1938: Seabiscuit vs. Ligaroti
When one thinks of the name "Seabiscuit," and the term "match race," it is inevitable that the legendary horse's encounter with War Admiral comes to mind. Of course, that is with good reason, since it is undeniably one of the Biscuit's finest moments of his tremendous career.
But, that was not the only one-on-one contest Seabiscuit participated in. A couple of months before his showdown with War Admiral at Pimlico Race Course in 1938, Seabiscuit was in Southern California, where he had thrilled crowds with his rags-to-riches tale. The latest chapter of his saga took place at Del Mar, and with it came another match race.
Coming off a victory in the first Hollywood Gold Cup during the middle of July, Seabiscuit headed down to San Diego County. Del Mar had opened the previous summer, and was looking to build on its inaugural racing season. Having a horse like Seabiscuit immediately shifted attention to the nascent track, with the popular and plucky horse a bona fide box office attraction. It was discovered he would compete at Del Mar, but in an exhibition contest with no wagering. Moreover, only one horse was set to take him on: Ligaroti, who had been a win machine in his home country of Argentina before coming to the United States.
That made for some interesting matchups that were not limited to the two entrants. Ligaroti was co-owned by crooner Bing Crosby, who happened to be the head of Del Mar. The most popular horse in training was squaring off against the founder of the seaside plant who was also a hugely popular entertainer. Not only that, Ligaroti's other owner was Lin Howard, the son of Seabiscuit's owner, Charles S. Howard. Obviously, the Howard family was guaranteed to win the match race, the only question being whether the father or the son would experience victory. The story goes from various accounts that the race was created from a conversation between the family members to see which horse could top the other, and Charles and Lin each made side bets amongst each other on their respective horses.
Finally, the trainers of both horses were related, too. Tom Smith, who conditioned Seabiscuit, did battle with his son Jimmy, who trained Ligaroti.
The race was set for August 12, 1938. The fifth race on the day's program, Seabiscuit and Ligaroti were tasked with navigating 1 1/8 miles. The prize was $25,000, the winner getting all of it. People wanted to see the contest, and they wanted to see Seabiscuit. 20,000 descended on Del Mar to see what would happen, and the race was broadcast on radio for those who could not witness it in person. There was no betting, but that didn't matter. Seeing Seabiscuit in action was a treat in itself.
The horses made their way on track for the post parade, both of them looking ready to compete. In the irons for Seabiscuit was George "The Iceman" Woolf, regarded as one of the top riders of his era. Woolf had ridden the Biscuit a few times before the match race, so he was quite familiar with the son of Hard Tack. Riding Ligaroti was Noel "Spec" Richardson. There were no numbers assigned either horse. Seabiscuit's saddle cloth simply read "A," while Ligaroti donned the cloth with the letter "B." As for weight, Seabiscuit was carrying 130. Ligaroti was fifteen pounds lighter.
Up in the stands were their owners. Crosby and Lin Howard were in a box seat, while Charles watched the event alongside comedian Joe E. Brown.
The two horses did not start side by side. Rather, two stalls separated Seabiscuit and Ligaroti before they began the race. Seabiscuit was closer to the inside part of the track a couple of stalls between him and the rail; Ligaroti's slot was more in the middle of the main surface.
They started off well, each one hustling out of the gate. Each jockey wanted to take the early lead and control the pace, and Seabiscuit and Woolf had that luxury for a brief moment before Richardson guided Ligaroti to the front. They stayed close together going into the first turn and down the backstretch as everyone watched. A true match race was unfolding before the Del Mar crowd.
Ligaroti held a slim lead before Seabiscuit took over, but his advantage was just as small as his opponent's had been. As the two went around the far turn and advanced down the homestretch, Seabiscuit retained first place. Ligaroti was not finished, though, fighting back on the outside. Woolf and Richardson went to the riding crops, both of them perhaps feeling the finish would be close. As the crowd watched the match race reach its cresendo, they saw the red and white silks of Seabiscuit and the pink colors with polka dots of Ligaroti almost side by side. With little distance left, Ligaroti advanced forward, trying to get to the wire in time for th win.
He nearly did it, but the Biscuit held on. By only a nose, Seabiscuit captured his fourth win of 1938 and extended his streak of top three finishes to twenty. The final time was 1:49 even, and Seabiscuit's public saw the result they had hoped for. Their hero triumphed once again in what ended up being his only start at Del Mar.
As it turned out, the race was not without controversy. Woolf and Richardson accused each other of unsportsmanlike conduct in the final stretch of the race, and a steward's inquiry was carried out. The result did not change, but the jockeys were fined and suspended for a few days before the ruling was lifted due to the fact that no public wagering had been made on the race.
Ligaroti may have lost that day, but he visited the winners' circle during the meet when he took the Del Mar Handicap. As for Seabiscuit, he went on to finish third or better in all of his remaining starts that year, highlighted by his win over War Admiral that netted him Top Handicap Horse and Horse of the Year.
Seabiscuit and Ligaroti never met on track again, but they were part of one of California racing's greatest moments. Their match race brought Del Mar national recognition, ranking it as one of the storied venue's most important races. Seabiscuit alone brought the attention, but both he and Ligaroti played a pivotal role in the track's increase in popularity, and it has since stood as one of the sport's grandest buildings.
When track patrons attend the races at Del Mar, they can thank Seabiscuit and Ligaroti for bringing it to the forefront.
Sources: Conway, Terry. "Seabiscuit v. Ligaroti." http://terryconway.net/cms/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=265:jockeying-for-position-seabiscuit-v-ligaroti&catid=18:americas-best-racing&Itemid=23
Johnson, J. Keeler. "Del Mar History: The Seabiscuit vs. Ligaroti Match Race." America's Best Racing. https://www.americasbestracing.net/the-sport/2018-del-mar-history-the-seabiscuit-vs-ligaroti-match-race