Updated on 09/17/2011 12:23PM

Did they let Seabiscuit win?

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WASHINGTON - In the climactic scene of the movie "Seabiscuit," the Thoroughbred hero wins the Santa Anita Handicap. He breaks slowly and trails the field by an impossibly large margin. As he launches his rally, jockey Red Pollard draws alongside rival George Woolf, who had ridden Seabiscuit in some of his previous races, and the two of them have an implausible midrace chat. Then Seabiscuit continues to weave his way through the field and ends his career in a blaze of glory.

It didn't happen that way, of course. But what really happened on March 2, 1940, remains a subject of speculation. Some skeptics have maintained that Seabiscuit won America's richest race only because his stablemate Kayak II, the second-place finisher, permitted him to do so. Laura Hillenbrand's best-selling book, upon which the movie was based, dismisses the doubts and portrays Seabiscuit as a clearly superior victor. I wanted to evaluate the evidence firsthand, and last week I visited the National Museum of Racing in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., to watch the films of that memorable race.

All of the elements of great drama were in place before the Santa Anita Handicap. Seabiscuit, after suffering an injury that had nearly ended his career, was back in action and trying to win the event that he had lost by a nose in both 1937 and 1938. Pollard, too, had returned to competition after a debilitating injury.

While the movie focused on these plot lines, it understandably altered the historical record to enhance the drama: It ignored the fact that owner Charles Howard and trainer Tom Smith had other good horses besides Seabiscuit. One of them was Kayak II, who won the Santa Anita Handicap in 1939 and went on to be named the nation's champion handicap horse.

The two horses trained together for the 1940 race, and Seabiscuit defeated Kayak II by 2 1/2 lengths in a prep race the week before the main event. They appeared to be the two best horses in the field - the stable entry would be favored at 7-10 odds - but Howard wanted to see Seabiscuit in the winner's circle. After Kayak II had won the year before, the owner's enthusiasm was muted, and he said, "I would have been happier had Seabiscuit been the winner." Before the 1940 race - in a practice that was permitted at the time - he officially declared his intention to win with Seabiscuit, meaning that Kayak II would not necessarily make an all-out effort if his stablemate was ahead.

Contrary to the movie version, Seabiscuit did not make a come-from-a-mile-behind rally. As the formidable speedster Whichcee took the early lead near the rail, Seabiscuit pressed him from the outside and stayed within a length of him. Kayak II was dead last in the field of 13.

The leaders raced one-two all around the Santa Anita track and they were head-and-head as they turned into the stretch; by this point, Kayak II had advanced to third place. In midstretch, Seabiscuit finally moved past Whichcee. Jockey Buddy Haas, aboard Kayak II, was outside the two other horses and in position to see that Seabiscuit had taken command. At that point he stopped riding. He put Kayak II under visible restraint and didn't use his whip, while Pollard continued to flail Seabiscuit. At the finish, Seabiscuit was a length and a half ahead of his stablemate.

The film of the race is a newsreel that shows highlights interspersed with shots of cheering crowds - not the seamless start-to-finish coverage that modern racing fans enjoy. I could not see enough of Kayak II's rally to judge how much momentum he had as he gained on Seabiscuit in the stretch. But after watching how emphatically Haas put his mount under wraps in the last sixteenth of a mile, I believe that Kayak II would have won if he had been permitted to do so.

This is but one handicapper's opinion in a debate that remains unresolved after 63 years. In the immediate aftermath of the race, Seabiscuit's victory produced such euphoria that the Daily Racing Form's next-day coverage didn't mention what had happened in the final yards. But the paper's official chart of the race noted: "Kayak II . . . ran a sensational race . . . and might have been closer to the winner had he been vigorously ridden in the last sixteenth."

A few days after the race, the Form addressed the issue, and the Seabiscuit camp was sure that the right horse had won. The paper wrote: "Pollard scorned the idea that there would have been any chance of Kayak II passing Seabiscuit."

The subject remained dormant until the publication of Hillenbrand's best seller. This was her description of the race's climactic moments: "Kayak . . . [was] charging at him with a fury . . . Pollard felt a pause. For the last time in his life, Seabiscuit eased up to tease an opponent. Pollard let Seabiscuit savor this last rival, then asked him again. He felt the sweet press of sudden acceleration. A moment later, Pollard and Seabiscuit were alone again, burning over the track. . . ."

Hillenbrand didn't address the issue of Haas's ride or Howard's declaring to win with Seabiscuit; she and her editors felt that, in the final page or two of this long narrative, a detailed examination of the issue would have ruined the dramatic punch of the book's finish. This omission has produced some criticism, and, Hillenbrand said, "I've been publicly accused of hiding the truth, and that is maddening to me." She included a long footnote about the incident in the paperback editions of the book.

One of the critics, longtime newspaperman Morton Cathro, had seen the race in 1940 and recalled some of the details in a column for The Blood-Horse magazine this spring. He recounted that the Los Angeles Times's turf writer had polled trainers, owners, and other observers and found that "nine out of every ten believed Kayak II could have won." If this is the case, the racing world should be grateful to Haas and Kayak II, who sacrificed their moment of glory to make possible the perfect Hollywood ending for the Seabiscuit story.

(c) 2003 The Washington Post