The poster looked more like an advertisement for a boxing card than a horse race:
AUGUST 12, 1938
SEABISCUIT vs. LIGAROTI
vs. BING CROSBY
FATHER vs. SON
THE ICEMAN WOOLF
vs. SPEC RICHARDSON
AMERICA vs. ARGENTINA
ONE OF THE
GREATEST MATCH RACES
OF ALL TIME
Fifty years ago today, 20,000 fans at Del Mar got both a horse race and a wrestling match. For more than a mile, Seabiscuit, the American champion, and Ligaroti, the South American import, ran a horse race. Then, with a 16th of a mile to go in the 1 1/8-mile race, it was jockey vs. jockey more than horse against horse.
George (the Iceman) Woolf, in red and white trunks--er, silks--was aboard Seabiscuit, and Noel (Spec) Richardson, in blinding pink, rode Ligaroti. In hand-to-hand and leg-to-leg combat, the jockeys fought each other to the wire, with Seabiscuit winning by a nose in a race that gave Del Mar, a track that had opened the summer before, instant national identity.
Seabiscuit was owned by Charlie Howard, the San Francisco automobile dealer who bought the lazy, undersized colt for $8,000 in August 1936. That was during the middle of Seabiscuit's 3-year-old season, and already, as the object of a love-hate affair with legendary trainer Sunny Jim Fitzsimmons, the horse had run 47 times.
Ligaroti belonged to Bing Crosby, the principal founder of Del Mar, and Lin Howard, Charlie's polo-playing son. Along with three other horses, young Howard brought Ligaroti to the United States from Argentina, where he won 13 of 21 starts.
In 1938, Seabiscuit was a 5-year-old, a year younger than Ligaroti, but the Biscuit had many more miles on him. He ran 79 times before the match race, carrying 130 pounds or more 11 times. In six 1938 starts at five different tracks, Seabiscuit carried either 130 or 133 pounds.
Ligaroti was a quick success in America. Lin Howard obtained a trainer's license in early 1938 to condition the big brown horse himself, but Howard was in love, and others--including Ray Bell Sr. and Jimmy Smith, the son of Tom Smith, Seabiscuit's handler--cared for Ligaroti while the dashing co-owner honeymooned in South Carolina.
When Ligaroti's record reached four wins and a second in eight U.S. starts, Lin Howard, over dinner one night with his father and Crosby, said that his horse was good enough to beat Seabiscuit if Charlie Howard's horse would concede weight.
The elder Howard guffawed, but Lin pursued the argument. Lin Howard never thought that his father was much of a horseman, and it was in the son's craw to beat a horse that Charlie bought for a pittance and turned into a $300,000 winner.
"Lin was right about Charlie," said a veteran racing journalist who knew both men. "And Lin, even though he had the reputation of being one of those champagne-for-breakfast guys, knew horseflesh. He was an expert in conformation."
Charlie Howard was on the board of directors at Del Mar, Crosby was the major stockholder, and the match race was scheduled with a $25,000 winner-take-all purse.
For Del Mar, this was an extraordinary amount of money to offer. Total purse money for the entire 25-day season, including the match race, amounted to only $185,000.
The Howards made a side bet on the betless exhibition, with Charlie betting $15,000 to Lin's $5,000 that Seabiscuit would win. Ray Bell, now 89 and still active in racing as an owner and breeder, says he held the money.
There was no argument over the weights. Seabiscuit would carry 130--it would be the last time in his career that he had such a burden--and Ligaroti would get 115.
"I told Lin before the race that he had made a bad bet," Bell said. "The weights were all right, the distance was OK, but Lin should have insisted that Ligaroti get the inside post position. Ligaroti had the habit of lugging in all the time. Every time you'd work him in the morning outside another horse, he'd lug in."
There was a coin toss to determine the post positions, and Tom Smith called it correctly and chose the inside for Seabiscuit.
