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SEABISCUIT & ARKLE: Parallels Between Two “Once In A Generation” Horses

Although there are some glaring differences between Seabiscuit and Arkle, the similarities in my opinion, far outweigh them. Each lived to be a similar age; Seabiscuit foaled 1933 died May 17th 1947, Arkle foaled 1957 died May 31st 1970; and raced in era-defining periods of time. Seabiscuit FLAT RACED during the depression years of 1930s America, whilst Arkle ran in STEEPLE-CHASE (jump) events throughout the UK and Ireland during the Swinging Sixties. Both horses’ exploits on the field held audiences captive, with millions in the US listening on radio to hear Seabiscuit news, and the medium of TV allowing the British public a chance to witness Arkle in full flight. Such was their popularity each horse could be described as the “Peoples Champion” of their day, making front page news and receiving get well messages from adoring fans from far and wide, after suffering serious injury. Seabiscuit managed a comeback to finally win the only accolade to elude him, but although Arkle recovered from injury a comeback never happened. Their career statistics are part of horse-racing folklore and both have been immortalised with a statue. Seabiscuit stands proudly at the Santa Anita Racetrack in California and Arkle at Cheltenham, the scenes of their greatest achievements. In fact more statues have been erected in their honour over the last decade, showing the reverence held for them both to this day. Earlier this year (2014) Arkle had a full-sized statue unveiled in his native Ireland, whilst Seabiscuit is honoured at Ridgewood Ranch where he lived and also in Alberta the home state of George Woolf.

Seabiscuit. Image Credit findagrave.com
Seabiscuit. Image Credit findagrave.com

Three Essential Ingredients: Owner, Trainer & Jockey

Both horses calibre of racing pedigree was never in question with Seabiscuit coming from mare Swing On and sired by Hard Tack, whilst Arkle was born from mare Bright Cherry sired by Archive. However that potential of latent talent endowed from good DNA stock needs to be nurtured. A combination of benevolent owner, an intuitive trainer and an instinctive jockey are also required to get the best from a horse.

Crooked legged and undersized Seabiscuit was initially trained by Sunny Jim Fitzsimmons who deemed the horse lazy. As a consequence of being unfairly labelled, the horse was raced heavily and whipped without mercy in his early years. In 1935 a juvenile Seabiscuit ran 35 low budget races and in 1936 his tally was only marginally smaller with 23 races run. With only fleeting success “The Biscuit” was offloaded in a claiming race to Charles Howard who probably got the bargain of the century at the time. The horse had found his benevolent owner who employed the intuitive Tom Smith as trainer. For the remainder of his career Seabiscuit came under the instinctive careful handling of Red Pollard as jockey. When Pollard was injured George Woolf took the reins in the Race of the Century against War Admiral. More lightly raced in his later years Seabiscuit bloomed to win 33 of his 89 career starts over six years and in the process broke several track records with his pace.

Watch the Seabiscuit v. War Admiral Duel known as the Race of the Century (held 1st November 1938) here.

In complete contrast to the American horse, Irish born Arkle (reasonable-sized and sleek limbed) enjoyed the care and attention of breeder Mary Baker at the Bally McColl Stud until the age of three. He was sold at sales for 1150 guineas, and the yet un-named horse came under the ownership of Anne the Duchess of Westminster. Whereas Seabiscuit ran 35 races in his FIRST SEASON Arkle ran a CAREER TOTAL of 35 races winning 27 of them, some with unbelievable winning margins (Sandown 1965 Gallagher Gold Cup by 20 lengths) and several involving track records. Pat Taaffe was the jockey who coaxed the best out of Arkle and trainer Tom Dreaper who nurtured the talent.

Arkle in full flight. Image credit www.horseandhound.co.uk
Arkle in full flight. Image credit http://www.horseandhound.co.uk

Great Weights, Great Wins and Terrible Injury

It was clear to the racing authorities that both horses were in a class of their own and as a result each was handicapped harshly. Both Seabiscuit and Arkle had to carry significantly heavier weights than their opponents and yet both still managed to win races with relative ease. Arkle’s supremacy even caused the rules of handicapping to be changed in the UK, and he set a Timeform Record with a rating of 212.

You can watch Arkle’s race of the century-his 1964 Cheltenham Gold Cup win here.

The Irish steeple-chaser won several top ranking events, but probably the three Cheltenham Gold Cup wins of 1964. 65 and 1966 are considered the most prestigious. Seabiscuit ran in the Santa Anita Handicap three times and really should have won them all. His big race was constantly dogged by unfortunate incidents. In 1937 the American bay colt had all but secured victory but was beaten by a nose at the photo finish. Jockey Red Pollard had eased off on the reins and literally didn’t see Rosemont gain toward the finish, because Pollard was blind in one eye! The following year Pollard was injured and George Woolf took the reins, with Seabiscuit giving as much as 30 pounds to his rivals. Victory at the wire (a bobbing head duel) went to Stagehand in 1938, and then in 1939 little more than two weeks before the big race, Seabiscuit suffered a ruptured left front suspensory ligament. Tom Smith tenderly nursed Seabiscuit back to health, and Red Pollard dragged his battered body back to a semblance of fitness. The scene was set for “The Biscuit” to make a comeback and he finally won that elusive Santa Anita Handicap title in 1940 aged seven with Pollard on board.

You can watch Seabiscuit & Red Pollard win the Santa Anita Handicap of 1940 here.

Seabiscuit had suffered his tendon injury mid race and yet still managed to come second in it. In a similar fashion Arkle suffered a broken pedal bone in his hoof in the King George VI Chase of 1966 at Kempton and ran on bravely to finish second, but Arkle never managed a career comeback.

Geographical & Equine Rivals

Seabiscuit represented the West Coast of the USA and his greatest rival was War Admiral from the East Coast. The only time they met was in the two horse Race of the Century in 1938 where it was said Seabiscuit broke War Admiral’s heart.

“I saw something in the Admiral’s eyes that was pitiful. He looked all broken up. Horses, mister, can have crushed hearts just like humans”. George Woolf quote in Laura Hillenbrand book Seabiscuit Three Men And A Racehorse.

Arkle represented Ireland and his big rival was English horse Mill House. They would race each other several times with Arkle being victorious in all but one of their meetings. Again it was generally felt that Arkle broke Mill House’s heart as well.

Interestingly both horses had stable rivals that could have been their equal. Arkle’s stable mate was Flyingbolt and it is said they only met once on the training ground, and never on the competitive race track. In Seabiscuit’s case his stable rival was Kayak II and they were regular sparring partners in morning workouts. When Seabiscuit was injured just before the 1939 Santa Anita Handicap, Kayak II took his place and won it. The following year Kayak II was close behind in second place to the victorious Seabiscuit.

Once In a Generation

Both horses were certainly individuals imbued with great courage, stamina, grit, talent, and possessed an amazing accelerator. Each displayed a quirky personality; I mean who could forget Arkle ploughing through a fence for example in his third Gold Cup win of 1966. Seabiscuit was decidedly temperamental at times but considering his early career and how he was treated it is not surprising. The racing style of both Seabiscuit and Arkle meant that they almost seemed to “toy with their opponents, teasing them to catch up” and yet NEITHER would be pushed around. Both established race records that stand to this day and considering the prize money they won, BOTH would literally have been worth their weight in gold. With their equine charisma and superstardom in their own day, Seabiscuit and Arkle can most certainly be attributed with that rare accolade of being a “once in a generation horse”.