The Heart That Wears the Crown: War Admiral

May 12th, 2023

Lofty expectations are laid upon the greats when they exit stage left to enter the next phase. When Man o’ War said goodbye to his life on the track, the focus then became on whether the 20th century’s greatest racehorse could produce another like him. Whatever it was that made Big Red so dominant and iconic had to be passed along to his progeny, but what would that look like?

Of the 381 foals that Man o’ War sired comes a list of solid horses that won many of the country’s great races: Clyde Van Dusen, 1929 Kentucky Derby winner; Battleship, victor in both England’s historic Grand National and its American cousin; and 1925 Belmont Stakes winner American Flag. The greatest of them all, though, came not in the copper chestnut package that defined his sire, but in the plain brown wrapper of his dam Brushup and damsire Sweep.

War Admiral swept through the Triple Crown with the same dominance that marked many of his sire’s performances but famously lost the match race with Seabiscuit the following year, a confrontation chronicled with some artistic license in the movie based on Laura Hillenbrand’s book. In both instances, “The Mighty Atom” showed the same grit and drive that defined Man o’ War and the generations of horses that descended from both.

The heart that wore the fourth Triple Crown might have come in a small package but turned out to be a horse who was larger than life both on the track and on the big screen.

Meet the Admiral

To truly get to know the horse that War Admiral was, I turned to Dorothy Ours, author of both Man o’ War: A Legend Like Lightning and Battleship: A Daring Heiress, a Teenage Jockey, and America’s Horse. Dorothy is intimately familiar with Man o’ War and his descendants like Battleship and War Admiral so her insights into the fourth Triple Crown winner are much appreciated.

How would you describe War Admiral’s personality on the track and off?

Focused. Like many truly great horses, he was smart and adaptable. Spirited, but not flaky.

What specific on-track incidents illustrate the horse that he was?

For one thing, he cooperated well with different riders. As a two-year-old in 1936, he won races with three different jockeys: Maurice “Moose” Peters, Jack Westrope, and Charles Kurtsinger. As a four-year-old, he won Saratoga stakes with Charley Kurtsinger, Wayne D. Wright, and Moose Peters.

Despite his famous eagerness to run, he could be level-headed. On his actual third birthday, six days before the 1937 Kentucky Derby, War Admiral was in the middle of a moderate breeze at Churchill Downs with exercise rider Al Bayley when Heelfly, “the Texas Flier,” sped by him. Some horses would get rattled or try to go with the faster worker. The Admiral continued to let Bayley rate him at “a smooth, easy pace.”

But when competing, he was honest. Running lines from his 26 races show War Admiral’s heart. A couple of them say hard drive. A couple say weakened. None say quit.

War Admiral wins the 1937 Kentucky Derby (Courtesy of the Kentucky Derby/Churchill Downs)

What off-track incidents gave us a glimpse at how he behaved when he was not racing?

Man o’ War offspring often were known for their high energy. A number were said to be stall walkers while living at the track. Yet time after time, visitors described how relaxed War Admiral was in his racetrack stall. You might even sneak up on him. Before dawn on Belmont Stakes morning, a photographer found the Triple Crown hopeful sprawled on the straw, sound asleep. Joseph E. Widener trainer Danny Stewart, stabled near the Admiral during Hialeah’s winter 1938 meet, observed: “He has an amazing appetite and never gets concerned about anything.”

How similar was he to his sire in terms of temperament? What moments showed that similarity?      

War Admiral and Man o’ War both became notorious for being over-eager at the start. But this wasn’t mindless misbehavior. Jockey Johnny Loftus “shook up” two-year-old Man o’ War to make him more alert at the barrier they used in those days—and Man o’ War learned the lesson too well, sometimes breaking through the webbing. War Admiral had similar experiences at the gate with Charley Kurtsinger, developing a habit of popping through the doorless stall.

On the other hand, both Man o’ War and War Admiral were calm travelers when shipping. Notably intelligent individuals, they appeared to understand when to turn on and turn off.

How did War Admiral get along with humans? With other horses?

Early in 1938, groom Roger Whittington told the Associated Press, “He’s just a little pet. Nothing bothers this horse except the excitement at the starting gate. We can do anything with him.” War Admiral also knew he could count on treats, such as the occasional sugar cube, from trainer George Conway and other trusted humans.

Although he may not have bonded with a particular equine companion, as Seabiscuit did with the palomino Pumpkin, War Admiral appeared comfortable with his own stable’s pinto pony, various outrider mounts, and assorted workmates.

In those days, most U.S. racehorses went to the post with no pony beside them—just one outrider leading the parade. In newsreel clips and photos, War Admiral sometimes is seen near the outrider, as if the pony is a steadying presence. I haven’t found any accounts of him being aggressive toward another horse. But he was not shy. In far-turn photos from the 1938 Pimlico Special, you can see Kurtsinger sending War Admiral as close beside Seabiscuit as a horse can be without fouling.

A Champion’s Spirit

The fervor surrounding the match race between War Admiral and Seabiscuit serves as a reminder of the fame that attended the fourth Triple Crown winner’s career. He was so popular that trainer George Conway sometimes would heed requests to exercise his charge in the afternoon to accommodate the throngs of fans that wanted to see the Admiral. For a country still in the throes of the Great Depression, heroes like Riddle’s champion served as a welcome distraction from the troubles of the day.

Like his great sire, War Admiral was up to the task of living up to his sire's example. Though he came in a package that differed from Man o’ War’s grand physique, this “Mighty Atom” showed the same joy and courage in competition that defined the family descended from Big Red, a heart most deserving of the crown that he wore.