Now... What Can We Learn From a Horse?: The Race of the Century



Authors: Rajiv Fernando,
Faculty Associate,
ICMR (IBS Center for Management Research).

Abstract: This inspirational real life story of a racehorse and his team contains insights about dealing with life's challenges, lessons in people management and entrepreneurship zeal.

Pimlico Race track, Baltimore, November 1, 1938

A frenzied horse racing fraternity had billed this as the greatest match race of the century. On that day, the race course at Pimlico was a vast sea of humanity. The grandstand, the clubhouse and the galleries were all filled to capacity. The betting lines were throbbing with frenzied activity. Even the infield of the race track was not spared of its free space. The rich, the poor, businessmen, wage workers, the elite and the common folk were all present to witness this match of a lifetime.

By noon, an estimated 40,000 people (the actual seating capacity was 16,000) were present to witness this great spectacle. Elsewhere, a nation had virtually stopped as if it were caught in a time freeze. Shops were closed and offices had allowed their employees to leave early. People were glued to their radio sets to hear the match broadcast by the energetic and colorful presenter Clem McCarthy. An estimated 40 million people had tuned in to listen to the broadcast of the match race that day and President Roosevelt was one among them.

The contenders were a contrast of opposites. War Admiral was the match favorite at 1 to 4. Tall, majestic, all-black and handsome, he was what a champion ought to be and look like. Being the son of Man o' War, arguably the greatest racehorse of the century, he was clearly the epitome of blue-blooded thoroughbred lineage and impeccable breeding. War Admiral ranked among the top ten juveniles during his early years and was always considered a winner. In 1937, he was only the fourth racehorse in racing history to win the prestigious Triple Crown.

The challenger was a small, mud-colored, ungainly horse called Seabiscuit. He had a crooked left leg which made him walk with a slight limp. His running style was described as an 'eggbeaters gait'. Seabiscuit had descended from the legendary Man-o-War and was sired by Hard Tack (son of Man o' War). But his habits were miles apart from that of a racing thoroughbred. His former trainer had considered him too lazy as the horse loved to eat and sleep. In his younger years, he was used a training partner to other horses and was made to lose to ensure that the other horse gained in confidence. Though he had won a couple of small-time races, he was not considered 'potential' material.

By the time he was three years old, Seabiscuit was clearly overworked, which made him cantankerous and unmanageable. That was when Charles Howard, a man who had amassed wealth by selling Buick cars, bought him based on his gut feel and his trainer's (Tom Smith) recommendation for a bargain price of $8000. This horse had come up the hard way. Though most people favored the underdog, they knew that Seabiscuit would be no match. War Admiral had a fearsome reputation of tearing down the opposition with huge bursts of speed. Moreover Samuel Riddle, War Admiral's owner had ensured that the match race was held on his home track and that his horse got the benefit of starting the race with the advantage of being on the inner side of the track.

Both horses exploded from the start line at the ring of the bell. After a few initial seconds, the home crowd was shocked to see Seabiscuit gain ground, take a full length's lead and snatch the inner rail advantage from War Admiral. They were surprised as the horse had always been a slow starter. Charley Kurt, War Admiral's jockey turned to his next option and allowed Seabiscuit to take the lead and tire himself down. After a while, Kurt then worked War Admiral into full steam, and the horse began to cut down on Seabiscuit's lead. Now the two horses saw eye to eye and the noise from the crowd turned into a crescendo. Grantland Rice later wrote, "Head and head they came to the mile. There wasn't a short conceded putt between them. It was a question now of the horse that had the heart. Seabiscuit had lost his two-length margin. His velvet had been shot away. He was on his own where all races are won - down in the stretch. He had come to the great kingdom of all sport - the kingdom of heart."

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