to have a tactical advantage in a match race and went off as the favorite. However, Seabiscuit's trainer had secretly conditioned his horse to bolt at the sound of a starting bell, which resulted in Seabiscuit getting the all-important early lead. Seabiscuit won by four lengths and broke the track record.

War Admiral raced twice more, winning the Rhode Island Handicap in 1938 and a race at Hialeah in February 1939 before an injury prompted his retirement.

Stud career

War Admiral stood at Faraway Farm until 1958, when the executors of Riddle's estate sold the remaining portion of the farm. War Admiral was then moved to Hamburg Place, where he died in 1959.

War Admiral was the leading American sire in 1945 and the leading juvenile sire in 1948. Before his 1959 death, War Admiral sired 40 stakes winners. Major winners sired by War Admiral include champion Blue Peter, Bee Mac, Navy Page, Cold Command, and Admiral Vee. As a sire, War Admiral is perhaps best known for his success with daughters of La Troienne. This cross produced the champion filly and Horse of the Year Busher (ranked #40 in Blood-Horse magazine List of the Top 100 U.S. Racehorses of the 20th Century), as well as stakes winners Searching, Busanda and Mr. Busher.

Although War Admiral's sire line no longer exists, he remains a significant influence in modern pedigrees due to his daughters. He was the Leading broodmare sire of 1962 and 1964. Descendants in the female line include the likes of Swaps, Buckpasser, and Numbered Account, as well as two Triple Crown winners, Seattle Slew and Affirmed. Other descendants of note include Dr. Fager, Alysheba, Cigar and Zenyatta. War Admiral's name appears eight times in the pedigree of the 2015 Triple Crown winner, American Pharoah.

Race record

Lifetime record: 26-21-3-1 Earnings: $273,240
Date Track Race Distance Odds Field Finish Margin Notes
4-25-1936 Havre de Grace Maiden Special Weight 4+12 furlongs 7.50 10 1 nose
5-21-1936 Belmont Park Allowance 5 furlongs 10.00 8 1 2 lengths Widener Chute
6-6-1936 Belmont Park National Stallion Stakes 5 furlongs 3.00 10 3 (2+12 lengths) Widener Chute, lost to Pompoon
7-1-1936 Aqueduct Great American Stakes 6 furlongs 2.00 8 2 (1+12 lengths)
9-19-1936 Havre de Grace Eastern Shore Handicap 6 furlongs 7.85 15 1 5 lengths
10-10-1936 Laurel Park Richard Johnson Handicap 6 furlongs *0.80 10 2 (1+12 lengths) Track: Muddy
4-14-1937 Havre de Grace Allowance 6 furlongs *0.75 6 1 2+12 lengths
4-24-1937 Havre de Grace Chesapeake Stakes 1+116 miles *0.65 7 1 6 lengths
5-8-1937 Churchill Downs Kentucky Derby 1+14 miles *1.60 20 1 1+14 lengths
5-15-1937 Pimlico Preakness Stakes 1+316 miles *0.35 8 1 head
6-5-1937 Belmont Park Belmont Stakes 1+12 miles *0.90 7 1 3 lengths Won the Triple Crown
10-26-1937 Laurel Park Allowance 1+116 miles *0.40 8 1 2+12 lengths
10-30-1937 Laurel Park Washington Handicap 1+14 miles *0.65 7 1 1+12 lengths
11-3-1937 Pimlico Pimlico Special 1+316 miles *0.05 4 1 1+12 lengths
2-19-1938 Hialeah Park Allowance 7 furlongs *0.30 6 1 1+12 lengths
3-5-1938 Hialeah Park Widener Handicap 1+14 miles *0.35 13 1 1+12 lengths
6-6-1938 Aqueduct Queens County Handicap 1 mile *0.55 4 1 1 length
6-29-1938 Suffolk Downs Massachusetts Handicap 1+18 miles *0.40 6 4 (8+14 lengths) Track: Heavy
7-27-1938 Saratoga Wilson Stakes 1 mile *0.60 3 1 8 lengths Track: Muddy, geldings not eligible
7-30-1938 Saratoga Saratoga Handicap 1+14 miles *0.70 5 1 neck Track: sloppy
8-20-1938 Saratoga Whitney Handicap 1+18 miles *0.33 3 1 1 length Geldings not eligible
8-27-1938 Saratoga Saratoga Cup 1+34 miles *0.33 3 1 4 lengths
10-1-1938 Belmont Park Jockey Club Gold Cup 2 miles *0.08 3 1 3 lengths Geldings not eligible
11-1-1938 Pimlico Pimlico Special 1+316 miles *0.25 2 2 (4 lengths) Match race vs. Seabiscuit
11-12-1938 Narragansett Park Rhode Island Handicap 1+18 miles *0.20 6 1 2+12 lengths
2-18-1939 Hialeah Park Allowance 7 furlongs *0.20 3 1 12 length

An asterisk before the odds means War Admiral was the post time favorite

Source: Daily Racing Form Past Performances

Honors and awards

War Admiral was elected to the Hall of Fame in the same year as arch-rival Seabiscuit. In The Blood-Horse ranking of the top 100 US thoroughbred champions of the 20th Century, War Admiral was ranked #13, with Seabiscuit as #25.

In 1937, Riddle commissioned equine artist Martin Stainforth to paint War Admiral's portrait, a version of which can be found in the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame.

War Admiral is buried alongside his sire at the foot of the Man o' War statue in the Kentucky Horse Park.

The 2003 movie Seabiscuit features the match race between Seabiscuit and War Admiral. The film portrays War Admiral at 18 hands even though War Admiral and Seabiscuit were about the same size with Seabiscuit standing at 15.2 hands and outweighing War Admiral 1,040 to 960 lb (470 to 440 kg)


Pedigree of War Admiral
Man o' War
Fair Play
ch. 1905
br. 1893
Fairy Gold
ch. 1896
Bend Or
Dame Masham
b. 1910
Rock Sand
br. 1900
Merry Token
b. 1891
Merry Hampton
Ben Brush Bramble
Pink Domino Domino
Belle Rose
Harry of Hereford John O'Gaunt
Canterbury Pilgrim
Bathing Girl Spearmint
Summer Girl

See also

Further reading

  • Bowen, Edward L. (2002). War Admiral. Lexington, Ky.: Eclipse Press. ISBN 978-1-58150-078-3.
  • Drager, Marvin (2005). The most glorious crown : the story of America's Triple Crown thoroughbreds from Sir Barton to Affirmed. Chicago, Ill.: Triumph Books. ISBN 1572437243.
  • Hillenbrand, Laura. Seabiscuit: An American Legend, (2001), Random House ISBN 978-0-375-50291-0