Ending is seen as a real stretch

Seabiscuit was one of horse racing's all-time greats, but were all of his victories legitimate?

Updated: December 3, 2002, 4:39 PM ET
By Bill Christine | Los Angeles Times

If differences of opinion make for horse races, those races do not necessarily settle the arguments.

So although the epic showdown with War Admiral in 1938 at Pimlico is widely portrayed as Seabiscuit's signature race, the other race that ought to be crammed into any time capsule is his 1940 Santa Anita Handicap. Not necessarily because of the obvious trappings -- Seabiscuit breaking the earnings record, in a record time, in what would be his final race -- but because of the gnawing suspicion that Kayak II, Seabiscuit's younger stablemate, might have been the better horse that day, had he been given the chance to run all out through the stretch.

Such conjecture, more than 60 years later, is hot-stove horse racing at its best. Tom Dante, who was there in the record Santa Anita crowd of 68,526, tosses a few logs on the fire with the adamant opinion that Buddy Haas, Kayak's jockey, loafed through the last sixteenth of a mile, allowing Seabiscuit to win.

"I said right after the race that Haas didn't try with his horse, and I'm still saying it," said the 86-year-old Dante, who trained horses for nine years and still owns one or two. "There's no question in my mind that this is what happened. I have always been absolutely convinced. Haas moved his horse into second place at the eighth pole, but the rest of the way he just didn't try to beat Seabiscuit. He only sat on Kayak, instead of just laying into him [with the whip]. He hand-rode him to the wire."

The Daily Racing Form's footnotes to the official race chart, written only minutes after Seabiscuit had crossed the finish line, also suggest that Haas was content to finish second with Kayak. Conversely, at least two still-active trainers who saw the race believe that Seabiscuit was a legitimate winner.

As for Laura Hillenbrand's recent best-seller about Seabiscuit, the author said she chose not to include the controversy because she didn't buy into the Kayak-was-better scuttlebutt. A spokeswoman for the movie based on Hillenbrand's book, which recently went into production, said that the 1940 Santa Anita Handicap would be filmed toward the end of the shoot, and it was unclear how much, if any, of the behind-the-scenes intrigue would be included.

Enough went on -- or might have gone on -- in that Big 'Cap to fill a two-hour film by itself.

Kayak was an Argentine-bred who had won the Santa Anita Handicap in record time in 1939, a year in which Seabiscuit went lame, ran only once and was bred to several mares. That victory by Kayak was posted under a feathery impost of 110 pounds. In 1940, paying the penalty for having won eight races the year before, Kayak was weighted at 129 pounds, one fewer than a supposedly declining Seabiscuit. But Kayak lost by a length as Seabiscuit and jockey Red Pollard reached the wire in 2:01 1/5, a fifth of a second better than Kayak's 1939 clocking.

The day after the 1940 Big 'Cap, The Times said that Haas "seemed to take things easy" in Seabiscuit's wake. The unsigned story also said, "Many left the track with the impression Kayak II might have won the big race if Buddy Haas ... had more vigorously ridden the black Argentine [horse] in the final sixteenth."

Over the years, that speculation kept rearing its head. In 1978, Jane Goldstein, writing in the Blood-Horse magazine, said, " ... Some thought ... that Kayak II was not pushed to challenge sentimentally favored Seabiscuit." Goldstein referred to the chart footnotes, which, much like the next-day account in The Times, pointedly said:

"Kayak II, slow to get going, ran a sensational race to make a very strong move in the backstretch, and might have been closer to the winner had he been vigorously ridden in the last sixteenth."

In 1983, writing in Spur magazine, Jack McDonald said:

"Seabiscuit had passed Sun Beau's all-time money-earning record [becoming the first horse to reach the $400,000 mark] and the acclaim was his, although some thought Kayak II had been purposely restrained in the stretch to benefit his illustrious stablemate."

In 1984, Bob Hebert, who had retired as a turf writer for The Times, opened the door of suspicion only halfway.

"I've heard that Kayak wasn't supposed to beat Seabiscuit," Hebert said in an interview with his old paper. "But I know one thing -- Seabiscuit ran an awfully game race that day."

