A heck of a horse race!

Baltimore Glimpses

June 15, 1993|By GILBERT SANDLER

THIS was a sad year for horse racing's Triple Crown. No horse dominated all three races. There was little suspense. The year will be remembered not for Julie Krone's becoming the first woman to win a Triple Crown race (a splendid accomplishment), but for Preakness winner Prairie Bayou's tragic breakdown in the gloom at Belmont.

Horse racing fans looked in vain for a Sunday Silence, an Affirmed, a Secretariat. There was no odds-on favorite, not even a sentimental favorite. All three of the Triple Crown events lacked the drama and excitement of the splendid match race between War Admiral and Seabiscuit in Baltimore Nov. 1, 1938. Now there was a horse race, and there were a couple of horses!

Their rivalry had been building for two years. Seabiscuit was a Cinderella horse, the underdog (underhorse?) in the race. War Admiral was a turf aristocrat who had won the Triple Crown.

Forty thousand people jammed the grandstand, the clubhouse and the infield at Pimlico. Tension mounted through the morning. It had rained the night before, but by post time the sun was shining, and the crowd was on its feet.

Seabiscuit broke with a tremendous burst of speed, moved ahead by a length. The race was close most of the way, with War Admiral, the favorite, inching ahead in the back stretch. That was when George Woolfe, Seabiscuit's jockey, slashed his mount with his whip and brought the horses head-to-head. Charles Kurtsinger, War Admiral's jockey, who had said before the race that he had never had to ask War Admiral for his best, asked for it then. With all the power that had made him one of the country's leading riders, he drove War Admiral forward, begging for more.

But the horse had no more to give. He had met his better. Seabiscuit drew away by four lengths.

Both horses fared better than Prairie Bayou and Union City, the horse that broke down in this year's Preakness. War Admiral lived another 21 years, dying at age 25. Seabiscuit died at 14 of a heart attack. Both lived in pampered retirement.

No such fate for Union City and Prairie Bayou. Some say the economics of racing today forces owners to race their horses too much, inviting catastrophes like those in the Preakness and Belmont. Others say the double tragedy this year was mere coincidence.

The real question, though, is whether horses of the quality of War Admiral and Secretariat will ever again dominate the Triple Crown. Other Voices is optimistic. This is an unpredictable sport with unpredictable animals. We've more faith in the neigh-sayers than the nay-sayers.

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