Smith told Woolf to go to the front and get clear of Ligaroti. Smith added that if Richardson moved Ligaroti over to the fence, Woolf wasn't to worry about it. "Win as far off as you can," Smith said.
Lin Howard plastered a large Ligaroti sign on a grandstand wall, and that's where the horse's cheering section sat. Crosby and Pat O'Brien, who was also an investor in Del Mar, stood on the roof and did a national radio broadcast. The crowd of 20,000 on a Friday afternoon was extraordinary. Del Mar was averaging only 6,000 fans a day, and the grand opening the year before had drawn about 15,000.
Seabiscuit did break on top, and led by a half-length going into the first turn. Ligaroti moved within a head of the lead and maintained that position until the top of the stretch.
There have been few races like it--two classy horses as close as they were, unyieldingly matching strides furlong after furlong. Noor and Citation did it in the 1950 San Juan Capistrano at Santa Anita; Affirmed and Alydar did it as though in lock-step in the 1978 Belmont Stakes.
At the 16th pole, Ligaroti still couldn't get past Seabiscuit, and now Richardson's mount, true to his form, started to lug in, crowding Seabiscuit at the rail.
The rest is a one-sided story--even a contradictory one-sided story--because only Richardson, 74, is still alive. Woolf died at 36 after being injured in a spill at Santa Anita in 1946.
"Spec and I have been lifelong friends," said Oscar Otis, who was the track announcer for the match race and later had a long career as a columnist for the Daily Racing Form. "You couldn't see anything, because the horses were very close and everything was going on between them, and close to the ground. But Spec told me that he locked his leg with Woolf's inside the 16th pole."
In an interview with The Times in 1983, Richardson said that Woolf was the aggressor. "Woolf took his whip and hit my horse across the nose about five or six times," Richardson said. "I tried to grab his wrist to stop him. Then, just before the horses reached the wire, Woolf reached over and grabbed my horse's bridle, close to the bit."
Grainy newsreel films show only that inside the 16th pole, Richardson suddenly stopped whipping and turned his head in Woolf's direction.
A foul claim by Richardson was disallowed. Crosby came into the jockeys' room after the race and told both riders to stonewall the press.
"If there had been a film patrol (with head-on footage), I would have been a cinch to win on a disqualification," Richardson said.
Richardson said that he and Woolf were "saving," once a common practice in which jockeys split their purse shares if they were riding horses with overlapping ownership.
"George didn't want to give me anything at first," Richardson said. "Finally, I bawled him out and he gave me a couple hundred bucks. It was hard to figure, because he was usually a nice guy."
The finish reminded fans of the 1933 Kentucky Derby. Don Meade, riding the victorious Brokers Tip, fought with Herb Fisher and Head Play to the wire. The Churchill Downs stewards issued no suspensions, ruling that the battling riders were equally culpable.
The Del Mar stewards, however, headed by James Gallagher, were not wont to excuse Woolf and Richardson. When Gallagher saw movies of the race a few days later at a theater in Solana Beach, he turned fuchsia. But the stewards were stymied. Because the race was called an exhibition, they technically had no authority, and the jockeys escaped suspensions that would have sidelined them the rest of the year.
"There were a lot of loose ends to that race," Ray Bell Sr. said. "I think Richardson started the trouble. He grabbed Seabiscuit's saddle cloth, and then Woolf hit him with his whip. Ligaroti was a good horse, but he was lucky to finish as close as he did."
Ligaroti returned, though, and won the Del Mar Handicap. Three months later, at Pimlico, Seabiscuit defeated War Admiral, the 1937 horse of the year, in another epic match race, and the 1938 title went to the Biscuit.
Bell said: "Tom Smith, he was a master at running a horse in a match race."
And George Woolf was an expert at riding one. "I rode Seabiscuit once, winning on him in a race at Caliente," Richardson said. "He was the best horse I ever got on. Ligaroti almost beat him, but we needed 15 pounds to come close."