Seabiscuit and Kayak were owned by Charles S. Howard, who'd made his fortune selling Buicks, and trained by Silent Tom Smith, a laconic, savvy horseman who had gone from wrangling to the track. In 1940, the 7-year-old Seabiscuit and the 5-year-old Kayak II were coupled in the betting, which meant that a $2 win bet on the entry paid $3.40, regardless of which horse won the $121,650 race. But Ralph E. Shaffer, a professor emeritus in history at Cal Poly Pomona who recently researched the race, said there had been reports that Howard, known to bet large amounts on his horses, had placed a substantial future-book bet on Seabiscuit at Caliente, where the horses weren't coupled. To cash that bet in Mexico, Howard would have needed Seabiscuit to win.

"I didn't come across any rumors of such a wager," said Laura Hillenbrand, who spent four years assiduously researching her book.

It bothers Shaffer, though, that Hillenbrand, in print, didn't explore the possibility of Kayak's winning the race.

Hillenbrand said, "I actually put a fairly long section on it in my early drafts of the manuscript but ended up cutting it at the suggestion of those who read the drafts. Raising the issue necessitated a great deal of explanation, right at the end of the story, and to devote several paragraphs to speculation on something I think was extremely unlikely -- and which generated interest only briefly -- would have shifted the narrative focus away from what was much more important: Seabiscuit delivered a historic performance.... I didn't want to take the focus off of Seabiscuit's accomplishment for the sake of belaboring a minor issue."

Seabiscuit had suffered two near-misses in the Santa Anita Handicap. In 1937, his reputation ahead of him, Seabiscuit carried only 114 pounds but couldn't last as Rosemont, carrying 124 pounds, beat Howard's horse by a nose. In 1938, they piled 130 pounds on Seabiscuit, and with George Woolf riding instead of the injured Pollard, he was nosed out again, this time by the 3-year-old Stagehand, who had won the Santa Anita Derby only two weeks before.

Seabiscuit's 2:01 1/5 time in 1940 was not only a Santa Anita record, though, it was the second-fastest 1 1/4 miles ever run in the U.S. The only one faster, 2:00 4/5, had been run by Sarazen 16 years earlier.

Two days after Seabiscuit's 1940 race, Paul Lowry of The Times wrote that Haas had told friends that Kayak was the best horse in the race. In 1995, Lowry's son, Biff Lowry, wrote that Kayak "hovered protectively in second place, ready to take over if Seabiscuit had faltered."

In his 1985 article, McDonald said that Haas "always vigorously denied he eased up on his mount to let his stablemate win."

Dante doesn't doubt what Haas said, but he questions the late jockey's sincerity.

"If he let Seabiscuit win without riding his own horse all the way, what else is he going to say?" Dante said. "It was to Charlie Howard's considerable advantage that Seabiscuit win. Seabiscuit was thought to have a big stud career ahead of him, and a win in the Santa Anita Handicap was bound to help his [breeding] fee."

Beyond dispute is that the jockeys, Haas and Pollard, "saved," which meant they split their commissions from the purse money earned by both horses. The front-end money for Seabiscuit was $86,650 and Kayak earned $20,000 for second. At 10%, Haas and Pollard took home about $5,300 apiece. "Saving" might be a questionable practice, but it was tolerated by racing authorities for decades, and was still being done by several jockeys as recently as the 1980s. Because "saving" was so widespread during Seabiscuit's era, Haas and Pollard's pre-race deal would only amount to circumstantial evidence in any Seabiscuit-versus-Kayak debate.

Another pre-race development was Howard's going to the stewards on race day and "declaring to win" with Seabiscuit.

In other words, Howard was saying that if the race came down to his two horses -- as it did -- Kayak might be held back so Seabiscuit could win.

Declaring to win with a two-horse entry seems quaint now, but at the time it was not uncommon. Leonard Dorfman, an 80-year-old Santa Anita trainer who saw the 1940 Big 'Cap, was once moved to tears by a sensational Seabiscuit race. Dorfman remembers hearing Joe Hernandez, the track announcer, telling the crowd before the race that Howard had "declared to win" with Seabiscuit.

