07/18/2003 12:00AM

History Challenge


When Universal Pictures and its partners release "Seabiscuit" in theaters nationwide Friday, it won't be the first time that Seabiscuit has appeared on a movie marquee, but it will be the first time his real story has been told on the silver screen.

The 1949 production "The Story of Seabiscuit," starring Shirley Temple and Barry Fitzgerald, merely used the name of the horse in a made-up script.

The 2003 movie is based on Laura Hillenbrand's 2001 best seller of the same name, which meticulously traces the history of the famous grandson of Man o' War as well as the people who surrounded him.

The Seabiscuit era recalls a time when a Depression-racked nation was desperately seeking heroes to revere. And it recalls a time when horse racing was the most popular spectator sport in America, not the fringe sport that it is today.

Test your knowledge of some lesser-known facts about Seabiscuit.

1. Much of the charm of the life of Seabiscuit and much of his appeal to Americans in the 1930's was his rags-to-riches story.

He became an American icon because he was small, not especially good-looking for a racehorse, and both his front legs were crooked. He was still a maiden after his first 17 races as a 2-year-old - including stints against lowly claimers. Yet he would become for a time the best of his breed.

But unlike other unexpected champions who were born on tobacco farms or came from mom-and-pop, one-trailer operations, Seabiscuit was born to royal surroundings. His story is really one of riches to rags to riches.

How and where did Seabiscuit begin his life?

2. Not only was Seabiscuit surrounded by blue bloods in his early years, he was also trained by one of the most famous trainers of the 20th century.

This trainer, inducted into racing's Hall of Fame in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., in 1958, raced Seabiscuit 35 times as a 2-year-old in 1935 and another dozen times the following year before the colt was sold in August.

The trainer didn't let many great horses get away. Name him.

3. Whether Hillenbrand is correct in asserting that the 1938 match race between Seabiscuit and War Admiral was "the greatest race in history" is subject to debate.

Several match races in the 19th century held the country spellbound, and strong cases could be made for two 20th century matches: Man o' War vs. Sir Barton in 1920 and Swaps vs. Nashua in 1955.

The Man o' War-Sir Barton match in Canada carried a purse of $75,000, while the Swaps-Nashua faceoff in Chicago was $100,000 - winner take all.

What was the purse of the Seabiscuit-War Admiral match race?

4. The storybook ending to the remarkable career of Seabiscuit came on March 2, 1940, in the sixth running of the Santa Anita Handicap.

Under Red Pollard, the 7-year-old campaigner finally won the race that had eluded him by inches in 1937 and 1938.

Almost lost to history, but not to the 68,526 fans who were on hand at Santa Anita that afternoon, was the red-lighted word that popped up on the tote board: "Protest."

This was the equivalent of the modern-day "objection," indicating that a jockey was lodging a claim of foul.

What happened?

5. When Seabiscuit crossed the finish line in the final race of his career, the 1940 Santa Anita Handicap, he literally saved his best for last.

His final time for the 1 1/4 miles was 2:01.20. Only two horses in history had run the distance faster - Whisk Broom II in a disputed time of 2:00 in 1913 and Sarazen in 2:00.80 in 1924.

And when Seabiscuit hit the finish line, track announcer Joe Hernandez exclaimed, "Seabiscuit wins it. A new world champion."

What did Hernandez mean?


1. Seabiscuit was a son of Hard Tack out of the unraced mare Swing On. Hard Tack, bred by James Cox Brady, was purchased from Brady's estate by the famed Wheatley Stable, owned by Gladys Phipps and her brother, Odgen Mills.

Hard Tack was standing at Blue Grass Heights Stud in Lexington, Ky., when Phipps shipped one of the Wheatley mares, Swing On, from her home base at Arthur B. Hancock's Claiborne Farm in nearby Paris, Ky., to be bred to him.

The result of the mating was Seabiscuit, who was foaled at Claiborne, one of the great stud farms of America. Among the famous stallions standing at Claiborne were Sir Gallahad III, Gallant Fox, and Reigh Count.

Seabiscuit raced during all of his 2-year-old and much of his 3-year-old season in the famed silks of the Wheatley Stable.

After his 47th start, Seabiscuit was sold to San Francisco automobile magnate Charles S. Howard for a figure reported at between $7,500 and $8,000.

2. In his 1962 biography, "Sunny Jim: The Life of America's Most Beloved Horseman, James Fitzsimmons," author Jimmy Breslin wrote: "Seabiscuit is the only subject ever brought up that draws a hint, the slightest hint, that Mr. Fitz wants to say something to make himself look good."

And what is all Fitzsimmons would say about Seabiscuit? "He never would have been anything if I hadn't run him 35 times as a 2-year-old. You can put that down as something good I've done."

The truth is, Fitzsimmons, who trained Gallant Fox and Omaha to Triple Crown wins, had just too many good horses in his barn to pay attention to a slow developer like Seabiscuit.

The horse often raced with the name of Fitzsimmons's son, James Jr., or one of his two assistants listed as the trainer. Fitzsimmons rarely saddled Seabiscuit.

In 1935, Seabiscuit's juvenile year, Fitzsimmons was busy with Omaha. The following year, he had Granville, the winner of the Belmont Stakes.

3. There was great anticipation throughout 1938 about Seabiscuit and War Admiral finally facing each other.

The two owners agreed to a $100,000 winner-take-all match race on Memorial Day at Belmont Park. But as race day neared, Seabiscuit was ailing and the race was off.

Then it appeared as if the two would meet in the Massachusetts Handicap the following month, but the track came up muddy and Seabiscuit was scratched.

They finally met in the second running of the Pimlico Special on Nov. 1 for a mere $15,000, winner take all.

4. Basil James, who four years earlier had been the nation's leading rider, was aboard Whichcee in the 1940 Santa Anita Handicap.

After finishing third behind Seabiscuit and Kayak II, James quickly hustled his mount back to the stewards' stand, where he promptly claimed foul. James said Seabiscuit "almost knocked my horse's legs out from under him" when he swung to the rail in midstretch.

The "protest" sign went up on the tote board while the stewards discussed the issue. (The film patrol was still a few years away.)

Presiding steward Christopher FitzGerald then informed James that the stewards were unanimous in the opinion that his claim was "groundless."

5. With his victory in the 1940 Santa Anita Handicap, Seabiscuit became the richest Thoroughbred in racing history and the first to surpass the $400,000 mark in earnings.

He raised his career earnings to $437,730, passing the previous record of $376,744, held for nine years by Sun Beau.

Sun Beau, elected to the Hall of Fame in 1996, and Seabiscuit, elected to the Hall of Fame in 1958, each won 33 races over lengthy careers.

On the night of Seabiscuit's final race, his owner, Charles Howard, received a telegram of congratulations signed by Mr. and Mrs. Willis Sharpe Kilmer, owners of Sun Beau.