07/24/2003 11:00PM

Seabiscuit made little impact as sire


LEXINGTON, Ky. - If we could read between the lines of history or look in the hearts of owners and trainers, perhaps we would find the full story of Seabiscuit. Such material as we have, however, is always part fiction, seen through the lens of Hollywood or the creative mind of the writer. Even so, Seabiscuit has captured the imagination of readers and moviegoers today as fully as he enthralled the public during his latter years at the racetrack.

Given the horse's importance at the time, his retirement to stud was as much heralded in the press of the day as that of Secretariat or Cigar decades later. Pressing questions for breeders then and a point of interest to some now included: What was Seabiscuit's impact on the breed? Was he a success or failure?

After defeating War Admiral in their 1938 match race and becoming Horse of the Year, Seabiscuit had only one goal left: to win the Santa Anita Handicap. But in the late winter of 1939, Seabiscuit was injured and sent to the sidelines for the rest of that year. His owner, Charles Howard, had to turn the horse out at his farm in California and, in the meantime, bred him to seven mares in the spring of 1939.

All conceived and had foals in 1940. So, right from the start, the public's favorite had no difficulties as a breeding animal, and he notably marked his foals with his own shape and type. From the first crop, a colt out of the Howard-owned Fair Knightess died as a yearling, and only six made it into training.

Of those, the best was the filly Sea Frolic, who ran third in the Lassie Stakes at 2 and won four races in three seasons. Since Howard was not planning on retiring the horse in 1939, Seabiscuit's first crop was, obviously enough, not a planned arrangement. These were the offspring of mares that Howard owned and had available almost on the spur of the moment.

Among Seabiscuit's subsequent crops, the horse's best results came from his third crop, which included three stakes winners. The best of these was Sea Swallow, who bore a close resemblance to his famous sire.

In the split divisions of the Haggin Stakes at Hollywood Park in December 1944, offspring of the 'Biscuit took three of the six stakes placings with four starters. In the first division, his offspring ran second and third; in the second division, Sea Swallow won by a neck and became the first stakes winner for his sire.

The following year, Sea Swallow won the Yankee Handicap, Tijuana Derby, and the Derby Trial. In the Kentucky Derby itself, which was run on June 9 in 1945 due to wartime restrictions, Sea Swallow finished seventh of 16.

The two other stakes winners from Seabiscuit's third crop were Sea Sovereign, winner of the Santa Catalina Handicap, and Sea Spray, a filly, who matured well and won the Forty-Niners Handicap as a 5-year-old.

Only one other foal by Seabiscuit won a stakes, and that was Sea Swallow's full sister Sea Garden. She won the Bay Meadows Lassie and Tanforan Lassie at 2, then ran second in the Hollywood Oaks the next year. Of Seabiscuit's daughters, Sea Flora, a full sister to Sea Swallow and Sea Garden, produced the good stakes winner Sea Orbit, who won stakes from 4 through 7 and earned nearly $300,000.

Overall, Seabiscuit's results at stud were disappointing, with only 4 percent stakes winners from 108 lifetime foals. Seabiscuit died in 1947, age 14.

Through the looking-glass of time, Seabiscuit won the battle of the racecourse with his victory at Pimlico in 1938, but he lost the war for continuing importance in succeeding generations. In contrast, his rival War Admiral became a very good sire, getting 11 percent stakes winners and leading the general sire list in 1945 and the juvenile sire list in 1948. Among his best offspring were Horse of the Year Busher, American champion juvenile colt Blue Peter, and Suburban winner Busanda. War Admiral became a lasting force in pedigrees, particularly through the excellence of his daughters as broodmares.

For the historian, Seabiscuit presents a pleasant puzzle. How does he rank among the best horses of his time and of the century? Some of those questions are open for readers to decide for themselves in a well-timed book from The Blood-Horse. "The Seabiscuit Story" reprints the magazine's articles written about the champion, from his juvenile stakes victories through his obituary and those of his connections. It presents a fascinating look at history in the making, from occasionally slighting early comments about the colt to high praise and accolades after his success in the match race and retirement to stud.