But Dorfman doesn't believe Haas let up with Kayak. He thinks Seabiscuit won on the up and up.

"I think it's a bunch of bull that [Haas] pulled up his horse," Dorfman said. "Tom Smith said before the race that he had Seabiscuit as good as he'd ever been, and he was right."

A few days before the race, Smith had worked Seabiscuit and Kayak in company. Running a mile, Seabiscuit put his stablemate away.

"Red Pollard was on one of the horses, and I've forgotten what jockey was on the other," said the late Alfred Shelhamer, a former jockey who'd become a steward, in a 1978 interview. "But anyway, they broke the two horses off at the finish line and worked an easy mile. The time, I don't think, makes any difference. The horses ran like a team until they hit the head of the stretch, and about the eighth pole, Seabiscuit pulled off from Kayak. Kayak quit. He pinned his ears. Tom Smith said that Seabiscuit broke Kayak's heart right there."

Shelhamer never rode Seabiscuit, but in the San Antonio Handicap, a prep race for the 1940 Big 'Cap, he rode Kayak. Getting a four-pound break in the weights, Seabiscuit won by 2 1/2 lengths as Kayak finished second.

Shelhamer spent many years in the stewards' stand with Pete Pedersen and the late Hubert Jones, another retired rider. Jones' father had worked with Charlie Howard's cattle and saddle horses for 15 years and Hubert Jones, besides breaking many of Seabiscuit's yearlings at the Howard ranch, 135 miles north of San Francisco, also herded cattle with Seabiscuit after the horse was retired.

"Shelly and Hubert were extremely close to the Seabiscuit people," said Pedersen, still a steward at Santa Anita. "They were the kind of guys who I think would have said something about that Kayak business if they had known, and you would think they would have been in a position to know. But over a lot of years, rubbing elbows with them a lot of days, I never heard one word from either Shelly or Hubert about Kayak not being allowed to win."

For owner Howard, the cloud over Seabiscuit's Big 'Cap win wouldn't go away. In 1949-50 he raced Noor, an Irish-bred who beat a fading Citation four times. The first time was in February of 1950 -- Noor at 110 pounds, Citation carrying 132 -- in the Santa Anita Handicap. A frail Howard, who would die about three months later, trudged to the press box high above the track to accept congratulations and answer questions.

Asked if Noor might become another Seabiscuit, Howard stiffened and said, "Sir, there will never be another Seabiscuit."

That sent the interview into another direction, and Howard was asked once more if Kayak could have beaten Seabiscuit in the 1940 Big 'Cap.

"Kayak," Howard said, "never saw the day when he could beat Seabiscuit doing anything -- at any distance, at any track."

Both Dorfman and Hillenbrand point out that although Kayak, who was 13th and last after the first half-mile, made up a lot of ground with a stunning move, it is folly to assume that he could have kept running and passed his stablemate.

"Yes, Kayak passed all those other horses as if they were tied to a fence," Dorfman said. "People in the grandstand might have thought he was about to pass Seabiscuit too. But you had to know Seabiscuit. A lot of horses ran up to him and then couldn't get by. This would have been another one of those days."

Hillenbrand found a quote from Pollard: "It may have seemed that [Kayak could have passed Seabiscuit], but you have to ride Seabiscuit to know him. No horse is ever going to pass him, once he gets to the top [of the stretch] and the wire is in sight. He's just too game. A horse racing alongside him just makes him run all the harder."

Hillenbrand also found evidence that Howard, trying to clear the air once and for all, took Haas aside and asked the jockey to level with him.

"The race is over, and I don't care what you tell me, but I need to know," Howard said.

According to Hillenbrand, Haas flatly told Howard that Kayak could not have beaten Seabiscuit that day.

"We'll never know, will we?" said Noble Threewitt, still training at 91 at Santa Anita. "I was there, and I just think that Seabiscuit was the best horse. All the rest of it has just been gossip over the years. One thing we can be sure of, though: the job Tom Smith did with the horse. He took a cripple and won the Santa Anita Handicap. That had to be the best training job of all-time."

Copyright 2002 Los Angeles Times